Internet Addiction: Causes, Risk Factors and Treatment

Internet Addiction: Causes, Risk Factors and Treatment

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Are we all at risk to develop Internet addiction or are some more likely to than others? How many people are actually addicted to Internet and is there a treatment? Internet Addiction is considered a new diagnosis. Less social activity and lack of sleep are some of the symptoms. For some people will internet represent a convenient opportunity to escape from themselves, their feelings and life's challenges, responsibility and commitment.

Internet addiction used to be thought of as an affliction of computer nerds, geeks, techies or hackers.  Statistics are hard to come by but today, some psychologists estimate that there may be as many as 2 million Internet addicts worldwide,1 while other research suggests that the numbers may be even higher: between 1.4 and 17.9% of adolescents may be addicts. 2

Asian countries have some of the highest rates of Internet addiction, where the problem has been recognized (and reported) since the first clinic to treat Internet addiction opened in China in 2005. 3 Xinhua News Agency reports that about 10% of China’s 253 million Internet users have some form of Internet addiction. 4

In South Korea, it is estimated that 4% of children have Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) and Chinese estimates vary from 2-15%. In the US, it is estimated that 1 in 8 adults suffer from IAD. 5

Dr. Dimitri Christakis believes that increasing time and exposure could make Internet addiction one of the most chronic childhood diseases.  Cultural use of the Internet is practically mandated, he says, access is available everywhere. 6

Israelian doctor Joseph Zohar says he sees many people age 20 and up suffering from Internet addiction at his clinic, feeling that Internet use has expanded from a useful tool for them to taking over their lives. “These people gradually sink in this swamp and get on the Internet instead of doing other things they would like to do, and even worse, things they have to do, that are part of their everyday lives,” says Zohar. 7

Bill Gates himself, founder of Microsoft, reports that he is monitoring his 9-year old daughter’s Internet use, fearing that she has begun to develop an addiction. 8

Causes

What are the causes of Internet addiction?  Preoccupation with social media networks has exploded and is made more and more accessible with the use of Blackberry’s and iPhones.

“Most people who find a deep satisfaction and pleasure in using Twitter, for example, probably have a deep psychological need that is not being met in normal, everyday life,” says licensed psychologist Dr. Melvyn Preisz. “The unfortunate reality is that our society is starving for genuine communion and genuine intimacy and communication.” 9

Director of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction Dr. David Greenfield says that social media sites create a sense of personal power and influence. “This is the first time in the history of humankind that the capacity to broadcast is in the hands of everyone on the planet,” he said. “That is incredibly intoxicating!” 10

Dr. Vicki Wyatt takes the stance that this type of behavior is nothing new, that compulsions such as this have always existed and take form according to the social activities and trends that are present at the time. 11

Researchers have identified 12 characteristics of the Internet that make it so addictive: 12 & 13

Ease of Use: Computers, free, wireless and low cost access, portable game players and cell phones all make the Internet easily accessible.

Content: The amount of information on the Internet is so vast that it offers information and interest to everyone.

Privacy: One can travel anywhere on the web within the privacy of their own home.

Community: Even the most unique individuals can find and identify with others on the net.

Freedom to Explore: The Internet is completely mainstream, accepted and expected and easy to use.

Disinhibition: The anonymity involved in interactions online allow people to forgo social and self-imposed restrictions. It allows disclosure and intimacy in ways that aren’t easy or common in real interactions. The “hyperpersonal” venue refers to how one can choose and control what they share and how others view them online.

Sense of Mastery: Ease of use and control over what one shares gives people a sense of mastery (over much alluring mystery,) and online gaming sites entice players with the desire to master new skills.

Interactivity: The interactivity involved in Internet use makes one never feel alone and triggers ongoing online time.

Retrievability: The visual and auditory online schemata is easily retrieved.

Validation: Finding people with common interests and mastering computer skills gives validates people’s identities and self-worth.

Dissociation: Engaging pursuits cause us to lose tract of time.

Boundarylessness: The Internet is an endless source of information and interaction. One never feels done, there is always more to seek out.

 

Some believe that the available interaction and pursuit of knowledge on the Internet dispel the idea of Internet addiction.

