The first thing Sarah, age 23, does when she wakes up in the morning is to check her email. She then moves on to Facebook to catch up on status updates, forums, news sites, and online games. She can easily spend 16 hours a day online, reading, interacting, and compulsively refreshing pages. It wasn’t always like this; Sarah used to be an active, happy young woman who hung out with her friends, studied economics at a prestigious university, and worked part-time at a small accounting firm to gain experience in her field. However, over time the overwhelming desire to be online disrupted her ability to keep up with her schoolwork, and she began turning down invitations to see her friends in favor of staying home with her computer. After too many late nights online kept her home from work, she simply stopped going. Her once expansive world has become confined to a glowing screen.
The internet has become a pervasive and even necessary part of life for people all over the world. For some, however, the compulsive drive to be online has made the internet a central component in their lives, and psychologically tethered them to laptops and mobile devices–to the detriment of their social and occupational functioning. Meta-analysis of global studies shows that internet addiction affects 2.6% to 10.9% of the population depending on location, with Northern and Western European users having the lowest instances of internet addiction and Middle Eastern and Asian users experiencing significantly higher levels.[1. http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cyber.2014.0317?journalCode=cyber] While adolescents and young adults may be particularly susceptible, people of any age may develop an unhealthy relationship with the internet. New research into the damaging effects of this increasingly common condition illuminates the need for effective internet addiction treatment to help you regain your emotional and behavioral health.
Signs and Symptoms of Internet Addiction
Because internet use is an ordinary activity, it may be difficult to recognize exactly when your online activity crosses the line from a benign pastime to addiction. While many people who suffer from internet addiction spend the majority of their waking hours online, it is not the quantity of internet use that defines addiction, but how your internet use affects your functioning. As Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist at Stanford University and author of Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, explains:
The way to define (internet addiction) is not by the number of hours you spend in front of your browser, it’s really by the offline consequences. Is your productivity at work affected? Is it affecting your relationship, whether romantic or personal? Is it affecting your academic performance? You look at the offline effects, not so much at what the person is doing online or how much time they’re spending in front of their browser.[2. http://www.thestar.com/life/health_wellness/news_research/2013/02/01/internet_addicts_face_constant_temptation_nonbelievers.html]
Some people with internet addiction become enthralled in gaming, others participate in online discussion groups, watch videos, read news sites, or engage in popular social media activities. For some, the compulsion manifests in very specific activities, while others have no particular focus. The exact way your internet activity presents itself is largely irrelevant; what matters is the way in which your addictive behavior manifests in the larger scope of your life.
Common symptoms of internet addiction include:
• Experiencing feelings of distress when you cannot be online.
• Neglecting personal and professional responsibilities in favor of using the internet.
• Withdrawing from family and friends to spend more time online.
• Hiding your internet use from others and feeling guilty and defensive about how much time you spend online.
• Using the internet to deal with negative emotions.
The Physical Effects of Internet Addiction
Internet addiction may not only affect your social and professional functioning, it may actually be damaging your brain. Researchers have found that long-term internet addiction causes structural changes in both grey and white matter similar to that observed in long-term drug users.[3. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0020708] Grey matter is responsible for processing emotion, speech, memory, motor control, and sensory experiences; studies indicate that internet addiction can cause grey matter atrophy, shrinking these vital regions of the brain by 10-20%, leading to impaired emotional regulation, inhibited impulse control, and reduced goal orientation.[4. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-addictive-internet-use-restructure-brain/] Similarly, increased density of white matter in key locations may affect cognitive function, particularly executive functions, as well as the ability to form and retrieve memories. The findings not only lend credence to the fact that internet addiction is a legitimate medical phenomenon, it also highlights the need for effective interventions to prevent and reverse brain damage.
Internet Addiction And Depression
Compulsive online activity is often accompanied by mood disturbances, particularly depression. In the first large-scale study on the effect of excessive internet usage on mood, researchers at the University of Leeds found a direct correlation between prevalence of depressive symptoms and time spent online.[5. http://www.leeds.ac.uk/news/article/707/excessive_internet_use_is_linked_to_depression] Lead researcher Dr. Catriona Morrison, says, “This study reinforces the public speculation that over-engaging in websites that serve to replace normal social function might be linked to psychological disorders like depression and addiction.” While the study did not investigate a causal relationship between depression and internet addiction, the combination of brain changes and behavioral disruptions caused by excessive internet use may partially explain the rise in depressive symptoms.
On the other hand, many people develop an internet addiction in response to pre-existing depression. The internet may offer an escape from distressing feelings and an easily accessible outlet for dealing with painful emotions; when it’s difficult to leave the house or get out of bed due to depression, you can still access the world via the internet. While the internet may play a productive role for some people’s treatment processes, excessive or unhealthy use may inhibit restoration of psychological health and contribute to dysfunction. As you become increasingly dependent on internet activity, your drive to participate in the healthy activities known to counteract depression, such as building social support networks, maintaining a regular schedule, participating in your community, and exercising, may decrease, pulling you into a cycle of psychological illness that feeds both your depression and your addiction.
Unplug For Healing
By entering into a specialized treatment program with expertise in internet and other process addictions, you can begin to heal from this painful affliction and restore normal functioning. Through a guided exploration of the underlying causes of your compulsive internet use, you are able to identify your triggers and establish healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with distress. Within a supportive therapeutic environment, you can develop new habits and reintegrate with the world around you, breaking the damaging isolation of addiction and spurring you to create a more balanced, fulfilling life. If you suffer from a pre-existing mental health disorder such as depression, simultaneous treatment that focuses on both your emotional and behavioral health can empower you to end the cycle of psychological suffering and addictive compulsion to find lasting wellness.
Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with internet addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders. Contact us to learn more about how our residential program can help you or your loved on on the path to recovery.
Image Source: Unsplash user Jay Wennington