Is the Internet Fueling Addictions?
BY SANDY FITZGERALD
(with interviewed content from Ross Rosenberg)
WED JUN 20, 2012
Have you ever gone online, intending just to check your e-mail, only to find you’re still logged on hours later?
Of course you have — we all have. But if you’re losing time because of a gambling or sex addiction, you’re not alone there either. With the advent of high-speed, always-on Internet, people suffering from addictions are finding that the innocent-looking computer sitting on a desk means instant gratification on an unprecedented scale.
And the advent of mobile devices, which more people now use to log online than traditional computers, makes it even easier to gamble, look at pornography, or do any sort of behavior that used to require far more effort, according to psychologists and addictions specialists.
Online gambling isn’t legal yet in the U.S., even though several states are considering legislation. However, people can still log on to overseas gambling sites and bet, and since an estimated 2 to 5 percent of Americans have a gambling addiction, millions of people can potentially be affected by online gaming.
Even more disturbing, while men often become addicted to interpersonal forms of gambling, such as blackjack and poker, women are particularly vulnerable to developing online addictions. Women could be at growing risk because impersonal forms of gambling, like slot machines, can be especially appealing and are easily suited to home computers, essentially replacing one machine with another.
Sex addicts are also particularly vulnerable to the siren song of online technology. Many feed their addictions through online pornography, random hookups through Craigslist, dating sites, and cybersex chatrooms. This changes the game because previously, a sex addict needed to leave his or her house to engage in risky behavior, but the Internet brings instant gratification — and mobile devices just mean a sex addict doesn’t have to wait to get home and log on.
But since the Internet isn’t going away, education about the woes of online addictions may be the best way to help people who can’t help themselves.
Is the Internet Itself Addictive?
Ross Rosenberg, an Arlington Heights, Ill.-based psychotherapist and certified addictions specialist and owner of Clinical Care Consultants, says it may and may not be.
Rosenberg compares the situation to people who have spending problems. The Internet can be highly addictive to them because of its array of spending opportunities. It isn’t the Internet itself, but how quickly it can provide stimulation to those that have a predisposition to addiction.
Dr. Michael Fenichel, a New York-based clinical and school psychologist who has closely studied and lectured on addictive behaviors, agrees that the Internet and social media are not inherently addictive, but provide “great temptations.”
“The Internet is a tool, used by people,” he said. “In and of itself it’s just wires, routers, servers, and software. In that sense it’s like a TV set or movie screen or even a syringe — it can be ‘addictive’ in a number of ways, from the ‘soap opera’ addict’s relationship to the TV set to the ‘movie junkie” to the telephone, wireless or not.”
He said the Internet is like a conduit and it’s really the person who chooses the behavior.
How is Mobile Technology Affecting Addicts?
Mobile technology allows people to always be online, whether at home or on the go, another factor leading to a constant bombardment of suggestions, say both Fenichel and Rosenberg.
“Having many options, and being ‘always on’, as most people are, according to Pew Research and other studies, leaves one exposed to suggestions, ads, and opportunities,” Fenichel said. “But it might be argued that temptations have always been around. Just not as portably or constantly.”
Rosenberg, meanwhile, says mobile technology is taking the addictions to the next level.
“As much as the Internet has been influential, all websites, whether Internet porn, or hook up sites, are now being designed around mobile technology,” said Rosenberg. 4G services means mobile devices have the same speed as PCs, and “you can take it with you.”
However, even though mobile apps are exploding, Rosenberg says sex addicts in his practice aren’t specifying where they’re viewing pornography — at home or on the go. But there is often a connection between the behavior and smartphones, causing families and marriages problems.
“One of the guys in my practice is a sex addict, and he needed two years of sobriety before his wife would give him permission to have an iPhone,” said Rosenberg.
But what the technology can damage, it can also help repair. According to Rosenberg, there are some apps that will help people control their addictions.
“In and of itself, it’s not going to stop you, but if you really want to quit, these will help keep you from going on the Internet,” he said. “If it helps the sex addict keep sober, it’s a positive experience, not a punitive one.”
Does Being Online Aggravate Certain Addictions?
Both specialists say any addictive personality can find themselves in too deep, both specialists agree.
“I think you’re right to include gambling and sex as ‘addictive’ online behaviors,” said Fenichel. “Now there are many other candidates for addictive behavior as well — though these can also be just ‘hobbies,’ or ‘creative outlets,’ I’m thinking here of things like Pinterest, DeviantArt, YouTube.”
