The internet allows us to shop, talk, play, meet people and enjoy many other far-reaching benefits any time, any day. However it is not all magic and sparkles, there is also a negative side. Being online is now so much part of our daily routine that for some people it has become the focal point of the day.
Internet addiction is now a well-documented public health issue although there is still some debate around classifying it as a clinical ‘addiction’. It is also known as Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), ‘pathological internet use’ or net addiction. Some argue that, rather than being an addiction in its own right, it is an extension of pre-existing mental disorders or problem behaviours. Someone who regularly gambles online may also use other methods of gambling so they would be classed as having a gambling addiction instead. There is still much research to be done to establish if the internet can cause an addiction or if it is merely a way to express another addiction.
Some also argue that internet addiction is more a lack of personal discipline rather than a ‘true’ addiction. For example, an 18 year old spending 15 hours a day playing World of Warcraft could be simply be perceived as lazy and in need of a job.
Despite the academic debate regarding its classification, it is agreed that the condition has many subcategories. All of these are basically characterised by online activities that would be considered negative if done excessively, overwhelmingly or inappropriately in ‘real’ life. It is similar to many other forms of addiction in that it gives users an instant ‘hit’, they suffer withdrawal symptoms when denied access and it changes the way they would normally behave.
One of the most appealing drawcards of the internet is the fact that we can explore it anonymously. We can change our identity or engage in a bit of fun and fantasy. It allows us to escape from reality for a while without fear of being harassed or restricted. In moderation, this kind of activity is generally harmless, however there are instances where it can become a problem.
Spending excessive amounts of time in adult chat rooms, viewing pornography, engaging in cybersex or carrying out relationships in online fantasy worlds can impact negatively on the user’s real life relationships.
When people meet on these types of sites, they can sometimes develop romantic relationships which tend to be more intense than those developed in the real world. People may be also more inclined to take risks and play out their ultimate fantasies. In many cases they lie about their age, sex, looks, job and current relationship status. If they go on to meet in person there is a chance one or both parties will not live up to the others’ expectations resulting in significant emotional distress.
Gambling addiction has long been a problem in our society. There are numerous support resources available already, however the problem has increased noticeably in recent years due mainly to the accessibility of online gambling sites around the clock. This is especially challenging for recovering gambling addicts as the temptation to go back on line is so close.
The other way people come to online gambling is via gaming or similar websites where spending more can lead to the chance of increased rewards. As with ‘normal’ gambling addiction, the habit can lead to intense strain on finances, anxiety or depression.
Many people enjoy gaming as a fun way to relax or wind down in their leisure time. For most people, this is simply harmless fun, but in some cases gamers find themselves drawn into the online world as a way to escape their reality. In the cyber-universe they can create new identities that give them power or popularity. For many it also fires up their competitive spirit and they have an increasing desire to reach the next level or have the highest score. As many online games have no endpoint addicts always have something more to yearn for.
Virtual games also tend to use lots of bright lights, colours, loud noises and music so multiple senses can become over-stimulated. They can induce physiological symptoms quite similar to those of alcohol and other substance addictions. The absorbing sights and sounds are another way of blocking out the real world.
In Australia in 2012-13 of the total number of internet users, 76% ordered goods or services online.
Online shopping is now a normal part of our economy and everyday activities. Mobile phone apps and more user-friendly shopping sites have made ordering things online quick and convenient. The majority of people use these new services with no issues, but for some their online spending habits can be as financially damaging as gambling.
In these cases the ‘hit’ comes from securing the lowest price, adding the next piece to a collection or placing the top bid on an item, regardless of whether they actually need it.
Some people are drawn into spending hours online simply following their interests. They develop a desire for more information on things like family trees, celebrities or news. They open a page which links to another site, then another and another. The buzz comes from the need to be an expert or to know every detail and the problem comes with not knowing when to stop.
The more that large online organisations try to protect their customer or internal data, the greater the enticement there is for a small but potentially dangerous group of users to want to hack into the systems. They get a kick out of cracking codes and defying the law while remaining anonymous. There is always something bigger or risker to hack into that keeps them wanting more. Hackers also get an added buzz from the competition with and esteem of other hackers.
With the average home having around 7 internet-enabled devices children are exposed to the technology from a very young age. There is much debate over what is an appropriate age to give children access to the internet. Some argue that the earlier, the better as it teaches them numerous skills they will need for later life. Many parents also use phones and tablets in particular to entertain children when they need them to be quiet.
The opposing view is that children who use the internet for long periods each day will not develop proper social skills or healthy habits. As with any other addiction, regular exposure to online activities does not automatically mean that a child will become addicted to them. What is known is that there is a small but growing number of children and adolescents being treated for internet addiction in Australia.
Mobile phones were initially just phones linking one person to another with few limits in location. Once they became internet-compatible we could access things like news, weather reports and music. Then with the development of the smart phone and tablets, the possibilities of mobile internet usage became endless.
Now we can chat on social media, send texts, photos and videos or log onto favourite websites 24 hours a day. While that has immeasurable benefits it has also created some new social issues. Some people simply find it very difficult to turn their off phones or part with them. The need to be connected at all becomes insatiable and can impact on relationships and daily activities.
Being connected to a global community is an empowering feeling. It allows us to join groups and connect to others with similar knowledge or experience. Through facebook, twitter and other social media platforms we can say what we like about anything and get constant updates on what everyone is doing. We can also use social media as a way of escaping from day to day life even if just for a little while.
Problems can arise when we forget the rules of social etiquette or we get so caught up in following other people’s lives that we neglect our own. We can also get a thrill from creating a different persona online or sharing every aspect of our lives as a way of avoiding our insecurities.
A certain amount of internet usage is normal and often essential for most people these days. Sometimes people are not even aware that they have formed an addiction but it can become quite noticeable to those around them. There are a number of symptoms associated with internet addiction. Some may not be big issues in their own right and not every individual will develop every symptom. They include:
There is no real profile of who is most likely to become addicted to the internet as it is used by people of all ages around the globe. However there are some factors that may increase a person’s chance of forming an addiction. They include:
The most important step in overcoming any addiction is for the person to acknowledge that they have a problem. Sometimes it takes another person to point out the consequences of their addictive behaviour for this to happen.
Some people can then find their own way to disengage from their addiction using techniques such as abstinence or meditation. However most people will need some form of professional help to completely break their habit. Speaking to a GP is a good place to start as they can make a referral to a professional counsellor and provide information on a range of other addiction services and organisations.
Although the forms of counselling may vary, they all share the aim of harm minimisation. The ultimate goal is to help the individual cease their addictive behaviour completely but in some cases this is not possible so the therapy sessions would be based around reducing the harmful impact.
Therapists use a variety of techniques to help someone modify their behaviour. The most common method is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as it generally produces excellent results.
The key principal is that our thoughts and emotions drive our behaviour. A therapist will help the person to explore the factors that have led to their addiction and show them how to develop alternative and more positive behaviour patterns giving them a better outlook for the future.
In Australia there are currently no laws that specify what qualifications or training a counsellor needs to have before being allowed to offer addiction counselling services. However there are a number of tertiary and professional development courses that are available. Practitioners can also apply to be registered with the Australian Counselling Association (ACA), the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) and other industry associations.
It is generally recommended that people struggling to overcome a substance addiction undertake a detox program alongside CBT or similar therapy. When that person is in a relationship or has a family then couples or family counselling may be also needed so finding a professional with experience with addiction in these circumstances would be very beneficial.