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Addiction and the Internet

By John Andersen

Internet Addiction

The internet has become an ubiquitous fact of life. Commerce depends upon it. Everyday life is increasingly becoming dependent upon internet access. And the internet has brought with it new forms of addiction.

There are five different forms of internet addiction:

(a) cybersexual addiction involving a compulsive use of websites for viewing pornography or doing cybersex with others,

(b) cyber-relationships addiction where a person engages in on-line relationships at the expense of person-to-person relationships,

(c) internet compulsions, such as compulsive online gambling, shopping, etc.,

(d) information overload, compulsive surfing of the web for news sites, database searching information gathering with no actual purpose in view,

(e) computer game playing addiction, obsessive preoccupation and excessive playing of computer games at the expense of other activities, such as school, work, social relationships.

What are common signs that a person may be developing an internet addiction? Excessive computer use and preoccupation, mood swings, increased isolation and social disengagement, decreased socializing, lack of routine and erratic sleep patterns, irritability and anger in response to stopping computer usage, becoming detached and emotionally absent, cognitive inattentiveness, neglecting responsibilities, social relationships, absenteeism, school truancy, and persisting in excessive computer usage despite significant negative consequences, such as loss of important relationships, academic failure, loss of job. Two common forms of internet addiction are internet gaming disorder and internet sexual addiction.

Internet Gaming Disorder

Young males in adolescents and twenties are the most vulnerable group to developing an internet gaming disorder. This problem is characterized by excessive online computer game playing to the neglect of real-life social relationships, schooling, employment and other areas of life. Because of the 24 hour availability of online games, this can lead to loss of regular routines in eating, sleeping and exercise. The neglect of other aspects of life leads to a shrinking of the person’s world, failure and social isolation, which in turn leads to depression, social anxiety, and low self-esteem. These negative impacts generate a vicious cycle where a person becomes more focused on online gaming as a means of feeling good and distraction, which only increases the cycle of neglect avoidance and ensuing depression.

Maximal Multiplayer online Role-Playing games (MMORPG) are the most addictive genre of internet game. These games feature players developing online characters that accomplish missions and do combat in the virtual world of the game, either individually or as members of teams. The features that make MMORPG so addictive are: (1) scope for achievement through advancing in levels with greater status and power, (2) socializing through on-line relationships with other gamers, which lead to the development of virtual social networks that compete with and compensate for actual social relationships, (3) escapism and mood alteration through the neurological impact of immersion in the game.

The neurological impact of online computer game playing is the release of dopamine, which activates the reward system of the brain. Excessive stimulation through online computer game playing can modify the reward system pathways so they become cued or sensitized to the stimulus of online computer games. In addition, a person becomes desensitized to other forms of pleasure, so they become boring and uninteresting. This focused cueing of the reward system on online computer gaming is what makes excessive gaming addictive. Addiction occurs when the gamer becomes dependent upon the online gaming for the release of dopamine. This leads to increasing tolerance on the one hand, that is reflected in a tendency to increase the time devoted to gaming. On the other hand, ceasing gaming can result in depression as a result of the drop in dopamine levels. In this was excessive internet gaming can literally become addictive, with the “drug” of choice the natural neurotransmitter dopamine.

Internet Sexual Addiction

Another increasingly prevalent form of internet addiction is internet sexual addiction. Internet sexual addiction is a form of technological addiction that occurs from excessive engagement with computers for the purpose of sexual stimulation at the expense of other activities and interests. The two most common forms of internet sexual addiction are internet pornography and cybersex. There is a gender difference with a 50/50 split among men between internet pornography and cybersex, whereas women become predominantly addicted to cybersex, with only 23% becoming addicted to pornography.

The core components of such a sexual addiction are: salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse. Salience refers to when the internet sex becomes the most important activity in a person’s life. An addicted person becomes preoccupies with it, experiences cravings for it, and increasingly reliant upon it to feel good. Addicts experience tolerance such that they need more and more excessive sexual experiences to get the same pleasant satisfaction. They can suffer withdrawal from ceasing their internet sexual behaviour in the form of irritability and depression. Like other sexual addictions, increased preoccupation and time devoted to internet sexual behaviour eventually has a detrimental impact upon their life through the neglect of relationships, work and other responsibilities, leading to conflict with others, increased failure. These negative social impacts increase a sense of loneliness, failure and guilt, which in turn, drives the vicious cycle of resorting to internet sex for distraction and a momentary “high”. This makes internet sexual addiction a hard habit to break, so relapses into the pattern are common under stress or negative mood states.

There are three factors that make the internet such an attractive medium for sexual addictive behaviour: accessibility, affordability, anonymity. The internet has unparalleled private accessibility especially with the extension of WIFI to mobile phones. It is affordable, especially with the many free websites that are available for a wide range of sexual activities. It is unparalleled in anonymity, which gives a person a sense of control over preserving privacy and severing contact. The anonymity gives a sense that one can engage in any sexual fantasy without necessarily getting caught.

The warning signs of internet sexual addiction include: (1) excessive amounts of time on internet chatrooms and e-mailing for the purpose of finding cybersex, preoccupation and anticipation with online sexual activity when away from the computer, a preference for online sexual relationships where sexual fantasies can be acted out over actual personal sexual relationships, moving from cybersex to phone sex to sexual liaisons with online sexual partners, masturbating while online, hiding online activity from others, feeling guilt and shame about online sexual activity, less investment with relationship with one’s sexual partner and a preference for cybersex as the primary form of sexual gratification.

Usually people who are vulnerable to developing an internet sexual addiction suffer from emotional problems, such as low self-esteem, insecurity and lack of confidence in intimate relationships, fear of rejection, deep sense of shame, inadequacy and emotional pain, or a sense of despair and negativity about one’s life. With all these situations, internet sex becomes a means of distraction, escape and pleasure.

Internet sex is conducive to addiction because it allows dissociation of the sexual activity from other areas of life, it is kept in a private secret separate anonymous compartment, so it is easier to dissociate it from one’s personal values, self-image, and accountability to other people in one’s life. It allows for a compartmentalized impersonal detached sexual outlet with a minimum of personal accountability for one’s sexual behaviour. It also becomes addictive when it is utilized as a means of emotional self-regulation. When it is used as a means of emotional self-regulation, it is much more likely to become an out-of-control addiction.

Conclusion

Both internet gaming and sexual addiction can be very difficult to break for two reasons. First is the ready availability and privacy of internet. Second, is the neurological dependence upon the addictive behaviour for releasing dopamine to activate the reward system. This is why professional help is often needed to help a person break out of an entrenched online gaming cycle, or to break the pattern of internet sexual addiction.

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