It may 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. There is, as yet, no scientific or clinical consensus internationally as to whether a diagnostic classification of Internet Addiction is fully justified. One area of contention is whether use of the internet per se can be addictive or whether it is simply the medium through which people access potentially addictive experiences like gambling, pornography, gaming or social networking.

In any event, as the use of the internet now features heavily in daily life, increasing numbers of people have reported problems with their net-based behaviour. Research across the globe into such matters has accordingly gathered pace and the suffering evidently experienced by some internet users has created a demand for treatment interventions specific to Internet Addiction. Through facilitating instant access to the internet, electronic devices become a critical component of the addictive behaviour and a powerful attachment may be formed to them so that their absence, even for short periods, sufficiently unsettles users to indicate a withdrawal process.

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Availability and ease of access encourage compulsivity

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.

Signs and symptoms resemble those of other addictions

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.

Internet Addiction’s similarities with Substance Addictions

Researchers generally agree that Internet Addiction has striking similarities with addiction to substances. They highlight characteristics of addiction such as:

  • A preoccupation with being on-line so that it comes to dominate a person’s thinking around the clock
  • An increasing amount of time spent on internet-based activity to the exclusion of other interests, with a tendency to stay on line longer than was intended, even to the point of neglecting personal needs. Consequential social disconnection and isolation
  • An impulse to escape from everyday reality or to seek relief from distress
  • An increase in tolerance as activity has to increase in order to get the same effect that was originally experienced
  • Withdrawal symptoms experienced when access is somehow inhibited. The intense discomfort suffered is mostly mood related but may even include physical symptoms
  • Interpersonal conflict occurs in relation to other people who are close, putting these relationships at risk
  • Secrecy and dishonesty about the nature and extent of the internet activity
  • A very real risk of relapse after a period of abstinence or reduced use

Addicted to the internet, to what it gives access or to the enabling device?

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.

The question of abstinence in treatment for Internet Addiction

Because use of the internet is now so integral to everyday life, the aim of treatment interventions for internet-based addiction is not for the achievement of total abstinence from all on-line activity. Nonetheless, a period of abstinence does help to reveal the severity of the addiction and provides the opportunity to re-set the user’s relationship with the internet.

It may well be necessary to maintain abstinence from the area of the internet that is most implicated in addictive behaviour, such as sites for pornography, gambling, gaming or social networking. With the right support, the person can then develop a healthier approach to on-line activity in general.

Some people may find that to do so, a residential treatment setting offers a controlled environment where abstinence and/or managed use of internet activity can be productively trialled.