It's not entirely clear whether Internet addiction is a phenomenon in and of itself, or rather that activities we did in the past that we are now able to do online are made (more) addictive by the near-instantaneous access afforded by the Internet. This distinction is blurred further by the fact that the Internet is continually becoming more and more integrated with our everyday lives (see our The Internet of Things article for some examples). What is clear, however, is that there are certain activities which involve the Internet in some way that can cause people to develop addiction-like behaviours. These include:
Gambling online, or playing online simulators of casino games
Visiting adult websites or adult chat rooms
Playing online games, especially with multiple people
Posting or browsing content on social network websites
Shopping online, especially when it involves participating in online auctions
Frequenting dating websites, even if one is married
Browsing the World Wide Web for entertainment or trivial information
Perhaps unsurprisingly, addiction to certain activities on the Internet is caused by many of the same factors that cause these addictions in real life. Addiction may be caused by doing things on the Internet too often for the following reasons:
Distracting oneself from worries, fears, or stress
Relieving feelings of depression, boredom, or helplessness
Compensating for a lack of social skills or social identity
Dealing with other pre-existing addictions
Coping with a loss of physical mobility and/or social availability
As we mentioned in the opening paragraph, the Internet continues to be made a part of more and more things that we do every day. This means that it can be especially difficult to tell the difference between normal Internet use and addiction that may actually be harmful. Fortunately, there are several emotional and behavioural signs exhibited by people who are addicted to activities online that are similar to those from people who have addictions to real-life activities. These include:
Losing track of time while using the Internet
A lack of energy or time needed to do one's job, schoolwork, or household chores
A need to be on the Internet in order to feel happy or excited
Preferring to talk to online friends as opposed to friends or family in real life
Preferring online fantasies as opposed to being intimate with one's partner or spouse
Lying or becoming defensive when questioned or confronted about one's Internet use
Attempts to cut back on Internet use that don't work or don't last
There are also physical symptoms that those who are addicted to Internet activities may feel, exhibit, or complain about unusually frequently, including:
Dry or irritated eyes, including blurry or strained vision
Excessive tiredness, or difficulty sleeping
An unusually large loss or gain of weight
Sore or numb hands or wrists (likely Carpal Tunnel Syndrome)
Back or neck pain
Headaches or migraines
If you notice any of the signs of Internet addiction (or someone else notices them about you), think about why you might be using the Internet too much. Are you bored, depressed, or stressed? Are you worried about or afraid of something? Are you too shy or otherwise unable to talk to friends and family in real life? Are you turning to the Internet as a way to cope with another addiction?
Remember that addiction to Internet activities often causes many of the same behaviours and symptoms associated with other types of addiction. So, if you've had an addiction in the past, think about what caused it, and how it made you feel when compared to your current Internet addiction. You may find that you've become addicted to the Internet for the same reasons that you became addicted to something else.
Once you've figured out the cause or causes of your Internet addiction, you can find ways of addressing them in ways that don't involve using the Internet. You can still use the Internet once in a while, but try to monitor your use by keeping track of when and how long you use it, and/or setting a timer for yourself. In the meantime, try to find activities that you can enjoy that will replace the Internet in targeting the root causes of your addiction.
For example, if you're depressed, worried, or stressed, consider taking up an exercise or meditation class. If your problem lies with your social skills or availability, consider making a point of setting aside time to get out and see someone. This could be as simple as having a friend over to hang out and talk with, or inviting a co-worker or family member out for lunch. Or, if you're comfortable with it, find some sort of interest group to join, such as a book club at your local library or a recreational sports team.
Above all, remind yourself that the Internet is merely a tool. It helps us do a lot of things faster and more efficiently, but that's not always a good thing. Sometimes, it pays to slow down and do things in life at a more reasonable pace, like read a novel, watch a live theatre performance, or do some simple relaxation exercises.
Certain forms of therapy or group counselling may be useful in helping you break an Internet addiction. Unfortunately, there are relatively few organizations and programs available right now that deal with Internet addiction as a unique disorder (for the reasons we stated at the beginning of this article). However, this might not be so much of a problem if you know the root causes of your Internet addiction, or that your addiction revolves around a specific issue.
For example, if your addiction is caused by anxiety, depression, boredom, or stress, a cognitive-behavioural therapist may be able to help you work through these underlying emotions, to the point where you don't need the Internet to cope with them. Similarly, if your addiction revolves around online gaming or gambling, then groups like Gamblers Anonymous may be able to give you the general kind of help that you need. Or, if your addiction has to do with cybersex and/or compulsive online dating, perhaps a marriage counsellor would be an option for working through your problems.
The Internet and its qualities may change what people become addicted to, as well as the natures of the addictions themselves. However, the root causes of addiction are often unchanged, which means that there are proven strategies that you can use to identify and stop Internet addictions. If you know someone who might suffer from an Internet addiction, talk to them about the information in this article. Explain to them that there is a line between healthy Internet use and harmful addiction, and discuss some of the warning signs of an addiction that you see in them. Above all, though, let them know that you are bringing this all up out of concern and a desire to support, and that you can help them find strategies for ending the addiction.
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