Understanding Online Addiction

Local professionals explain the causes and treatments for the epidemic.


It’s not yet an officially recognized diagnosis, but for those who find themselves permanently tethered to their digital screens, internet addiction disorder is all too real. And sometimes personally or professionally devastating.

Dr. Beth Johnson, clinical therapist at Lakefront Wellness Center in Oconomowoc, says the American Psychological Association is debating about how best to classify internet addiction. Complicating the issue is that most people need to use the internet daily for work or school, but, she says, “I think that common sense tells us when an internet behavior is out of control. Of course, when you’re seeing it at an extreme level, there’s absolutely no question that it’s an addiction.”

Symptoms are similar to those of other addictions and may include neglecting relationships and activities, Johnson says. Often, the person’s main source of enjoyment is tied to online gaming or internet use, and they may get hostile or even violent when restricted from using digital technology.

Johnson says one of the most extreme cases she has come across involved a high-functioning, college-educated adult whose internet addiction resulted in severe deterioration, “to the point where the person never left their room, didn’t shower for months, didn’t remove garbage, was suffering from malnutrition and lost all contact with the outside world.”

Dr. Byron Bloemer of Cedar Creek Counseling in Mequon and Germantown says there are four basic types of internet addiction:

- Sexual, involving an addiction to online pornography
- Relational, in which people become overly involved with online relationships to the extent of neglecting their “live” relationships
- Compulsions such as gambling, gaming, shopping or bidding on sites like eBay
- Information overload, where internet users are addicted to consuming information and constantly sharing their opinions online

When a person’s “go-to” excitement is experienced online, everyday life becomes boring in contrast, Bloemer notes, “so then their brain is actually trying to seek the chemical high that comes from being online to avoid normal life that requires harder work to have those exciting moments.”

Online Addiction:
Recognizing the Signs
People with depression or anxiety may use the internet excessively as an unhealthy coping strategy, says Amanda Eskola, MSW, LCSW, CSAC, CS-IT, a behavioral health therapist at Ascension St. Francis. Sometimes, she adds, internet addiction can actually lead to or worsen the disorders. Eskola says signs of an addiction include:

  • Unsuccessful efforts to cut down on use
  • The sense of a loss of control
  • Preoccupation with the addiction, thinking about it and spending a lot of time planning usage
  • Agitation or irritability when digital device time is limited
  • Needing to use the internet more and more to achieve a level of satisfaction that feels “normal”
  • Loss of relationships, jobs and educational opportunities
  • Continued excessive usage despite issues with family, work or school
  • Living in a fantasy world versus the real world
  • Lying about time spent on the internet

Estimates of the prevalence of internet addictions vary widely, from a rate of .03 percent of the population up to a whopping 38 percent, according to a 2012 report published by the National Institutes of Health.

“When clients come in to see us, about 10 percent, I would say, have some level of this,” Bloemer says.

Internet addiction, however, is not often the initial issue causing a client to seek help. Depression and anxiety are often the primary complaint, and clients may not immediately tell the therapist about excessive internet use because they feel embarrassed or ashamed. “But they don’t always know,” Bloemer says. “They need to be aware that what they’ve slowly slipped into has become a problem.”

Treatment, says Johnson, is similar to treating addictions like gambling, drugs and alcohol, and may involve medication, psychotherapy and family therapy. The key is to determine how the person became vulnerable to the addiction in the first place and to find out what that addiction is replacing in his or her daily life. A goal is to help the client become more social again, as well as adding structure to his or her day and limiting access to the internet wherever possible.

Bloemer says one approach his therapists use to treat internet addiction is to help the client see how their behavior fits into the definition of addiction, because “it helps them see that they have a disorder.” Next, the therapist helps the client see the risks they are taking and how their behavior is affecting their family, children and jobs.

“Maybe at work they’re looking at pornography or they may be socially connecting with other people or shopping — and they might be doing that even though they know their boss is monitoring them, but they can’t stop themselves,” Bloemer says.

Finally, Bloemer encourages clients to begin to slowly reconnect with real-life activities, such as doing household chores, exercising or participating in a creative project, so they can realize that experiences other than internet usage can be satisfying.

Johnson says parents can help prevent children and teens from overuse of the internet by limiting screen time, not accepting technology as gifts for their children from relatives and friends, “and, of course, not using the phone or iPad as a babysitter or pacifier. This doesn’t allow children to develop self-regulation skills, learn to be patient, to be bored, and learn to wait.” Children need to observe the environment, look up, and have face-to-face conversations with others, she says.

Both Bloemer and Johnson say that if somebody is showing signs of internet addiction (see sidebar), they should seek help so they can remember that offline experiences are satisfying too.

“If you know that there’s lying and sneaking, you definitely need the help of a professional, especially with teens,” Johnson says. “Parents can limit access to a younger child, but when you’re talking teens or spouses, getting a professional involved is a very good idea.” MKE

For more information, contact cedarcreekcounseling.com or lakefrontwellness.com.