Internet and Computer Addiction

Balancing Your Time Online and Off
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The Internet has revolutionized how we communicate, learn, and work. With so much information available, how much is too much Internet use? When you feel more comfortable with your online friends than your real ones, or you can’t stop yourself from playing games, gambling, or compulsively surfing, than you may be using the Internet too much. Learn about the signs and symptoms of Internet addiction and how you can get balance back in your online life.

What is Internet addiction or Computer Addiction?

Internet use has exploded in recent years, providing a constant, ever-changing source of information and entertainment. News headlines are updated by the minute, not just daily. You can connect with literally hundreds of people on social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter. Email, online chat and message boards allow for both public and anonymous communication about almost any topic imaginable, down to the smallest detail. We all enjoy the benefits of the Internet, and for many it is an indispensable tool for work as well.  So how much is too much Internet usage?

The concept of compulsive Internet use is relatively new and is not yet formally recognized as a psychological disorder, although research is underway in this area. However, there is increasing evidence that for some people, compulsive Internet use interferes with daily life, work and relationships.

So what is healthy and what is unhealthy Internet use?

There’s no easy answer because each person’s Internet use is so different. You might need to use the Internet extensively for your work, for example, or you might rely heavily on social networking sites to keep in touch with faraway family and friends. Spending a lot of time online isn’t necessarily a problem. But if you’re neglecting your relationships, your work, or other important things in your life, than you may have a problem with Internet addiction. Regardless of the name — Internet addiction, compulsive Internet use, problematic or unhealthy computer use — if your online activities are getting in the way of your “offline” life, it’s time to strike a new balance.
Signs of Unhealthy Computer Use

A person who is “addicted” to the computer is likely to have several of the experiences and feelings on the list below. How many of them describe you?

* You have mixed feelings of well-being and guilt while at the computer.
* You make unsuccessful efforts to quit or limit your computer use.
* You lose track of time while on the computer.
* You neglect friends, family and/or responsibilities in order to be online.
* You find yourself lying to your boss and family about the amount of time spent on the computer and what you do while on it.
* You feel anxious, depressed, or irritable when your computer time is shortened or interrupted.
* You use the computer repeatedly as an outlet when sad, upset, or for sexual gratification.
* You develop problems in school or on the job as a result of the time spent and the type of activities accessed on the computer.
* When you are not on the computer, you think about it frequently and anticipate when you will use it again.
Source: The University of Texas at Dallas

Signs and symptoms of Internet addiction or computer addiction

Signs and symptoms of compulsive Internet use may vary from person to person. There are no set hours per day or number of words typed that indicate Internet addiction, for example. But there are some general warning signs that your Internet use has become a problem:

* Losing track of time online.
Do you frequently find yourself on the Internet longer than you thought? Does a few minutes turn in to a few hours? Do you find yourself running late to appointments, school, or work because of too much time spent online? Do you get irritated or cranky if your online time is interrupted?
* Having trouble completing tasks at work or home. Do you find laundry piling up and little food for dinner in the house because you’ve been busy online? Perhaps you find yourself working late more and more because you can’t complete your work on time — then staying even longer when everyone else has gone home and you can surf the Web freely.
* Isolation from family and friends. Is your social life suffering because of all the time you spend online? Are you neglecting your family and friends? Do you feel like no one in your “real” life — even your spouse — understands you like your online friends?
* Feeling guilty or defensive about your Internet use. Are you sick of your spouse nagging you to get off the computer and spend some time together? Do you hide your Internet use or lie about how much time you spend online?

Risk factors for Internet addiction and computer addiction

While research is still being done on the extent of Internet addiction, there are some risk factors that have been identified.

You are at greater risk of Internet addiction:

* If you suffer from anxiety. You may use the Internet to distract yourself from your worries and fears. An anxiety disorder like obsessive-compulsive disorder may also contribute to excessive email checking and compulsive Internet use.
* If you are depressed. The Internet can be an escape from feelings of depression, but too much time online can make things worse. Internet addiction further contributes to isolation and loneliness.
* If you have any other addictions. Many Internet addicts suffer from other addictions, mainly to drugs, alcohol, gambling, and sex.
* If you lack social support. Internet addicts often use chat rooms, instant messaging, or online gaming as a safe way of establishing new relationships and more confidently relating to others.
* If you’re a teenager, you might be wondering where you fit in and the Internet might feel more comfortable than real life friends.
* If you are less mobile or socially active than you are used to. For example, you may be coping with a new disability that limits your ability to drive. Parenting very young children can make it hard to leave the house or connect with old friends.

Internet pornography and cybersex addiction

The rise in Internet usage has also corresponded with the increasingly availability of online pornography. While cybersex addiction is a type of sexual addiction, special challenges on the Internet include its relative anonymity and ease of access. People can both spend hours on the net in the privacy of their own home, and engage in fantasies impossible in real life.

Because real people cannot compete with fantasy, cybersex addiction can erode and even replace genuine intimate relationships. Maintaining relationships is also very difficult if you are on the Internet compulsively for hours.

