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“Virtual addiction” is a way to explain absorption in an alternative reality on the internet. Many people freely enjoy surfing, gaming, chat, or virtual reality sites. For some, though, use of the Internet seems to become compulsive. More and more hours are spent online. Social activities, family life, job and school responsibilities are neglected as use increases. Symptoms of withdrawal (e.g. increased irritability, restlessness) are often present if unable to access the Internet.
Q: How can it be an addiction?
We use four criteria, developed by Dr. Patrick Carnes, to describe the presence of an addiction:
1) A flawed coping mechanism — Internet use and gaming can become a way to escape from reality and avoid feelings and problems. It can be a form of self-medication: a way to ‘numb out’ or stimulate oneself. Virtual reality allows for a powerful fantasy existence completely separate from everyday life, where one can feel strong, effective and attractive.
2) A pattern of compulsive behavior — The brain’s pleasure center is accessed through many internet activities and powerful hormones are released, creating a ‘high’. The craving for these good feelings can lead to increased use of the internet, creating a powerful, positive feedback loop that is very difficult to break. Even as the consequences of increased internet use become more severe, the addict is unable to stop. Without help, efforts to stop or manage addictive behaviors usually fail.
3) A negative impact on functioning — A pattern of increasing isolation from others is one of the first signs of a growing addiction. As noted above, normal social activities decrease, responsibilities related to job or school are not met, and relationships suffer. Mood changes and angry acting out are also often reported. A further consequence for children and adolescents is that normal social development stops as addiction takes root.
4) A pattern of increasing use (also known as increased tolerance) — Simply put, one needs a greater amount or increased intensity of the online experience to achieve the same high. Virtual addicts will spend more time or seek more intense, risky activities online. Virtual behaviors have also been known to extend from online to real life acting out.
Q: What can I do?
At Aspen Counseling Services, we offer assessment and treatment services for compulsive online users and their families. If you are concerned about the possibility that you or someone you care about may be struggling with virtual addiction, please contact David for more information regarding assessment and treatment.
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