Online all the time? The internet might be your drug
Addictions come in many different forms, from eating and exercise to stock trading and sex. A compulsive behaviour that many people suffer from, although they might not realise it, is an addiction to being online.
"Internet addiction has been described in the literature and research articles, but has not been taken up in the official disease classification systems such as the DSM-V [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] and ICD-10 [10th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems] pending further research," says psychiatrist Frans Korb.
"Classically, addiction is described to be a condition where, for instance, a person must have a drug to avoid physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. With internet addiction, there is obviously no intoxicating drug involved," Korb says.
But this doesn’t make it any less real. It also doesn’t change the fact that internet addiction has significant health, relationship and psychological effects and can lead to a deterioration in functioning.
Korb says that internet addiction is associated with similar signs to other forms of addiction. The addiction has two components: dependence, in which the search and need for the drug dominates an individual’s life; and tolerance, in which the individual must consume larger and larger amounts of the drug to get the same effect after repeated use.
"As with pathological gambling, internet addiction has been described as an impulse control disorder," Korb says.
"And, as with other addictions, people with internet addiction use the virtual fantasy world to connect with people as a substitute for the real-life human connections they are unable to achieve."
Similar to the symptoms of video game addiction, internet addiction signs can be broken down into psychological, physical, behavioural and relational categories.
"Psychological signs of internet addiction include frequent feelings of guilt after spending too much time online; great difficulty avoiding the internet for recreational use for more than a few days in a row; often losing track of time when online; strong feelings of frustration or tension when unable to go online; and loss of interest and participation in hobbies or activities that were once enjoyed," says clinical psychologist Colinda Linde.
Other psychological signs include feeling calm, content, or happy only when online; preoccupation with going online when engaged in other activities; and often experiencing a negative mood (depression or anxiety) when not on the internet.
Addicts might also use unreasonable justifications for unhealthy levels of use ("Other people are online even more than I am!") or downplay the negative effects of excessive internet use ("At least I am not addicted to alcohol or drugs!").
"Physical signs of internet addiction include carpal tunnel syndrome; significant weight gain or weight loss due to poor eating habits and lack of physical activity; headaches, neck aches, and back problems; tired, dry, and/or red eyes; and irregular, unhealthy eating habits," Linde says.
Behavioural signs include occasional "marathon" internet sessions lasting all day or all night; frequently eating meals in front of the computer or skipping them completely; regularly using the internet until late at night despite having to get up early the next morning. There would also be multiple attempts to reduce internet use with little or no success; going online at virtually every opportunity; spending more and more time online and less and less time interacting offline; often going online while neglecting other important responsibilities.
Addicts often display anger or resentment towards those who question how much time is spent online.
Tackling the problem should ideally start at a young age. Parents can teach their children to manage their viewing habits by consciously choosing a programme, watching it, and turning off the television or tablet afterwards
"Relational signs include decreased interest in sex; relationship problems and frequent arguments stemming from one partner spending too much time online," Linde says.
"They also blame their spouse or partner for the amount of time spent on the internet and decrease time spent with family and friends. They deceive others about the amount of time spent on the internet; and gain online-only friends while losing those in the real world," Linde says.
Tackling the problem should ideally start at a young age. Parents can teach their children to manage their viewing habits by consciously choosing a programme, watching it, and turning off the television or tablet afterwards instead of mindlessly sitting in front of the screen.
Adults can create a purposeful relationship with the internet by defining a clear reason for going online, setting a time limit, and disconnecting when done instead of getting sucked into endless click bait.
"Unfortunately, the internet and apps are designed to provide small, frequent rewards that draw people in and consume time and energy," says Neil Bierbaum, executive and life coach and cofounder of the Practical Mindfulness Program. "Studies have shown that smokers can be more productive because the breaks they take from their desk enable them to reset. But non-smokers often feel guilty taking a similar break and are likely to escape into their machines so that they can look like they’re working," Bierbaum says.
Any activity that is not purposefully chosen has the potential to become an unconscious habit or addiction, he says. For example, some people track sports or news endlessly. The plethora of television drama series on streaming services has led to binge-watching behaviour.
"Some of these may appear to be more acceptable on one level," Bierbaum says.
"However, they can all be addictions, most of which are designed to deflect attention away from the more painful aspects — particularly our increasing alienation — of modern life."