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Is there a cure for Internet addiction?

Internet addicts: There's help for you.

There are skeptics out there who aren't ready to label more hours spent online than sleeping or working as being as addictive or as detrimental as traditional vices, but if crack is wack, what would you call gaming or chatting so much you neglect your kids or flunk out of school?

The Atlantic's Rebecca Rosen wrote a story about treatment centers that are springing up for this problem. That reminded me of a piece I saw on ABC last night (which MSNBC did earlier), featuring the story of a middle-aged guy so addicted to chatting online with a teen girl, he pleads guilty to a real-life shooting of an online rival for her affections.

Extreme "treatments" for Internet addiction also get publicity: Two years ago, a 15-year-old was allegedly beaten to death at an addiction camp in China.

These cases may be the stuff of "Law & Order"(SVU) episodes and prime-time news specials, but the real problem, facing real people, is being considered for inclusion in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders' fifth edition, due out in 2012. 

This does not come without its share of controversy. One trouble with the diagnosis of "Internet addiction" is that definitions of it vary widely.

A recent study of Connecticut high school students found one in 25 "who reported an 'irresistible urge' to be on the Internet and tension when they weren't online were more likely to be depressed and aggressive and to use drugs than their peers."

Yet that doesn't mean there's a cause-and-effect between online withdrawal (or use) and problem behavior.

Two years ago, reSTART, the first residential treatment center for online addicts opened in a suburb of Seattle. From the center's website, several treatment options are now available: Parent workshops, counseling and SMS coaching services, in-home assessments and a 45-day detox program at its retreat center.

On the reSTART site is a list of "Signs & Symptoms of Computer & Internet/Gaming Addiction" as determined by a Dr. Hilarie Cash, PhD. of Internet and Computer Addiction Services. Three to four yes responses suggest abuse; five or more suggest addiction:

• Increasing amounts of time spent on computer and internet activities

• Failed attempts to control behavior

• Heightened sense of euphoria while involved in computer and internet activities

• Craving more time on the computer and internet

• Neglecting friends and family

• Feeling restless when not engaged in the activity

• Being dishonest with others

• Computer use interfering with job/school performance

• Feeling guilty, ashamed, anxious, or depressed as a result of behavior

• Changes in sleep patterns

• Physical changes such as weight gain or loss, backaches, headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome 

• Withdrawing from other pleasurable activities

People who feel like they might have an addiction can also turn to resources such as

It breaks down Internet addiction into sub-categories like Cybersex Addiction, Information Overload (compulsive Web surfing) and Cyber-Relationship Addiction ("Addiction to social networking, chat rooms and messaging to the point where virtual, online friends become more important than real-life relationships with family and friends.")

Here are some of the site's self-help tips:

  • To help you see problem areas, keep a log of how much you use the Internet for non-work or non-essential activities. Are there times of day that you use the Internet more? Are there triggers in your day that make you stay online for hours at a time when you planned for just 5 minutes?
  • Set goals for when you can use the Internet. For example, you might try setting a timer, scheduling use for certain times of day, or making a commitment to turn off the computer at the same time each night. Or you could reward yourself with a certain amount of online time once you’ve completed a homework assignment or finished the laundry, for instance.
  • Replace your Internet usage with healthy activities. If you are bored and lonely, resisting the urge to get back online can be very difficult. Have a plan for other ways to fill the time, such as going to lunch with a coworker, taking a class, or inviting a friend over.

Lifehack also had these suggestions for solving Internet addiction:

  • For the web-workers – get a virtual assistant. They can be fairly cheap and every hourly rate spent on them is one hour that you can shave from your computer time. This won’t solve the problem on its own, but web-workers will have a harder time defeating internet addiction and need to spend as little time as possible online when not completing essential work, at least until the addiction is dealt with.
  • Modify your routine. If you trap yourself by checking email first thing in the morning or heading straight for the computer when you get home from work, intending to get off and do other things but never quite getting there, change your routine a bit and get other things out of the way first. It’s much easier to get off the computer if you don’t get on it! Wait until you’ve done your household chores and got time spent with the kids (or pets, if that’s more your thing) out of the way, then give yourself some net time. Reward yourself, in small amounts, for holding out.
  • Don’t use the computer for recreational purposes. Remove the emotive feel-good incentive to use the computer by using it for business and email. Get it done and get off. Uninstall computer games, and vow to stay away from social networks and other recreational web destinations for at least a month or two.

As we carry around more smartphones and tablets and expand our access online, do you think Internet addiction is going to get worse? Do you think we're there already? How do you unplug and get back to what's real?

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