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Internet Overload

Adults spending hours at a computer run risk of addictive behaviors

By Jocelyn Green

Many parents are tuned in to their children’s technology use, on the lookout for signs of inappropriate or excessive behavior. Yet experts say Internet addiction is a serious problem among adults — and it’s getting worse.

“Internet addiction is more common than people want to think about,” says Dr. Kitty Harris-Wilkes, director of Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery at Texas Tech University. “The stress people face on a daily basis almost makes it necessary or at least attractive to find an escape.”

Internet addicts can be obsessed with any of the following subcategories: cybersex or pornography; social networking, chat rooms, or instant messaging; compulsions such as online gaming, online gambling and eBay; or information overload, whereby the addict compulsively searches and surfs for data. The most common forms of Internet addiction are online gaming, cybersex addiction and online affairs.

Seventy-one percent of office workers abuse the Internet during work hours — visiting social networking sites; shopping online; reading personal e-mail; or visiting pornography, gaming or gambling sites, according to studies at the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery in Bradford, Pa.

For mothers feeling isolated at home, social networking sites offer both an escape and a sense of connectedness with others. If not used in moderation, however, a habit of checking Facebook can create an addiction.

The number of American adults with an online social network profile has quadrupled in the past three years, according to a survey earlier this year. Thirty-five percent of adult Web users have a profile on a social network, the Pew Internet & American Life Project survey found, up from just 8 percent in 2005.

Social networking can be a harmless tool to connect with friends. For Internet addicts, however, it’s more, says Greg Hasek, executive director of the Misty Mountain Family Counseling Center in Tigard, Ore.

“It could be a way of building up self-esteem, feeling valued, finding a sense of identity,” says Hasek. “Addicts are trying to ease the feeling of loneliness. Ironically, though, social networking can cause more detachment from real relationships.”

Dr. Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery and author of Caught in the Net, points out that social networking can also be a dangerous temptation.

“If someone is spending more time on Facebook or MySpace than talking with a spouse or loved one, it can lead to relationship problems down the road,” Young says.

Research by the Fortino Group suggests that one-third of divorce litigation involves online affairs.

How do you know if your Internet use is excessive?

“If it causes a problem, it is a problem,” says Harris-Wilkes. “You know you’re involved in some type of addictive disorder when it becomes the central organizing factor of your life.”

“If it has a negative impact on relationships and spiritual life but you continue to do it, then what you’re doing has more power over you than you have over it,” Hasek says.

Young developed eight criteria to diagnose Internet addiction: 

• Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet (think about previous online activity or anticipate the next online session)?

• Do you feel the need to use the Internet for increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?

• Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop Internet use?

• Do you feel restless, moody, depressed or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use?

• Do you stay online longer than originally intended?

• Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?

• Have you lied to family members, a therapist or others to conceal the extent of your involvement with the Internet?

• Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression)?

Answering yes to five or more questions may mean a person suffers from Internet addiction, according to Young.

Internet addicts include college professors, pastors, businesspersons and stay-at-home parents. Hasek has found that many conservative Christian women fall into Internet addiction because they believe their emotional needs are unmet in their marriages. One study from the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery found that individuals who suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, social phobia and other compulsive disorders are more likely to develop Internet addiction.

Addiction of any kind also causes spiritual harm.

“When you feel guilty about your behavior, you’re going to withdraw from God because you know you shouldn’t be doing what you are doing, but you still do it,” says Hasek. “You’ll pull away from God.”

Those sensing their Internet use is becoming obsessive should try limiting the amount of time they spend online. Hasek recommends finding an accountability partner; not checking the phone all the time; and dropping the automatic messages to phone and e-mail every time a Facebook comment or tweet from Twitter is received.

Other ideas include:

• Set a timer when online.

• Keep a journal, noting feelings before logging on, how much time is spent online, and feelings afterward. It may reveal how dependence is growing on the Internet.

Install a Firefox add-on called MeeTimer for added self-awareness. It tracks how much time is spent on the Internet each week, and categorizes the sites visited.

Young’s advice is to aim for moderation.

“People need to find a balance between technology in general and other aspects of their lives,” Young says. “To use the Internet is one thing. To be consumed by it is another.”


JOCELYN GREEN is a frequent news contributor who lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

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