In a discussion room about IAD, one participant comments “Maybe the computer is just nicely interactive in a world of increasingly isolated people.” 14

Another participant remarks, “A person may spend a lot of time on the Internet, as I do, because I have finally found the ‘bottomless’ source of information.  There is no last passage to this reference book, and if I am addicted to anything, it is knowledge…Are we not all addicted to something, which keeps us interested in living?” 15

Indeed, one of the characteristics that many researchers agree distinguish excess Internet use from addiction is as Storm King says, “A passion adds value to one’s life, and an addiction takes away value.” 16

And yet this addiction to knowledge…this may prove to be a natural human trait that the Internet, by its very nature, feeds.  We may just be hardwired to keep seeking out information on the Internet, even if it disrupts other functions and needs in life.

In the 1950’s, researchers thought they discovered a pleasure center in rat’s brains.  The rats would press a lever to stimulate this area in the hypothalamus until they collapsed. 17

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp doesn’t believe that pleasure is what was produced in those rats or in humans today.  He says that the rats acted excited certainly, but behaved in a foraging, hunting kind of way. 18

Panksepp deems the emotional state triggered as “seeking,” and calls it the “granddaddy of all the [emotional] systems.”  It is seeking, the scientist says, that motivates animals all over the world to venture forth into the world. 19

Temple Grandin says that research proves that animals would rather search for their own food than be fed. 20

Panksepp says that the desire to search is not only in order to fulfill physical needs but that we get thrilled about abstract and intangible rewards in the same way.  When we get excited about ideas, making connections and finding meaning, our seeking circuitry is afire. 21

Dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter that is said to be involved in many addictions, is involved in “states of eagerness and directed purpose,” Panksepp says. 22

Dopamine is also involved with our sense of the passage of time.  This is why we can get so engrossed in an activity that we lose track of time.  People with hyperactivity have short attention spans and many researchers believe that Internet searches, overload and scrolling is shortening attention spans so that we keep searching for more input. 23

Psychologist Kent Berridge agrees that the rats behavior in the original experiment was not stimulating pleasure and reward.  He’s determined that two systems exist in our brains: wanting and liking. 24

The wanting system acts like Panksepp’s seeking system, believes Berridge, and the liking system uses the opiod system to create feelings of pleasure. 25

“The brain seems to be more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire,” Berridge says, so that there is much more stimulus to seek than there is in gaining the object of our search.  In the end, it is the journey that counts more than the destination. 26

One neuroscientist has found that in studies of investors, much more pleasure is experienced with the possibility of reward than actually gaining one. 27

This makes evolutionary sense, says Berridge.  Pleasure is supposed to simply pause seeking, not turn it off.  We need constant motivation to seek and explore or we wouldn’t thrive. 28

Rats that have had the dopamine-seeking system turned off will starve to death with food in front of them because they have lost the will to go and get it. 29

Berridge believes that in addiction, the seeking system has become highly sensitized even as the payoff lessens.  The searching system is self-feeding and doesn’t have satiety triggers built into it.  The more we search, the more we want to search more. 30

The new and unexpected stimulate seeking, says Panksepp.  Just in the way dogs become hyper-aroused by giving them small amounts of food, we are kept in an aroused seeking state by kernels of information, email-dings and other small cues we get from the Internet. 31

Temple Grandin points out that wild animals would never engage in such useless behavior.  A wild cat doesn’t engage in mindless chasing “because it short-circuits intelligent stalking behavior.” 32

Risk Factors

Are we all at risk to develop Internet addiction or are some more likely to than others?

A study of college student found that those prone to fantasy were more likely to become addicted to Internet use and that depression and dissociation tendencies correlate with the tendency to fantasize. 33

Virtual communities offer anonymity, equality and increased access to status that one may not have in the real world.

