Addictions are typically characterized by a few basic behaviors, including an intense need to obtain the object of the addiction, a lack of control over the addictive acts and a feeling of withdrawal when the source of the addiction is somehow unattainable. It’s easy to see how these behaviors might apply to a chemical addiction. Someone who has an alcoholism issue, for example, might carry around booze almost all the time, sipping away from dawn to dusk, and the person might feel physically ill when there are no drinks to be had. People like this might be compelled to get care, because they have a condition other people understand and other people discuss. People with an Internet addiction, on the other hand, might not find healing so easy. In fact, some people might suggest that an Internet addiction doesn’t really exist.
Common, Compulsive Acts
The Internet was once considered a specialized tool that only reporters, writers and other data fiends might find helpful. Now, according to the Pew Research Center, more than 85 percent of American adults use the Internet. They might log on in the morning and work with clients or vendors located halfway across the world, and then log onto home computers at night in order to watch entertainment programs or communicate with friends. So-called “smartphones” can even allow people to stay connected to the online world when there is no computer around, and it’s not uncommon to see people gazing at the glowing phone screen while they’re sitting at diners, in movie theatres and in other places in which human-to-human interaction is available. In this modern world, being online can seem more real than interacting face to face.
It’s common for cultural critics to claim that almost all modern users are addicted to the Internet to some degree, and they may have very credible research to cite in support of that claim. For example, an author writing for The Week suggests that the nature of the Internet makes it somewhat addicting, based on 50-year old research done by psychologist B.F. Skinner. This eminent scientist suggested that rewards that come intermittently, almost randomly, are more addictive than rewards that come at a measurable pace. In this model, even interactions that don’t produce a reward are rewarding, as the brain cells anticipate the benefits that are right around the corner. The brain is awash with pleasure, even though there is no trigger for that pleasure.
The Internet could be considered rewarding like this as messages come sporadically. Tweets ebb and flow, for example, and Facebook comments follow no set pattern. Just turning on the computer or looking at a smartphone could trigger a release of pleasure, as the brain anticipates a reward. In time, anyone could get hooked on the chemical release intermittent pings like this could bring. As a result, some users choose to block specific sites during the day, or they go on tech vacations in which they leave all technology behind. They can then return to their use with a more nuanced approach, and a newfound love of life.
While this might make for an entertaining story, and there might be some people who develop an unhealthy attachment to their computers and phones that can be solved in a weekend, addiction experts often differentiate between generic use of a computer and specific, unhealthy process addictions conducted on a computer. People like this may be interested in an online life, but their behaviors might be so outside of the norm, and so very damaging, that they may need more intensive help in order to heal. A weekend getaway might not do the trick for people like this, and understanding their specific compulsions might be key to helping them.
In an article in the journal American Behavioral Scientist, authors suggest that sex addiction is the most prevalent problem among people who spend troublesome amounts of time online. People like this might:
- View pornography
- Participate in pornographic role-play games online
- Contribute to online chat discussions about sex
- Trade explicit email messages or photographs with other people online
Any of these behaviors could be dangerous for people who participate. Those who view pornography could be arrested, for example, if the photos they buy contain images of anyone underage. It’s relatively easy for law enforcement agents to track buyers of products like this, and the consequences can be severe. Additionally, many of these tasks involve some sort of fee for service, and addicted people might spend a significant amount of money each day on these products. Pornography is also often considered distasteful, and people caught with nasty images like this on their workplace computers might lose their jobs, further ruining their financial prospects.
Among all of the consequences a person with an online sex addictions might face, those involving chats might be the most significant, according to research in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Users reported that this activity had the greatest impact on their day-to-day lives. They spent a significant amount of time in this activity, but they also likely formed connections with those they chatted with. They may have even met these people in real time and participated in actual sex acts. The guilt that comes from a behavior like this, and the health risks that could result, might be devastating.
While people who engage in online sex might be well aware of the risks of the sites they participate in, there are some online activities that seem reasonable or even fun at first glance, but the dangers of those behaviors might only become apparent in time. For example, many websites allow people to place bets on a chance activity. They might be able to win generic credits, worth nothing but bragging rights, or they might be able to win actual money. Once again, these activities can be considered remarkably addictive, as they involve a reward that may or may not come in time. People who engage in these activities might also lose money due to their behaviors, but they may also become so attached to the win that they don’t sleep, eat or interact with others. The game is all that matters, and life can quickly fall apart.
Some people develop similar attachments to online games in which they develop a persona and play against other users. These games can allow people to escape their reality, just for a while, and become something they’d always wanted to be. Instead of living as a frustrated computer programmer staying in a basement apartment, they can be an ancient king with intense weaponry and a cavern full of riches. The graphics on these games can be intense and beautiful, with scenery that can become so lifelike that people might feel as though it really is real. This kind of gaming addiction has been widely studied in other countries, and the results suggest that people who develop these attachments experience a great deal of pain as a result. For example, in a study in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior, researchers found that people with an addiction like this were likely to hop online when they felt depressed, and yet, they also reported intense feelings of loneliness. They were depressed and low, and the Internet just didn’t help. They also felt more likely to respond to strangers, not the people they knew. In short, they were isolated and depressed. It’s a dangerous combination.
In addition to porn and games, the online world is full of stores and marketplaces, allowing people to buy the products they need to keep their homes up and running. According to an article in the Journal of Business Research, these sites have been specifically designed to increase “flow,” making the experience more pleasant and enjoyable. The researchers report that this design doesn’t tend to increase the amount of money that people spend, but the design does seem to be “…associated with pathological Internet use.”
People may become attached to:
- Looking at products
- Reading online reviews of those products
- Comparing prices
- Buying products
The whole experience of shopping becomes so enticing and so interesting that people just can’t seem to stop. They may always be on the hunt, looking and shopping and comparing, and while they might not even buy intense amounts of products, they may neglect their families and their obligations in order to shop.
Most of these addictions involve concerns of time. People who are engaging in these activities are likely neglecting their families and their obligations in order to feed their needs. They don’t seem able to handle the lure of a computer. These addictions also tend to be expensive, as there are products to buy, fees to pay and games to pay for. But there are other issues that could be readily felt by people who have addictions like this.
At times, people with these addictions also have difficulty controlling their impulsivity. Just as they may find walking away from a computer to be difficult or impossible, they may find it hard to resist the call of drugs or alcohol. When the substances are available, they may feel compelled to take advantage. These substances may also serve to blunt the effects of their addictions. Rather than feeling guilty for the money they spent or the time they wasted, they could obliterate their memories with alcohol or drugs. It’s hard to know how many people have both addictions to the Internet and addictions to substances, but it’s clear that it’s possible for some people.
Those who spend inordinate amounts of time online nurturing an addiction may find it hard to get help. They may have broken relationships with their families, due to their behaviors, and they may be unaccustomed to asking others for help. Some people may not even realize that their behaviors are somehow problematic. Thankfully, even people like this can get help. As researchers continue to learn about Internet addictions, they’ve developed a significant number of therapies that can help people to understand their compulsions and get control of their behaviors.
At Axis, we put this research to good use. At our residential treatment facility located in California, we apply science-based techniques to help people understand their inner desires and make new kinds of connections with those they love. We also provide alternative therapies that can help people to develop a stronger connection with their own inner strength and resolve to stay well. We’d like to tell you more about our programs and find out how we can help someone you love to heal. Please call us to find out more.