How do I know if I am a sex addict?
If your sexual behaviors create legal, relationship, career, emotional or physical consequences, yet you continue to engage in those sexual behaviors anyway, then you likely have a problem. If your sexual behaviors take up more time, energy and focus than you would like or if they cause you to persistently act out in ways that go against your underlying values and beliefs, then you are likely a sex addict. Sex addicts, both men and women often find themselves thinking, “This is the last time that I am going to…” yet they ultimately feel compelled to return to the same or similar sexual situations, despite previous commitments to change.
Source: Sexual Recovery Institute

Self-help tips for breaking your Internet addiction

If you see you might have a problem with Internet usage, you’ve completed the hardest step towards a more balanced online life.  It’s very easy to rationalize or deny Internet addiction, and commitment towards a healthier balance will take you a long way. The following are some tools to get your Internet use under control. While you can put many of these in place yourself, make sure you get some outside support as well. It’s all too easy to slip back into old patterns of usage, especially if you use the Internet heavily for work.

* Identify any underlying reasons that need treatment. If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, for example, Internet addiction might be a way to self-soothe rocky moods. Have you had problems with alcohol or drugs in the past? Does anything about your Internet use remind you of how you used to drink or use drugs to numb out? Take a hard look at whether you need to address treatment in these areas, whether it is therapy for depression or going back to 12-step meetings.
* Increase your coping skills. Perhaps blowing off steam on the Internet is your way of coping with stress or angry feelings. Or you have trouble relating to others, feeling excessively shy or feeling like you can never read people right in real life. Building skills in these areas will help you weather the stresses and strains of daily life without resorting to compulsive Internet use. Related Helpguide sites can be found below.
* Strengthen your support network. The more relationships you have in real life, the less you will need the Internet for social interaction. Set aside dedicated time each week for spouse or other family. If you are shy, try finding common interest groups such as an exercise class or book reading club. This allows you to interact with others in a non-threatening way and allows relationships to naturally develop.

Modify your Internet use step by step:

1. To help you see problem areas, keep a log of how much you use the Internet for non-work related activities. You might find this challenging if you interweave recreational Internet use with work, but try to get a clear idea of when you use. Are there times of day that you use more? Are there triggers in your day that make you stay online for hours at a time when you planned for 5 minutes?
2. Set goals for when you can use the Internet. For example, you might try setting a timer for usage, scheduling use for certain times of day, or making a commitment to turn off the computer at the same time each night.
3. Replace your Internet usage with healthy activities. If you are bored and lonely, resisting the urge to get back online will be very difficult. Have a plan for other ways to fill the time, such as going to lunch with a coworker, taking a class, or inviting a friend over.

Internet addiction treatment, counseling, and support

Having trouble cutting back?

It is not because you are weak willed. Compulsive behavior like Internet addiction can be hard to break. The more support you have during the process of cutting down, the more successful you will be.

Find help for Internet addiction
Click here to browse a referral directory from the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery.

Therapy and counseling for Internet addiction

Therapy can give you a tremendous boost in stopping excessive Internet use. Cognitive-behavioral therapy gives you step-by-step ways to stop compulsive Internet behaviors, working with a therapist on changing your thoughts and behaviors surrounding Internet use. Therapy can also help you learn healthier ways of coping with uncomfortable emotions. And if depression or anxiety is contributing to your excessive Internet use, therapy can also address that problem.

If your Internet use is affecting your partner directly, as with excessive cybersex or online affairs, marriage counseling can help you work through these challenging issues. Marriage counseling can also help you reconnect with your partner if you have been using the Internet for most of your social needs.

Although Internet addiction is not recognized as a formal psychological disorder, ask if your therapist or counselor has experience in treating compulsive Internet use.
Group support for Internet addiction

Since Internet addiction is relatively new, it can be hard to find a real life support group dedicated to that issue like Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous. If that is a simultaneous problem for you, however, attending groups can help you work through your alcohol or gambling problems as well.  Sex Addicts anonymous may be another place to try if you are having trouble with cybersex. However, there may be groups that you can join to work on social and coping skills, such as for anxiety or depression.

There are some Internet addiction support groups on the Internet. However, these should be used with caution. Although they may be helpful in orienting you and pointing you in the right direction, you need real life people to best benefit from group support.
Helping a child or teen with an Internet addiction

It’s a fine line as a parent. If you severely limit a child or teen’s Internet use, they might rebel and go to excess. But you can and should model appropriate computer use, supervise computer activity and get your child help if he or she needs it. If your child or teen is showing signs of Internet addiction, there are many things that you as a parent can do to help:

* Encourage other interests and social activities.
Get your child out from behind the computer screen. Expose kids to other hobbies and activities, such as team sports, Boy or Girl Scouts, and afterschool clubs.
* Monitor computer use and set clear limits. Make sure the computer is in a common area of the house where you can keep an eye on your child’s online activity, and limit time online, waiting until homework and chores are done. This will be most effective if you as parents follow suit. If you can’t stay offline, chances are your children won’t either.
* Talk to your child about underlying issues. Compulsive computer use can be the sign of deeper problems. Is your child having problems fitting in? Has there been a recent major change, like a move or divorce, which is causing stress? Don’t be afraid to seek professional counseling if you are concerned about your child.

Children, teens, and cybersex

The increased use of the Internet puts children and teens at special risk. Sexual predators, under anonymity of the Internet, can spend hours developing a relationship with a child or teen in a chat room, where meeting them initially in real life would prove very difficult. Children or teens having a hard time fitting in or with problems at home are especially susceptible. These predators can eventually lure unsuspecting children or teens to meet them. If you suspect that a sexual predator has contacted your child, call the police right away.

For links to helpful organizations click here.

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