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1. What is Internet Addiction?
Internet addiction is a behavioral disorder where the user compulsively and excessively engages in one or more of the following activities:
- Posting or reading content on social media
- Playing video or computer games (Note: “Gaming addiction” is a closely related disorder that we consider as a “sub-category” of Internet addiction)
- Web surfing
- Watching pornography
- Shopping online
- Using streaming services (like Twitch.TV)
Internet addiction eventually causes deterioration in personal relationships, academic or work performance, physical health, and quality of life. Internet addiction most frequently surfaces among adolescents and young adults.
2. Is “Internet Addiction” officially recognized in the United States?
No. In the most recently Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM-V, 2013) for psychiatry, “Internet Gaming Disorder” (the most relevant term) is categorized as a condition requiring “further study.” However, growing numbers of mental health professionals acknowledge the existence of the disorder and have developed their own treatment or therapy programs to combat Internet Addiction.
Two countries, China and South Korea, officially acknowledge the disorder and estimate that about ~10% of their adolescent and young adult population have the disorder.
Due to cultural differences and expectations, we believe the percentage of adolescents and young adults who have Internet addiction in North America is somewhat lower than their estimated 10%.
3. Why is Internet Addiction not officially recognized in the US?
The diagnostic criteria are not yet refined to the extent that mental health professionals can make an accurate determination with certainty. Estimates of addiction rates vary dramatically; a study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse from 2010 estimates that 1.5 to 8.2 percent of the overall population in North America and Europe have Internet Addiction Disorder.
Comorbidity, or the simultaneous existence of two or more disorders or mental conditions, further complicates the process. For example, many people who have Internet Addiction suffer from other problems such as depression and social anxiety.
Some mental health professionals believe that Internet Addiction is merely a subset of other problems such as depression, although that is not our position or belief.
4. How do I know if one of my family members has Internet addiction?
Internet Addiction tests (such as this one) can be found all over the Internet.
Some therapists and counselors provide Internet addiction screening in an informal manner, by asking a series of questions. However, these questionnaires are not rigorous nor standardized for the reason listed in Question #2.
Due to the shortcomings of existing tests, we’ve developed our own Internet Addiction Risk Assessment (you can access it here). Our test accounts for relevant risk factors such as the Internet user’s social environment, family relationships, and additional factors that other tests often omit.
A quick proxy (and “rule of thumb”) is to note the amount of recreational time spent daily on the Internet or gaming.
Our “loose” rules:
- 0 – 4 hours: Unlikely, although beyond 2 hours is considered “excessive”
- 4 – 6 hours: Somewhat likely to be addicted
- 6 – 8 hours: Likely to be addicted
- 8+ hours: Highly likely to be addicted
Keep in mind that this applies only to “recreational” (not work/school) Internet use.
This “time spent” rule is imperfect for the following reasons:
- Separating work from leisure time spent can be difficult. Adolescents and young adults can claim that they are using the Internet for work or school, but in reality, a lot of the time is wasted on YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, or whatever. Most people also use the Internet on and off, which makes tracking the precise amount of time an arduous task.
- Addiction is a separate problem from “excessive use.” The average teenager spends more than 7 hours a day online (keep in mind this survey was from 2010), but obviously, most of them are not addicted. Addiction describes a situation when the user develops a pathological relationship with the activity and relies on compulsive use to cope with problems.
5. What causes addiction?
Internet addiction is very much like other behavioral addictions (sex addiction, gambling addiction, etc.) in that there are 4 primary factors involved:
(Personal Circumstances) + (Social Environment) + (Triggers) + (Exposure to Substance/Captive Behavior)
Personal circumstances denote the individual’s current social status, previous traumatic experiences, and psychological state.
Social environment describes the quality and strength of the individual’s network. Participation and engagement in social activities and stable relationships decrease the likelihood of addiction.
Triggers are emotional cues that create a feedback cycle that fuels addictive behaviors. Common triggers include loneliness, nostalgia, dread, and anxiety.
Exposure to the substance or captive behavior is what enables the addiction to continue.
Substances commonly used by addicted individuals include alcohol, drugs, and nicotine-spiked cigarettes.
Pathological behaviors to relieve psychological pain include compulsive gambling, sex, overeating, and exercise.
The most common mistake (especially among parents) is to focus exclusively on the fourth factor: exposure to the substance or captive behavior. For Internet addiction, this can mean revoking Internet or PC access. While this is a “short-term” solution, it does not resolve the underlying problems (#1 and #2) that cause the addiction.
6. What is a “digital detox?”
Digital detox is removing all Internet and gaming devices (PCs, consoles, smartphones, etc.) from the addicted individual’s access, except for instances where Internet use is absolutely mandatory (i.e. to finish research on a term paper assignment). A typical detox should last between 30 and 90 days to be effective.
The purpose of a detox is to reset the user’s brain and provide the much-needed downtime to adjust to a new lifestyle and pick up new hobbies. Other benefits of a digital detox include better sleep quality, higher levels of focus, and less likelihood of feeling depressed or anxious.