“It’s been said that the Internet is the “crack cocaine of sex addiction,” said Rosenberg. “if you’re a sex addict, before you had to pay for escorts or go out to a bookstore. Now, everything is right there, any websites you want.”
Gambling addicts can feel the lure of the Internet very easily by simply setting up an account. No need to drive to a casino to find high-stakes gambling for those looking to hit the big one. “Access, ease,” noted Fenichel, “these are the obvious ways that some are drawn into regular (or ‘addictive’) activity which is constant. ”
Is Being Tech-Savvy Putting Teens in Danger?
Rosenberg said he is seeing several younger people with online addictions, especially gambling, in his practice.
“In one of our local high schools, kids were becoming addicted and the school was becoming concerned,” he said. “Whoever produces and engineers these sites understands what creates the addictions. It’s anywhere from the photos to the graphics, from the music to the flashing lights, which creates euphoric experiences that are highly pleasurable,” he said.
Rosenberg said teens are more typically addicted to gambling than sex addictions. “We’ve had several clients addicted to poker sites,” he said. “The parents have to get involved. These companies are offshore and skate by U.S. regulations, and if teens can get to it, they’ll find it.” He noted online poker sites are a particular problem with teenaged gambling addicts.
Feichel noted the “generational divides are truly breathtaking,” but he hasn’t read any studies indicating children are gambling at younger ages. “I think what’s missing is a discussion (when concerning younger children) is the importance of ‘mediation”, of guidance and limits from the parent,” he said.
How Far is Too Far?
It’s one thing to play some online games or look at a few adult websites, but eventually, users may wonder if they’ve crossed a line.
So, how do you know if your recreational Internet use is a sign of something darker Fenichel suggests people ask themselves the following:
1. Is this behavior pattern demonstrably doing harm to others aspects of life: home/work, social relations, f2f life?
2. Is this person aware of the impact, as others see it, and if so, is s/he motivated to change it? What is the nature of the ‘addiction’, and what if any treatments or self-help tools have been tried?
3. How does the person who is “caught up” in some self-harming cycle experience it? What type of help is available (locally) which would be competent, on-target, and accepted?
“If you find yourself thinking about going online to check out porn, going to a hookup site, going to a dating site, whatever your drug of choice, it’s preoccupation,” said Rosenberg. “If you’ve got an excessive use of time, find yourself using your Internet device more than you expected, there may be a problem.”
Rosenberg says if the activity causes the loss of relationships, limits personal or family relationships, is causing work problems or loss of employment, since many companies are very particular of Internet use, then it is crossing the line.
Are You Caught in the Web?
The Internet can actually help a small portion of people who have problems, said Rosenberg, but overall, it is more harmful than helpful. There are online 12-step groups, and Facebook itself has more than 100 support groups to help with addictions. Being online provides immediate support and communication, and may actually help people, particularly if they have physical limitations that can keep them from leaving the house to seek help.”
Turning to a qualified specialist is usually the better option, both experts agree.
“There are specialists in addiction, and substance use, and psychology, like the Center for Online Addiction offers, and there are marriage and family counselors who specialize in sorting out relationship problems involving online behavior,” said Fenichel. “There are pro-active parents and teachers, and pediatricians too (if a serious problem like sleep deprivation is noticed).”
“Only a smaller portion of therapists are trained in this kind of addictions,” Rosenberg added. “Just because a therapist has a background in alcohol and drug addictions, they may not be trained in this because it’s a newer field.”
“By all means, speak to someone you trust,” Fenichel said. “Satisfy yourself that what you think about the extent of your ‘addiction’ is consistent with what others you trust think. While you’re aware and motivated, seek a solution! ”
Can the Cycle be Broken?
Addicts will always have a problem, but the cycle can be broken, said Fenichel, by replacing some self-harming behaviors with new, productive ones, or by freeing up time and space for healthy behaviors and integrating them into your online/offline life.
Rosenberg, though, said, “With the advent of mobile technology, the Internet-based addictions are becoming a very big problem,” and people who think a family member is addicted should try to set them up for an evaluation by a qualified addictions practitioner to determine what kind of intervention is needed.
“Research has long shown that most people in distress will turn first to family or spouse, to clergy or trusted teacher, friends, and (lastly) seek professional help. Some worry about stigma or what others will think or how much stress will be involved,” said Fenichel. “By all means, speak to someone you trust. Satisfy yourself that what you think about the extent of your ‘addiction’ is consistent with what others you trust think. While you’re aware and motivated, seek a solution.”