Internet addiction

Over the past two decades technology has made incredible advances.

Where it used to be rare for a person to have a home computer, now it is rare to find a home without at least one.

Once home computers became less expensive, more powerful and user friendly, the advent of the internet took things to a whole new level. Now anyone can access information on virtually any topic imaginable, shop from the comfort of home, play online games at any time of day or night, or build friendships in real time with people on different continents.

In addition to the many conveniences and positives of this new technology, we have long known about a darker side as well with new opportunities for criminal or simply obnoxious behaviour, bullying and more.

Internet addiction is the latest caution. Researchers have recently listed internet addiction as a new clinical disorder meriting inclusion in the psychiatric diagnostic manual. It seems this new condition is a growing problem around the world.

Similar to other addictions, internet addiction is a compulsive disorder involving both online and offline computer usage and it has been broken into three subtypes: excessive gaming, sexual preoccupations and email/text messaging.

All subtypes share four characteristics. These include: excessive use associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of other areas of life; withdrawal including feelings of anger, tension or depression when the computer is inaccessible; tolerance including the constant need for better computer equipment, more hours of use etc.; and negative consequences as a result of use including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation and fatigue.

Although a new area for research, some interesting studies on internet addiction have been published in South Korea, which considers this one of its most serious public health issues.

The average South Korean high school student spends about 23 hours a week gaming and there is an increasing number of people dropping out of school or quitting work to spend time on their computers.

Estimates from South Korea are that over two percent of children aged 6-19 experience some form of internet addiction with 80 percent of these in need of treatment and up to a quarter who require hospitalization as a result of their addiction.

Researchers believe an additional 1.2 million people are at risk for addiction and are in need of counselling. As a result, South Korea has trained over 1,000 counselors in the treatment of internet addiction and preventive measures are being introduced into schools.

Other countries in Asia are also concerned about this disorder. China believes more than 13 percent of adolescent internet users meet criteria for addiction and has instituted legislation discouraging more than three hours of daily game use.

No data has yet been published on prevalence rates in North America,but there is no reason to believe the same problems could not occur here. Unlike Asia where internet cafes are the norm for computer use, here people access the internet primarily from home making it more difficult to measure addiction rates.

All of this is made even more complicated by the high likelihood of coexisting disorders. Almost 90 percent of individuals with internet addiction also have at least one other psychiatric condition. Unless a therapist is specifically looking for internet addiction, it could be missed.

This will be an emerging topic in psychiatry as this condition is difficult to treat, involves significant risks, has a high relapse rate and makes other conditions less responsive to treatment.

If you think you or a loved one is using the internet excessively and may be addicted, speak to your doctor about resources to help.


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