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There's a fine line between using the internet and being addicted. How do you recognize the red flags of an internet addiction, and what can you do to overcome compulsive internet use?

"Is internet addiction really a real thing?" many people ask themselves upon hearing the word, something that might well happen as they leisurely browse the internet while they should actually be doing something else, and inadvertently stumble upon an article just like this one. The answer is a resounding "you bet". Internet addiction is also known as computer addiction, online addiction, and Internet addiction disorder (IAD), and it is ruining many lives as we speak.

You probably remember the story about the Korean couple that was so addicted to caring for their virtual child online that their actual baby died from malnutrition. That case was shocking and almost literally unbelievable. Time spent on the internet doesn't have to reach that kind of epic level for you to have an addiction, though.

In fact, I'd venture to say that we all display signs of it at times: instead of working, doing the laundry, or answering that important email we're not quite sure how to word, we linger on Facebook just a little too long, browse the news, or play a quick game of something or another. Internet addiction isn't like an addiction to drugs, nicotine, or alcohol, things everyone knows are inherently bad for us. Internet addiction is more like binge eating. Everyone needs food, and binge eaters are no exception. They just don't know when to stop, or know but continue anyway.

The internet is an integral and in many cases essential part of modern life — in many cases, we depend on it for our income, banking, or communication with people who are important to us. An internet addiction occurs when using this wonderful modern medium gets out of hand. It's an impulse control disorder, basically. People may use the world wide web to escape a difficult and painful reality as well — something that may well have happened to the Korean couple mentioned above. Their baby was born prematurely. Were they perhaps suffering from PTSD, and used the internet as a particularly horrendous coping tool?

If you think you could be an internet addict, you may be able to take steps to bring your overgrown hobby under control by yourself, or you may need the help of friends and family, or perhaps even mental health professionals.

First, though, you'll need to assess the extent of your problem.

Internet Addiction: The Red Flags 

  • You are online a lot, and for a lot longer than you intend to be.
  • You feel guilt about the amount of time you spend online.
  • You often think about online activities when you're offline.
  • You neglect other tasks (work, school, your household, loved-ones) in order to spend time on the internet, and your internet use significantly and negatively impacts your day to day life.
  • Your time online is spent doing things you don't need to be doing: working, ebanking, or communicating meaningfully with relatives or friends who live far away doesn't count. We're talking about endless browsing on Facebook, Pinterest, and similar sites, and playing online games.
  • Attempts to wean yourself off the internet have repeatedly failed. 
  • You need more and more time online to satisfy your needs. 
  • Your internet use is escapism from reality. 

"Internet addiction" is not currently included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the tool mental health professionals use to make diagnoses. However, compulsive behaviors associated with it are certainly recognized as a problem. Specific activities include online gambling, obsessive gaming, compulsive online shopping, and internet pornography. "Simply" spending hours and hours engrossed in pointless online browsing can certainly prove to be addictive in nature, whether or not the DSM currently recognizes that, and psychologists can certainly work with people who are addicted to the internet.

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