Emotionally Wired and Addicted to the Computer

by Garth Mintun, LCSW, ACSW, CSW-G

There has been an awareness of a sharp increase in addictive behaviors to computers, as well as Blackberries, iPhones, etc., in our psychotherapy practice in Indianapolis. Many young adults, older adults and children are wired in and don’t know how to quit. Because of this, some people are jeopardizing their relationships, losing their friends, losing their jobs, and/or flunking out of school. There is an increase in sedentary lifestyle, and the sacrifice includes physical health as well as emotional wellbeing.

We have see couples coming in for marital and relationship counseling because of the significant time a partner is spending (upwards of 17-20 hours per day) playing on the internet. The internet games and interactions (role play games) have begun to replace the real life relationships. Partners and family members are feeling ignored, sacrificed, and replaced. The wired person is so into his/her virtual role that sometimes they struggle to distinguish the line between their real world self and the roles they play (which may include changing one’s age, gender switches, animals or fantasy creatures, etc.) on their internet virtual world. Family members complain that an addicted person spends more time with their fantasy relationships than connected to life with the people in their household. In the absence of contact, some partners have resorted to join them in their virtual world as a means of having a relationship.

It is not uncommon for relationships to be broken and couples to separate over the loss of communication, contact, and engagement from the one who is plugged into the computer.

Internet games are not the only way people are wired to their computers. With the convenience of palm computers and/or laptops, work has now become a 24/7 phenomena. Families now have to compete with work and online entertainment in order to have any engaging interaction with their loved one. This behavior condones and promotes work addiction. The Blackberry and iPhone light up for each email, enticing and compelling a response to work when at home, on vacations, or in other spare time. The poor economy exacerbates this when employees are stretched thin and there are plenty of competent unemployed folks who are ready to replace them.

With easy access to technology, Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging, text messaging, ebay, social networking, gambling, and dating sites, one can become compulsive and ultimately addictive, much like drugs and alcohol. An individual may have a full blown addiction and might need an inpatient hospital treatment due to the decline of one’s health and family relationships. In these cases, an individual may be literally in danger of harming themselves due to their compulsion with the computer.

Like food addiction, we cannot give up computers or the internet. We need to be wired to live in this modern world; technology is not the problem. However, like food, we need to moderate our use or we become a slave to it. We can overdo anything, even healthy foods, and/or technological applications. It becomes a compulsion or an addiction when we cannot stop it and/or when we have knowledge of its destructive influence in our life and our family.

In the USA, computer addiction is not acknowledged as an addiction or illness. Other countries, such as China, Taiwan and South Korea, take computer addiction as a serious mental health problem. Internet addiction is becoming more recognized in this country. For example, there is a residential program in a suburb of Seattle, Washington (Fall City) which treats individuals addicted to the internet. Hilary Cash, Executive Director for RESTART Center for Internet Addiction, states that three of the following symptoms suggest abuse and five or more suggest addiction:

Increasing amounts of time on the internet
Failed attempts to control behavior
Heightened euphoria while on Internet
Craving more time on Internet; restless when not there
Neglecting family and friends
Lying to others about use
Internet interfering with jobs and school
Feeling guilty or ashamed of behavior
Changes in sleep patterns
Weight changes, backaches, headaches, carpal tunnel
Withdrawal from other activities.

Psychotherapy /counseling help people and families recognize and heal from the fall out caused by “wired in” behaviors. Self awareness, recognition of the patterns, and the use of human supports to help break the compulsive pattern are necessary components of individual psychotherapy. There are also many kinds of support groups ranging from 12-step programs to Smart Recovery programs designed to help regain balance in a person’s life. If the person is in the early stages of neglecting self and the family, often an intervention in therapy to recognize the destructive nature of the compulsion and limit the amount of time on the computer per day can help. Repair of the broken relationships is also needed in the early stages of therapy, which requires finding alternate ways of coping with stress.

The computer and the internet are wonderful in moderation. We all need balance in our lives, and we can achieve that balance if we ask for help from our families and mental health counselor/psychotherapist. We all need other people, and in our “real time” relationships we can experience love and belonging.