Does internet addiction warrant full-fledged in-patient rehab— or are there better ways to manage your Angry Birds and email-checking obsessions?
America’s first hospital-based “internet addiction” rehab program opened over Labor Day weekend at Bradford Regional Medical Center in Pennsylvania, and while that debut highlights the pervasiveness of the net in our everyday lives, experts are still debating whether the lure of social media or online gaming actually constitutes addiction. The latest version of psychiatry’s diagnostic manual, the DSM 5, failed to include internet addiction as a disorder, although it did acknowledge that it deserved additional study for potential inclusion.
While it’s not clear whether excessive internet use actually is an addiction — one that prompts compulsive behavior in spite of its severe negative consequences— what is becoming more obvious to experts is the fact that addictions of any kind aren’t helped much by inpatient treatment, except in the most life-threatening cases. And for the most part, the pull of the internet doesn’t qualify for such measures. Who hasn’t stopped a conversation cold to respond to a text, or ignored friends to scroll through their Twitter feed? That may not require a stay in the hospital, but could benefit from these tips from addiction experts who help people moderate addictive behavior.
What’s your weakness — email, gaming or Facebook?
Nearly everyone uses the internet, so to start, figure out the types of technology and the activities that are the most problematic for you. “Really analyze what components of your technology use are tied to the functional part of your life and which ones are you incorporating as either coping skills or are so habitual that they don’t play much role other than habit,” says Adi Jaffe, executor director of Alternatives Addiction Treatment, a private treatment center that offers moderation-based approaches to treat all types of addictions. Try to be objective about whether online activities are getting out of hand— if they take disproportional precedence over work, friends and family, for example — and examine when this occurs most frequently.
Once you’ve discovered that your problem is mainly late nights of Candy Crush, incessant email checking whenever you have a free minute or early afternoon cat-video surfing, set specific goals to change your patterns. And track your progress in achieving those goals, says Reid Hester, director of the research division of Behavior Therapy Associates and the developer of Moderatedrinking.com.
“My initial recommendation is to build specific tech-free times or zones [into your life] that will become your new habits,” Jaffe says. But, he warns, it won’t be easy: “It’s going to cause some discomfort early on.”
Make small changes
Hester suggests setting small, achievable goals to start. “If, for instance, your goal is not to check email on weekends, then write down on your calendar every weekend day you did not check it. Maybe on Sunday even give yourself a reward for making it through.”
Another option is setting a timer for a certain period of internet-free focus— and then closing your browser and removing all auditory or visual signals of new mail. Mac users can use a program called Freedom that actually limits access to the web for a specific period of time. Once you can achieve short breaks, longer ones get easier
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Find out the real reasons you stay online too much
Ultimately, to effectively reduce addictive behavior, you need to know what function it serves for you. Sarah Bowen, acting assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington who studies mindfulness techniques to fight addictions, says, “From mindfulness, we learn that a lot of time we’ll reach for something because we are not satisfied with what’s going on in this moment. It’s not good enough, not interesting enough or not comfortable.” Many people, she says, compulsively check email because it provides “a sort of reinforcement that you’re getting some attention.”
To counter this behavior, watch yourself when you engage with the net or with your phone. “First, just notice, ‘I’m reaching for the phone.’ Maybe pause right there. Even if you still end up going toward it, any pausing and recognizing that urge and asking ‘What is it that I really want right now?’ [will help].. You need to recognize the automatic behavior and then be wiling to sit with it for a minute,” Bowen says.
Such stock-taking will allow you to figure out why you pick up your phone during family dinners or stay online long after you’ve told your husband you are coming to bed. Once you know what you are seeking or avoiding, you can figure out better ways of achieving those goals— and that will increase your ability to control over your behavior.
Don’t punish yourself
You might relapse —it happens virtually any time you try to change long-standing behaviors— but don’t beat yourself up. Instead, encourage yourself when you make incremental progress. “You’re better off rewarding yourself for making progress than kicking yourself for not being perfect,” says Hester.
Unlike alcoholics or heroin addicts, people with internet addictions don’t usually have the option of “just saying no” and avoiding people, places and things that can trigger thoughts of relapse; the web is everywhere, after all. And moderation is actually often harder to achieve than abstinence— because it involves frequent exposure to the addictive activity. But, says Jaffe, treating each relapse and recovery as a success can build up to a stronger ability to cope with the temptation to indulge in potentially disruptive internet use. “My stance is that [relapses are] going to happen. Don’t focus on relapse as an indication of failure,” he says.