Don’t Fall Into The Fountain

Some months ago, someone posted several short videos on Facebook. One video featured a young woman walking through a mall with a fountain. Walking along, she was so intent on looking at something on her phone, that she went right over the rim of the fountain, and took an unexpected swim. While this event seemed somewhat humorous at the time, it serves to illustrate how consumed and distracted we can be by our electronic devices. The problem of substance abuse and addiction has been acknowledged and researched for a long time, but what about the addictions involving behavior like gambling, viewing porn, or excessive Internet use? Is “addiction” too strong of a word to describe internet usage? Well, I challenge you to read on.

There has been a growing concern among mental health professionals for what is most commonly referred to as Internet Addiction Disorder or IAD. Research has been limited, but seems to be gaining momentum as the use of electronic devices and wide spread access to the internet have become the norm. As I began my own research of the topic, I suspected there were some similarities between substance abuse disorders and non-substance addictive behaviors. What I found were characteristics that were not only similar, but strikingly so.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the authoritative handbook used by mental health professionals for all manner of mental health disorders. It contains valuable information about symptoms and other criteria needed for diagnosing mental health and substance abuse disorders. Disorders range in severity from mild to severe depending on the number of symptoms, type of symptoms present and the level of impairment to a person’s functioning. Addictive behavior involves a compulsion to repeatedly engage in an activity in spite of the negative consequences that may occur because of it. Addictions typically develop because the particular substance or activity stimulates areas of the brain that release chemicals that produce positive feelings of well being, euphoria, etc.

See FALL, Page A7

From Page A6

There are a number of pleasure producing rewards stemming from Internet usage that put the user at risk for addiction. Like gambling, engaging in activities through the Internet can provide varied and unpredictable types of rewards that keep the user coming back for more. For example, the need for social connection and a sense of belonging can be rewarded through chat rooms, message boards, networking sites, interactive video games, texting, e-mail, etc. On-line porn can provide sexual stimulation. Surfing the net gratifies the curious and those seeking knowledge. Shoppers can view the world’s merchandise without leaving the comfort of home. Online gamers can escape reality and assume a fictitious persona while dating sites offer the potential for real-life romance.

As you can see, there are many reasons why use of the Internet is attractive to people. However, because of the perceived rewards of its use, there exists the very real potential for addiction. The DSM defines a substance abuse disorder as “a problematic pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress”. Reading the following criteria from the DSM with Internet use in mind instead of substance use can be enlightening. The substance is used in greater amounts and for longer periods of time than intended. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control the use. There exists a craving or a strong desire to use the substance. Use can result in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school or home. Use is continued despite the social or interpersonal problems it causes. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are reduced or given up because of use. Use occurs in situations that are hazardous and potentially put self and others at risk. Use continues despite recurrent physical or psychological problems caused by or exacerbated by the use. The DSM also mentions developing tolerance, which means increased usage, is needed over time to get the initial level of reward. Also, an abuse disorder typically involves symptoms of withdrawal when the use ceases or is greatly diminished.

To put all of this in practical terms, do you spend excessive amounts of time on the computer, smartphone, tablet, etc. at the expense of in-person interactions and have your relationships with your family, friends, and other important people suffered because of it? Have you delayed your bedtime or lost sleep because of Internet use? Have you put yourself, your passengers, and other travelers at risk because you were texting or engaging in other electronic activities while driving? Do you have problems focusing on or completing tasks on the job or at home? Do you feel panic when you are without your smartphone or the battery is dead? Have people complained or made comments to you about the time you spend on Internet activities? These are just a few indications of a possible Internet addiction.

If you have concerns about the level or risk potential of your usage, there are a number of ways to get it under control. In addition to making efforts to modify your own behaviors, there are resources online (of course) and support groups including Tech Addiction Anonymous and Online Gamers Anonymous. Cognitive behavioral therapy provided through a mental health professional can be beneficial. There are also a limited number of treatment centers that address Internet addiction. Abstinence is the usual goal for addiction treatment, but in today’s world, it is unrealistic for most people to cease all use of the Internet, but striving for balance in this and all areas of our lives is certainly a worthy goal.

The Internet opens up a world of possibilities that can be beneficial to our well being or detrimental to us, our loved ones, and those we come in contact with. Wisdom beckons us to be honest with ourselves and monitor our behaviors regarding our Internet use and other behaviors that have potential to become addictive.

Patrice Bohn LCSW-R is a mental health therapist at Family Service of the Chautauqua Region. If you think you are struggling with addiction, you may benefit from counseling services. Please contact us at 488-1971 to set up an appointment.