The experience of trauma has been linked to the development of a host of addictions. It is thought that the helplessness one might experience during emotional, physical or sexual abuse can lead to a kind of self-affirming gratification. 34

Dr. Nancy Wesson has found that clients she treats for extreme shyness often develop obsessional online relationships and that these may be the only interpersonal relationships that exist in their lives. 35

Philip Flores believes addictions are attachment disorders, that we are driven to connect with others and a lack of social attachments cause addicts to gain comfort and pleasure from substances rather than relationships. 36

A study of Internet addicts found that they tended to be lonely, have deviant values and lack emotional and social skills. 37

Michael Gilbert of the Center for the Digital Future says that hyperactive kids tend to become addicted to the Internet because they crave constant stimulation. He says that kids with depression, anger issues and social problems can network on the Internet without having to function in conventionally social ways. 38

So far, identified risk factors for Internet addiction include: 39, 40, 41

  • ADHD
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Hostility
  • Other Addictions
  • Lack of social support
  • Less mobility to be socially active
  • Low self-esteem
  • Social phobia

Treatment

David Greenfield’s suggestions for combating the compulsive use of the Internet includes42 & 43:

  1. Acknowledging the compulsion
  2. Making the decision to cut back
  3. Telling people of your plan to increase accountability
  4. Picking substitute activities
  5. Choosing specific and quantitative goals

It also helps to identify any underlying issues that may contribute to Internet addiction such as anxiety or depression.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is useful in treating many kinds of addictions. Keeping a log of your Internet use, identifying triggers and planning substitute activities for those triggers are all part of CBT.

Building social skills and coping skills is also useful.

There are some 12-step groups that offer support to those with Internet addiction. Surprisingly, many are online.

Sources

1 & 9-11) Rhea, Dave (2009, November 24). Popularity of social media sites magnifies Internet addiction. The Journal Record  [online]. Retrieved from http://www.journalrecord.com/article.cfm?recid=104680

2, 6, 33-35, 38 & 40) MacMillan, Amanda (2009, October 5). Internet Addiction Linked to ADHD, Depression in Teens. Health.com [online]. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/10/05/depression.adhd.internet.addiction/index.html

3-4)Schwankert, Steven (2008, November 10). China defines Internet addiction. IDG News Service [online]. Retrieved from http://www.itworld.com/internet/57549/china-defines-internet-addiction

5) Christakis, Dimitri A. and Moreno, Megan A. (2009). Trapped in the Net. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine [online] 163 (10): 959-960. Retrieved from http://www.netaddictionrecovery.com/the-problem/internet-addiction/210-trapped-in-the-net.html

7-8)Zohar, Joseph (2007, March 21). Internet Addiction Worldwide Phenomenon Continues to Grow. PRLog [online]. Retrieved from http://www.prlog.org/10011176-internet-addiction-worldwide-phenomenon-continues-to-grow.html

12)Quinn, Brian A. (2007). The Evolving Psychology of Online Use: From Computerphobia to Internet Addiction. Texas Tech University [online]. Retrieved from http://esr.lib.ttu.edu/bitstream/handle/2346/489/fulltext.pdf?sequence=1

13 & 16)King, Storm A. (1996, December). Is the Internet Addictive, or Are Addicts Using the Internet? Concentric.net [online]. Retrieved from http://webpages.charter.net/stormking/iad.html

14-15) Ferris, Jennifer R. (2003). Internet Addiction Disorder: Causes, Symptoms and Consequences. Virginia Tech [online]. Retrieved from http://www.files.chem.vt.edu/chem-dept/dessy/honors/papers/ferris.html

17-32) Yoffe, Emily (2009, August 12). Seeking. Slate.com [online]. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/id/2224932/pagenum/all/#p2

36) Chan, Jennifer (2006). Online Gaming Addiction. University of California—Berkeley [online]. Retrieved from http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~jenchan/index.html

37) Engleberg, Elisabeth and Sjöberg, Lennart (2004, February). CyberPsychology & Behavior. Liebert [online]. Retrieved from  http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/109493104322820101

39) Year of Science Staff (2009, October 14). Internet addiction disorder around the world. Year of Science [online].

41) Help Guide Staff (2009). Internet Addiction. Helpguide.org [online]. Retrieved from http://helpguide.org/mental/internet_cybersex_addiction.htm

42)Brainz Staff (2009). Where to Get Help for Internet Addiction. Brainz.org [online]. Retrieved from http://brainz.org/where-get-help-internet-addiction/

43) Help Guide Staff (2009). Internet Addiction. Helpguide.org

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