As technology use becomes more widespread, individuals and organisations need to become aware of the dangers of technology addiction.

Does my online use cause significant problems in my relationships, my work, or how I feel about myself? Do I often neglect or ignore important responsibilities in favour of going online? Have I tried to cut back on my Internet use with little or no success? If you answered yes to these questions, you might be dealing with an Internet addiction.

“Regardless of your age and your interests, the Internet provides an accessible source of information and an endless supply of entertainment,” says clinical psychologist Dr Colinda Linde. “Increasingly, this Internet is no longer tied to a home computer and can be accessed almost anywhere via smartphones, laptops, tablets, gaming consoles, etc. Wherever you go, the Internet is waiting for you.”

But when does normal use cross the line and become excessive or even harmful? Because Internet addiction is not (yet) a formal diagnosis, there are no agreed standards for what defines addictive behaviour. The one thing almost all professionals agree upon is that the number of hours spent online is, by itself, not enough to indicate a problem. 

“One person may spend forty hours or more per week on the Internet because his or her job depends on it,” Linde says. “Another person may spend twenty-five hours per week chatting with family members in another country. Is this an addiction? Is it excessive? This depends on how the time online is (or isn’t) interfering with other important areas of life such as work, school, health and in-person relationships.”

That’s why, in addition to the three opening questions, Linde suggests asking four more: Are other people concerned about how much you use the Internet? Do you often go online because it takes your mind off problems in your life? Has your Internet use steadily increased over time? Has the quality of your life deteriorated as a consequence of the amount of time you spend online? Again, answering yes might indicate an addiction.

“Internet addiction is not as yet an official DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] diagnosis, but it is largely viewed as an impulse control disorder similar to pathological gambling,” she says. “As a rule of thumb, if a person repeatedly goes online to avoid real-world responsibilities or difficulties, and this avoidance creates even more problems in his or her life, this may suggest the presence of an addiction to the Internet.”

Psychological addiction is real

There are several kinds of Internet addiction. These include addictions to online games, online gambling, social networking, entertainment and pornography. And while we typically think of addictions as pertaining to substances, chemicals or drugs that can produce dependence and tolerance (i.e. the more they are used, the larger the amount that needs to be consumed to produce the same effect or get the same degree of pleasure), any behaviour or activity that produces a reward can, in theory, become addictive. At the very least, it can turn into an unhealthy habit that interferes with the quality of one’s life.

“Alcohol, nicotine and various other drugs can produce tolerance, dependence and withdrawal symptoms when discontinued, which are the most obvious signs of a physiological addiction,” Linde says. “Often, obsessive activities that do not involve chemicals are seen as not having the potential to be addictive, as they are ‘only in your head’. However, research has demonstrated that psychological addiction is real and is associated with neurochemical and biological changes in the brain.”

Several studies over the last two decades have shown the groups most at risk. From a demographic perspective, these include children (Zboralski, 2009), young adults aged 16 to 29 (Bakken, 2009), and males as a whole (Tasi, 2009). From a psychological perspective, these include those with pre-existing depression (Young, 1998), low self-esteem (Niemz, 2005), obsessive compulsive symptoms (Jang, 2008) and neuroticism (Tsai, 2009). Finally, it’s been shown that people with poor social support have a greater likelihood of Internet addiction (Tsai, 2008), which is associated with factors such as alcohol consumption, family dissatisfaction and general stress (Lam, 2009).

“We don’t know the causes of Internet addiction,” says psychiatrist Dr. Frans Korb. “However several associated factors have been identified thus far. On a psychological level it has been shown that whenever a person feels overwhelmed, stressed, depressed, lonely or anxious, they might use the Internet to seek solace and escape.”

Korb explains that people suffering from depression and/or anxiety may experience feelings of isolation or stress and then ‘self-medicate’ by using the Internet. The lack of emotional support means that they may go online to fill this need.

“The role of personality – the nature of the ‘addictive personality’ – has also been suggested,” he says. “People that are overly shy and withdrawn cannot easily relate to others and also tend to be at higher risk of developing Internet addiction. The role of cross-addiction may also play a role in that people with Internet addiction might also have (or have had) problems with other addictions such as drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, gambling and so on.”

Accessing treatment from a specialist

As much as having access to the Internet can be beneficial in many ways, it’s become increasingly clear that we cannot keep ignoring the risks. Indeed, some of the physical and emotional disturbances caused by excessive online (or technology) use are hard to ignore.

“Physical symptoms are those that are typical of long periods in front of a computer and include things such as backache, headache, carpal tunnel syndrome and strained vision,” says counselling psychologist Tamara Zanella. “Other symptoms include isolation and a preoccupation with the Internet, an inability to reduce one’s use of the Internet, and withdrawal symptoms when it is reduced.”

Zanella admits that many of these symptoms might sound common since our lives increasingly revolve around using a smartphone or computer and being online. However, it’s important to remember that this use is deemed problematic when it negatively impacts one’s social, emotional or occupational functioning and when one is replacing other activities and relationships with Internet use, despite being able to recognise the negative consequences of doing so. This would indicate that normal Internet use has turned into problematic behaviour that could be considered an addiction.

“When an individual is struggling with pathological Internet use, it’s important for them to access treatment from a specialist,” Zanella says. “Internet addiction is a treatable condition but it can be difficult for the individual to achieve on his or her own. Our society requires one to access the Internet in order to function effectively; it’s therefore not possible to maintain abstinence as in many other treatment models for addiction. It’s also important to remember that Internet addiction can often present with other co-morbid conditions such as anxiety and/or depression.”

Cognitive behavioural therapy has shown efficacy in treating addiction and is also effective for working with anxiety and depression. An individual may also benefit from medication to treat their anxiety and/or depression whilst undergoing treatment for the Internet addiction. Either way, first contact is likely to be a general practitioner who would be able to recommend a psychiatrist as well as a psychologist for specialist treatment.

“Companies could support this by creating an automated message to step away from the machine at regular intervals and provide an area where people can take a mindful walk to re-presence themselves,” says Neil Bierbaum, executive and life coach, and co-founder of the Practical Mindfulness Program. “Many companies do have these chill areas but still have the culture that you’re not being productive when you’re there. This unconscious aspect of corporate culture still needs to shift.”


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