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Is Internet Addiction Real?

Medical and scientific experts have not reached a consensus about the parameters or validity of Internet addiction disorder, or IAD. Leading proponents of IAD, such as Dr. David Greenfield, argue that Internet addiction is as real a disorder as alcoholism. Internet addiction symptoms, these experts say, closely resemble those of other addictions in that the addict is unable to control their usage and unable to stop using even if they try, needs the addictive behavior (being online) in increasingly greater quantities or intensities to be satisfied, and experiences withdrawal symptoms such as irritability and anxiety when they go without. Moreover, their Internet usage significantly affects their functioning in their daily life, another benchmark sign of addiction.

Other researchers, however, believe that excessive Internet usage should be regarded not as a new diagnostic condition in its own right, but simply as a new form of compulsive behavior, the symptoms and treatment of which are already well documented. Furthermore, as discussed below, they feel that most cases of Internet addiction are actually masking other forms of mental illness and other compulsive or addictive behaviors.

Did You Know?

In a recent U.S. survey of over 12,000 women, more than 20 percent admitted to checking social media websites when they wake up in the middle of the night, and nearly one-third said they use their smartphones to go online before they get out of bed in the morning.

 What both sides acknowledge is that psychologically needing to spend copious amounts of time online is a problem. However, the more important question seems to be not whether or not Internet addiction should be classified as such, but whether or not, in current society, the label Internet addict is too broad to be useful or meaningful.

Why Defining Internet Addiction is Difficult

Basically, the big problem with pointing to the Internet as a source of addiction is that people use the Internet for everything. This fact forms the backdrop of two major arguments for experts who believe that Internet addiction is not an accurate or useful term:

It’s very tricky to determine overuse. Paying bills, socializing with your friends, exchanging business documents, finding a job — or an address, or a phone number, or directions, or a recipe, or a sports score, or a song, or the news, or the latest episode of your favorite TV show… and not just on your laptop or desktop but on the mobile phone you carry with you all the time. Internet dependence is a near-universal condition in modern society. How much is too much, and at what point does the everyday integration of the Internet into someone’s life become something that is interfering with their life?

The Internet can feed an underlying mental health issue. Because so much is available on the Internet, in many cases, seeming addiction to being online is, in reality, secondary to another addictive or compulsive behavior — and the Internet is merely a very accessible vehicle for that behavior.For example, some actual causes of Internet addiction could be a compulsive shopping problem or a gambling, pornography or video game addiction.

Also, for those suffering from other mental conditions, the Internet provides a means of escapism and easier social interaction. Someone with depression looking to avoid certain stressors in their life might spend a lot of time reading their favorite websites, someone with a social anxiety disorder might choose to socialize in a forum or online role-playing game (RPG) rather than communicate with others in person, and someone with low self-esteem might feel bolstered by others’ comments on their frequent social-media status and activity updates.

The conclusion these proposed triggers of Internet addiction point to is that perhaps what needs to be treated is not Internet addiction as a condition in itself, but rather the more specific reasons behind any particular individual’s compulsive online usage.

Treatment for Internet Addiction

In cases in which self-imposed (or parent-imposed, or spouse-imposed) limitations on usage have been unsuccessful and in which online habits continue to have damaging effects on their life and relationships, a person who seems to suffer from addiction to the Internet could benefit from seeing a psychotherapist.

The therapist can assess whether another mental health issue, such as depression, anxiety or compulsive gambling, is causing the person to spend so much of their time online. If so, they will treat the underlying problem.

In the absence of a clear underlying cause, the therapist will likely treat compulsive Internet usage using a similar approach to treating other compulsive behaviors and addictions — a form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral modification, or CBT, which seeks to actively replace the distorted beliefs that are contributing to the addictive behavior with more positive patterns of thinking.

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