7. How do mental health professionals treat Internet addiction?
There is no particular, designated solution that works for everyone. Some may suggest CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), while others will point their patients to group therapy or psychodynamic therapy. “Tech rehab” is also an option…albeit an expensive one.
Every approach has its merits as well as downsides. For example, group therapy will allow you to associate with others who also have the same problem, giving you the sense that you’re “not alone.” The downside is that it is often far more beneficial to mingle with “normal” (non-addicted) people if you really want to make changes in your life.
Likewise, CBT raises an individual’s mood, but the jury is still out on whether long-term benefits are real or transient. Some critics have described CBT as a “revolving door” where the patient eventually returns for more therapy sessions after the positive effects “wear off” due to the fact that the underlying problem is never truly solved.
Tech rehab is very expensive and generally costs $10,000 to $25,000 for 30 to 45 days. We dedicate a section on “tech rehab” on our FAQ page.
8. How long does it take to recover from Internet addiction?
This depends on 2 factors: the willingness of the participant to make sacrifices to achieve long-term gains, and the ambitiousness of the goals.
Willingness to change is beyond a doubt the #1 factor.
If the individual does not have a strong enough incentive to overcome addiction, then addiction will dormant and never truly “go away.”
The second factor is how ambitious the goals are. Suppose a compulsive gamer wants to go from 8 hours/day down to 2 hours/day. This is a perfectly reasonable goal that could be achieved within 3-6 months. On the other hand, some opt to go “cold turkey,” which will take much longer and is likely to lead to several “relapse” episodes since change comes incrementally, not suddenly.
Change is very difficult in general because humans despise change. However, the inertia to change can be overcome with the right mindset, skills, and practice.
Internet addiction is unique compared to other types of addictions because the Internet is everywhere. It is almost impossible to abstain from Internet use indefinitely, which isn’t the same case for drugs and cigarettes. Therefore, moderation is the only practical solution.
9. Is addiction purely a “mental health” problem?
The common narrative favors the idea that addiction needs to be dealt with using therapy or counseling. However, it’s worth re-examining this premise and why perhaps an alternative framework is appropriate.
Is addiction perhaps caused by genetic defects (a common argument by advocates of “alcohol rehab”)? Or a malfunctioning nervous system where the user is no longer able to engage with reality?
Eating junk food compulsively can definitely be described as an “addiction.” In the midst of their crises, junk food addicts claim that they have no control over their actions.
However, you undoubtedly know (or at least have heard of) those who have lost more than 100 pounds over the span of several months by exercising regularly and cutting down on sugar, carbs, and fat. Basic, common sense action plans yield desirable results.
And for the record, most of these people do not see a therapist or counselor!
Rather, they craft an exercise and diet plan on their own (or with the help of friends or family) or talk with a personal trainer/nutritionist – someone who actually has specific expertise in their problem area (weight loss).
The most commonly used solutions for weight loss are not “medically related,” in that they don’t require hospitalization, medication, talk therapy, or any other “interventions,” yet they are also the most commonly (and successfully) used!
Now let’s assume addiction stems from personal problems. If addiction comes from personal problems, then we must conclude that the individual must be lacking in some area of life.
For instance, college students are especially prone to Internet addiction because they lack the right vision (and consequently, motivation) of what they will do upon graduation. Alternatively, they might not feel that they “socially fit in” with the crowd at their school. Or they think their financial future is bleak and feel helpless. These can all contribute to Internet addiction due to the need to “escape” from harsh truths.
Our job is not to convince you that therapy or counseling is wrong. That’s ultimately up to you to decide.
Consider the possibility that an approach to solving an individual’s problems is the strongest antidote to addiction. If the aforementioned problems go away, why would someone spend 8+ hours a day on social media or gaming? They wouldn’t.
10. What is the True Digital Detox philosophy?
True Digital Detox believes that “positive thinking” is not a substitute for “positive actions.” To effect results in the “real world,” you must take action. Action can only be taken once the person is committed and convinced (without coercion) that what they do is in their best self-interest.
Ultimately, Internet addiction is an outgrowth of the individual’s inability to deal with seemingly intractable problems in life. Here are some common problems we’ve encountered among the adolescent and young adult crowd:
- Not seeing the purpose of going to school or work
- Not having an adequate or supportive social network
- Not being able to communicate or negotiate with others effectively
- Not having the self-esteem and “belief in oneself” to stay the course
- Very high parental pressures/expectations
- Lacking the experience to make good decisions consistently
- Underestimating (or not accounting for) the effect of physical health on mental health (eating the right foods, staying hydrated, and exercising)
- Personal values that are not well aligned with “social values” (like making lots of money)
These problems are rather common. They more often than not result from poor social conditioning and environments that are hostile to their “personal values.”
Our program, based on “life skills” consulting, deals with the following:
- Over 40 reading and action assignments. The assignments will supplement our normal consulting sessions and present a “high level” overview of what is necessary for their future days.
- Specific advice and planning in several areas: employment and career, communication skills, changing one’s mindset and values, finding the right social groups, learning how to deal with “failure,” time management, etc.
- Special requests – We answer any questions (as long as they are relevant to Internet addiction recovery) the participant and/or the family might have.
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Contact us if you have any questions or if you would like to get started!