GPSolo Magazine - October/November 2004
Phil, a bank loan officer, is fired from his job owing to recurrent violations of his employer’s policy regarding computer use. Phil was cruising the Internet at work, viewing pornography and participating in chat rooms in which the topic is sex and participants engage in online sexual play.
Janet is a single parent working a job that pays barely enough to meet expenses and whose relationships with her three children seem to lurch from one crisis to another. She is spending much of her time away from work online, mostly in a chat room with a core group of people who talk together about their daily trials and tribulations, find relief in jokes and good humor, and encourage one another with empathy and concern. Phyllis increasingly sees the chat room and relationships therein as reality and is less and less involved in “real-time” relationships. She finds that the Internet more and more shields her and removes her, at least in the short term, from the reality of her job and family stresses.
Joe, a high school junior, finds himself spending hours a day online “hanging out” with friends in teen chat rooms, downloading music, and viewing pornography. As a result, he is increasingly isolated from his family, short on sleep, and falling further and further behind in schoolwork.
Edith, a widow and a retired teacher, finds her online video gambling leading to serious financial problems. However, it is a price she is willing to pay—the time online blocks out her loneliness and her anger and hurt toward her children, who she feels largely ignore her. (All these examples are amalgams of typical misusers/abusers of the Internet and do not represent specific individuals.)
Do you know any of these people? Are you like any of these people? It is a rare individual in 2004 who is still unaware of the pervasiveness of the personal computer and Internet in our homes and workplaces. Computer use has led to some very good things—increased business productivity, easy access to resources for learning and personal growth, and opportunities for recreation and relaxation. Unfortunately, for many of its users, the growing availability of the Internet also has led to abuse and unhealthy dependency.
According to a survey conducted by Dr. David Greenfield among almost 18,000 computer users (“Lost in Cyberspace: The Growing Problem of Compulsive Internet Use,” Paradigm Magazine, Spring 2000), between 4 and 6 percent of computer users admitted to Internet use that was problematic, and an additional 6 percent engaged in computer behaviors that “met the strict criteria for Compulsive Internet use.”
It was not until the mid-20th century that the medical community formally recognized the reality of alcohol addiction as a genuine disease, and still later before other drug use and gambling were added to the list of potential “dependencies” (addictive illnesses). During the last few years a number of treatment providers have begun helping people who appear to be addicted to the Internet in much the same way the alcoholic is addicted to alcohol.
Using the terminology of the medically authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fourth Edition, Revised), any addiction can be seen as an impulse control disorder. Below is a set of criteria for Internet addiction based on that view (courtesy of the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery). Meeting at least five of these criteria indicates Internet dependence; one to four is a sign of abuse. Note how closely these criteria resemble those used in diagnosing alcoholism or pathological gambling.
• Unsuccessful attempts to stop or control computer use.
• Dishonesty related to computer use.
• Problems in significant life areas as a result of computer use.
• Spending increasing time online in order to get the same reaction achieved previously in less time.
• Escaping feelings while online.
• Experiencing anxiety, irritability, mood swings, restlessness, depression, and/or insomnia when not able to use the Internet.
• Experiencing both euphoria and guilt from computer use.
• Preoccupation with computer use or related activities; more and more time online.
• Financial problems related to computer use.
Internet dependence often is linked to other addictive disorders. Most typically, Internet addiction is co-present with or part of sequential addiction to sexual, gambling, or shopping/spending addictions.
Internet abusers and addicts frequently find that the abuse creates or exacerbates existing family dysfunction (“You spend more time on that computer than you do with me or the kids”) and job-related difficulties (“Jack, you’re just not keeping up with your workload” or “If we find you misusing your computer once more, you will be discharged”). Online gambling or shopping abuse also can lead to such illegal behaviors as kiting checks or embezzlement, with significant legal consequences.
In the workplace alone computer abuse is endemic. According to a survey cited by Libby Zivalich (“The Tangled Web: Combating Internet Addiction in the Workplace,” Business Journal , November 22, 2003), “on average, employers report that workers spend 8.3 hours—or more than one entire workday—accessing non-work-related [Internet] sites . . . each week. One out of every four employees reported feeling addicted to, or compulsive in, his/her use of the Internet.”
If you, a family member, a friend, or a client is struggling with problematic use of the Internet, help is available. And as indicated in the sidebar above, you can even use the Internet itself to locate that help.
Kenneth Search is an outpatient services specialist at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery at Proctor Hospital, Peoria, Illinois. He can be reached at 309/691-1004.
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