It can take some years for the mood altering qualities and therefore addictive potential of certain behaviours to be fully understood. This has been and remains true of internet and technology-based activity. Although the recognition of the possible emergence of a new addiction dawned almost a quarter of a century ago, hardly any of the apparent disorders related to use of the internet and its associated technology have yet received formal classification.
Increasing numbers of people have been seeking help for what they experience as a problem in their relationship with the internet, gaming (both online and offline) or personal use of electronic devices such as computers, tablets and smart phones. The signs and symptoms causing concern bear a striking similarity to those that characterise addiction to substances such as alcohol, opiates and cocaine and to behaviours like gambling. These include extended hours spent on the internet with increasing evidence of being unable to control the amount of time consumed in cyberspace. This may well be accompanied by excessive preoccupation with the internet when not actually on line thereby interfering with a person’s work, study or other leisure activities. Marked changes in temperament, social isolation, increasing tolerance, signs of withdrawal when not using technology or not on the internet and continuing use despite interpersonal conflict over the internet/technology-related behaviour within a family, may all feature.
As more people receive help and further studies are completed, researchers and clinicians have begun to consolidate theories as to why internet use and related technologies carry with them the risk of addiction. They point to the endless possibilities for stimulation, arousal and escape combined with the ready availability and ease of access as helping to encourage compulsive behaviour. They highlight the tantalising promise of reward, the rapidity of response (paralleling the “quick fix” of other addictions) and long periods of disconnection from the real world. Add aspects like low cost and anonymity and one can understand the potential for users to become disinhibited and careless of maintaining normal boundaries.
The debate continues as to whether it is possible to be addicted to the internet and enabling electronic devices rather than to what can be accessed on it, such as gambling, pornography, games, chat rooms or dating sites. However, as in the case of other addictions the context and “route of administration” may be a powerful component of the addictive relationship. The alcohol dependent person is excited by the sight of a bar, the person addicted to heroin may get a buzz from handling a needle and a gambler may be stimulated by encountering a slot machine. A simple way to gauge the degree of unhealthy attachment is to try to give it up for a period and, with support, assess the degree of consequent discomfort.