Monday, July 2, 2007

How Bad is Your Online Habit?

Communicating with someone is tough if you're shy or not feeling too good. The internet is much easier. You can chat online without worrying about how you look, how your voice sounds or how to maintain eye contact. It isn't threatening. You are anonymous in a chat room, just as you are on MySpace, Facebook and Bebo. Or you can lose yourself in an online game.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that just a few hours on the internet each week can increase a persons experience of depression and loneliness. This seems far-fetched, since the internet is such a sociable place. So are the researchers' conclusions correct?

Initially the researchers found a drop in time spent interacting with family and friends, in direct proportion to the amount of time spent on the internet. That much is intuitively obvious. But relationships built via the internet are typically more shallow than face-to-face relationships, and they do not have the support and reciprocity that is vital for psychological security and happiness. So the result is a decline in the feeling of being connected with other people.

Another study, published in April this year, concludes that Internet addiction is correlated with symptoms of depressive disorders. This begs the question of which comes first: depression or heavy internet use? Is using the internet a coping strategy for depression or an explanation or part explanation for its cause? Some research concludes that heavy internet use is causal. Other studies don't go so far, but still find the same correlation between being online and depression. Of course a person's activities on the internet will explain variations away from the norm. Someone who frequents gambling sites is more susceptible than someone using the internet for research.

If you use the internet a lot, here are some questions to ask yourself:

* when you are offline do you think about getting back online?

* do you often stay online longer than you intended or said you would?

* does the Internet provide relief or help you to escape from your depression?

* does your online habit put strain on a significant relationship, your job or other important area of your life?

* have you lied to your partner, family, therapist or others to conceal the amount of time you spend on the internet?

One researcher describes the hook of an addiction as giving you "feelings and gratifying sensations that you are not able to get in other ways. It may block out sensations of pain, uncertainty or discomfort. It may create powerfully distracting sensations that focus and absorb attention. It may enable a person to forget or feel "okay" about some insurmountable problems. It may provide an artificial, temporary feeling of security or calm, of self-worth or accomplishment, of power and control, or intimacy or belonging."*** It's understandable that people come back for more. They enjoy the benefit that addiction brings, no matter how temporary it is or that the problem worsens in the long-run.

If this describes you then you need to cut your internet hours right back and seek some professional help. Quite seriously. Internet addiction is similar to other addictions with respect to the potential for damage. In the last few years the problem has been labeled "Internet Addiction Disorder", and while many clinicians aren't on board with the term, there is consensus that excessive online activity can be terrible for your mental well-being.

For the Record

In March 2005 the Chinese government opened a clinic for Internet addicts, to treat the effects of long hours on gaming and chat sites. They reported the effects to be anxiety, depression, and lack of sleep. Treatments have included total internet bans, counseling, physical activity, antidepressants, and enforcement of strict, regular sleep times.

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