Computer Addiction Is Growing Problem
Maressa Hecht Orzack, Ph.D. says that computers offer excitement, relief and a new identity for players. She is the director of the Computer Addiction Study Center at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. (photo by Tom Croke)
By Ami Albernaz
Given the ubiquity of computers and technology, it is perhaps not surprising that they are playing an increasing role in psychologists' practices - not only in terms of making work more efficient, but also in terms of patients seeking help for compulsive use or addictive behavior. According to some psychologists, the phenomena referred to as computer addiction and Internet addiction will only intensify unless people begin to recognize them as potentially serious problems.
"There's the constant opportunity to use [technology] and get what you want. There's no delay of gratification," says David Greenfield, Ph.D., director of the Center for Internet Behavior in West Hartford, Conn. and the author of "Virtual Addiction." "The more wireless we get and the faster the technology gets, the more potential there is for it to impact lives."
Although the percentage of computer users showing patterns of addiction is low, the outcomes of addiction have been disastrous for some: withdrawal from spouses, families and friends; students missing school and in some cases, dropping out; people incurring debt from online gambling or subscription pornography sites.
Like the object of other addictions, the Internet and other computer applications such as games have powerful, mood-altering qualities and offer a means of escape. What makes the Internet particularly alluring is that, like slot machines, it operates on a "varying reinforcement schedule," meaning that when an individual checks an eBay bid or refreshes his email, he is never sure what he will get. While Greenfield acknowledges that most Internet users have this experience to some extent, the test is the degree to which computer or Internet use is interfering with other aspects of a person's life.
Some of Greenfield's patients have had a pre-existing issue involving what they seek out online - whether it is pornography, shopping or gambling - but technology has exacerbated the problem. "Technology lowers the threshold to use or abuse whatever you're doing," he says.
Among adolescents, addiction to computer games has become increasingly prevalent. Foad Afshar, Psy.D. says computer and gaming "come up perpetually" in his Concord, N.H. office, as "kids find themselves spending hours upon hours on the computer."
Maressa Hecht Orzack, Ph.D., who has been director of the Computer Addiction Study Center at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. for the past 11 years, says she is currently "swamped" with teenagers addicted to gaming as well as adults addicted to online pornography. While computer games and pornography sites are both vehicles of escape to other worlds, games in particular have become more enticing as they have become more elaborate. Orzack says the popular "World of Warcraft," is a sort of updated "Dungeons & Dragons" in which users create their characters and participate in battles in fantastic worlds.
"Games like 'World of Warcraft' are highly structured. Essentially, the players are present in the game," she says. "They suspend disbelief and have escaped from where they are."
For players, particularly those who are dissatisfied with their non-virtual lives, turning on the computer offers excitement, relief and new identity, Orzack says. Gaming also seems to have physiological effects that might underscore its addictive component, Afshar says, referring to research that shows dopamine activation while a game is being played.
Orzack and Afshar's experience suggests there are some commonalities among people with computer addiction. Among Orzack's patients, mood disorders and anxiety are common, while among the young people whom Afshar sees, attention deficit disorder is almost universal. Treating these underlying problems is often part of treating computer addiction, which may raise the question as to whether or not computer addiction is real - or if it is, rather, a manifestation of a deeper issue such as depression or attention deficit.
"Some people dispute me [as to whether or not it is an addiction], but I deal with that," Orzack says, adding that "computer addiction" shares certain things in common with other addictions, and some aspects in common with impulse control disorders. Greenfield, meanwhile, believes that "addiction" might not be the best word to describe what he is seeing with Internet use, but that the catch phrase has caught on nonetheless.
"The behavior seems to fit a pattern of impulsive, or compulsive, use," he says. "Addictions are about numbing oneself; compulsive behavior is a secondary problem. It becomes a habitual pattern."
Greenfield adds, though, that terminology is not important. "Whatever it is, it's not going away," he says.
The challenge of treating computer and Internet addiction lies in the degree to which technology is a part of our lives. In that way, Greenfield says, they are similar to problems involving eating, shopping or exercising. Treatment involves behavior modification, which might entail limiting time spent on the Internet or in playing computer games.
Afshar says he advises the youngsters he sees to limit their gaming - perhaps to two hours before bedtime at first, and then cutting back in 15-minute increments. Orzack, a cognitive-behavioral therapist, says she also encourages patients to restructure their thoughts about computer use. "People continue to do the things they are addicted to despite the consequences and they have to learn what the triggers are," she says.
All three psychologists agree that another key strategy is for patients to work on boosting satisfaction in other areas of their lives in order to compensate for a decrease in gratification brought on by reduced use of computers or the Internet. For youngsters, Afshar says, parents become an important part of helping their children structure their time differently. Ultimately, as in any addiction, overcoming one that is computer-based requires that a patient want to change and that he has the support needed to do so.
"Once it takes hold, it grabs people, and they need help," Greenfield says. "I wouldn't call it a national epidemic, but it's part of many practices today."