It is estimated that more than 210 million Americans access the Internet on a regular basis, making the United States by far the top World Wide Web user in the world. Specialists estimate that between 6% and 14% of Internet users in the United States have a destructive dependency on the Web and that the vast majority of these people do not realize they have a problem.
Internet addiction has been formally recognized as a disorder by the American Psychological Association, although it is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). The term Internet addiction disorder (IAD) first made headlines in 1995 when psychiatrist Ivan K. Goldberg posted a parody online spoofing the DSM-IV by using the criteria for pathological gambling and calling it “Internet Addiction Disorder.” At the time, spending excessive time online was not considered a disorder, disease, or addiction, but soon Goldberg realized his joke was a lot more serious than originally planned, as he started receiving hundreds of requests for consultations.
Goldberg took his spoof even further, creating an Internet addiction support group online, something critics jokingly compared to holding an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at a cocktail party. Ironically, Goldberg is still one of those skeptics who refuse to recognize Internet addiction as a real addiction, calling it simply a symptom of other, existing disorders.
Many researchers agree with Goldberg. Sara Keisler, of Carnegie Mellon University, calls Internet addiction a “fad illness.” Others argue that Internet addiction has as much medical merit as “telephone addiction” or “television addiction.”
However, supporters of the diagnosis say that Internet addiction can have much more serious consequences than other destructive habits, because the Internet can lead obsessive users to other addictions like gambling or pornography. Just like pathological gambling, Internet addiction is considered a “pure” addiction or an impulse control disorder because it does not involve the use of intoxicating drugs.
Internet addiction typically starts with casual use of e-mail or other simple online applications, many times for work or school purposes. In a relatively short time, it progresses into an activity that results in major disruptions in life. Some mental health professionals compare Internet addiction to alcoholism or drug addiction, at least in the way it can destroy different aspects of a person’s life.
As people begin to make the Internet an important part of their daily routine, they get channeled into different areas of the World Wide Web. Some of the most popular destinations for would be addicts include chat rooms, shopping sites, pornography, day trading, gambling, social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, dating sites, downloading music and other digital files, instant messaging, blogging, or even reading news and sports.
Preliminary research shows that most Internet addicts are usually struggling with other issues such as depression and anxiety. For them, the Internet offers an escape from reality, and the fact that it is easily accessible, affordable, and anonymous makes them more susceptible to becoming addicted.
Kimberly S. Young, founder of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, developed one of the most efficient instruments for diagnosing Internet addiction, the Internet Addiction Test. This test is a 20-item questionnaire that measures mild, moderate, and severe levels of Internet addiction by quizzing the participants on things like the amount of time they spend online, the feelings and mood swings that people experience when they are on- or off-line, how personal and professional relationships have been affected by the person’s Internet usage, and the importance that the Internet has on a person’s life overall.
According to Young, some of the symptoms associated with Internet addiction are preoccupation with the Internet, use of the Internet in increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction, unsuccessful efforts to cut back usage, a change in mood or feelings of depression when off-line, lying about the extent of the problem, using the Internet to escape other problems, and jeopardizing real-life relationships, career, or educational opportunities because of excessive use of the Internet.
The biggest problem with Internet addiction continues to be, and perhaps will always be, the effects that the addiction has on a person’s off-line world. A married person may meet someone else through a chat room and cheat on his or her spouse. A high school or college student might drop in his or her grades, or even drop out of school altogether because of an Internet addiction. Personal finances can be greatly affected with shopping or even gambling sites. Using the Internet for non-work-related purposes has also been cited as being one of the top corporate time-wasting activities, costing corporations millions of dollars every year.
Even though Internet addiction is considered a relatively new illness, many mental health professionals are treating their patients with some of the same approaches used to treat chemical dependency, including Twelve-Step programs. As with some other behavioral addictions, treating Internet addiction usually does not require total abstinence, as the goal is to reduce the time a person spends online and getting them to take control of the areas of their life that have become unmanageable due to excessive Internet usage.
Some formal treatment programs for Internet addiction have been developed. For example, the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery has an inpatient program designed for computer addicts, located at Proctor Hospital campuses in Peoria, Bloomington, and Springfield. Doctors there say that they have seen some of the same withdrawal symptoms in excessive computer users as they see in alcoholics and drug addicts. Sierra Tucson Drug Treatment Center in Arizona also has a program to combat Internet addiction. Patients here are encouraged to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings as part of their recovery.
Published studies on Internet addiction are still scarce compared to studies on addictions that have been around for decades, and some mental health professionals are still skeptical to call excessive use of the Internet an actual addiction because it lacks some of the characteristics and consequences of conventionally recognized addictions. However, few can deny that excessive Internet use is a growing problem among the general population, and it needs to be further researched as more people get access to, and spend more time on, computers and other devices connected to the Internet.
Other Addictions; Sex Addiction; Shopping Addiction; Substitute Addictions
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