Internet addiction is a problem of compulsive stimulation, much like drug addiction. Because of this similarity, well studied treatment procedures known to be useful for helping drug addicts towards recovery are adapted for use with Internet addicts when the need arises. The techniques we describe below are drawn from a popular school of therapy known as 'cognitive-behavioral' therapy. Cognitive behavioral forms of therapy are well studied and known to be helpful as applied to many different mental and behavioral difficulties. They are also very practical and focus directly on reducing out of control 'addict' behaviors, and preventing relapse. They are not the only valid forms of therapy, however.
In treating drug addiction, frequently the goal of therapy is abstainence. An alcoholic, for example, is often best off if he or she ceases to drink alcohol entirely and to maintain a sober lifestyle. While this makes sense for a drug like alcohol which we might argue is a at best a luxury recreational indulgence and not a necessity, but it doesn't necessarily make sense for Internet over-usage. Much like the telephone, the Internet has become an essential part of modern business. To ask people to not use the Internet at all could be a significant burden for them. Instead of abstainence, then, a reasonable goal for Internet addiction therapy is a reduction in total use of the net. Because Internet addicts by definition will have difficulty moderating their use on their own, therapy techniques can be employed to help them to become more motivated to reduce their use, and to become more conscious of how they get into trouble with the Internet.
Motivational Interviewing may be employed to assess how motivated Internet addict may be to change their behavior and to help addicts to increase their motivation to make a lasting change. To accomplish the latter, a therapist may help addicts to develop genuine empathy for the people who are hurt by their addiction (e.g., family and friends, employers, etc.). By helping addicts to see how their actions affect others they care about or are dependent on economically, therapists can help increase addicts motivation to change.
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Therapists will also generally help addicts to identify 'triggers' that lead to episodes of uncontrolled Internet use. Naive addicts of any type typically believe that their indulgences “just happen” and that they played little or no role in an episode happening. A more realistic appraisal of an addicts true situation will often reveal that a particular unconscious set of events occurred involving 'triggers' that prompted an addict to binge. Like a noun, a trigger is a “person, place or thing” that is a step in a chain of events that leads towards a relapse into addict behavior. To provide a fictitious but realistic example, a first trigger might be boredom, or horniness, or even a bad mood brought on by a fight. Addicts seek out their stimulation of choice in response to these triggers, most of the time without ever being all that aware of why they are acting as they do. Therapists will often discuss in detail episodes of indulgence with addicts so that they become conscious of their triggers and can choose to act in an alternative fashion when they next become vulnerable. They will also help addicts to generate lists of safer, more functional alternative behaviors they can engage in when they realize they are in danger so that they do not default to their addictive behavior.
Part and parcel with identifying triggers, is helping addicts to set realistic goals for their Internet use. It may be that Internet use is important at use, but needs to be restricted at home. It may be that particular websites need to be avoided, but other uses of the Internet are okay. Therapists work with their patients to set realistic and measurable goals for their Internet usage. Patients are then asked to actually record their Internet usage in a log which is used in therapy to track progress. For example, to help reduce the amount of time spent of the Internet, or one specific portion thereof, a user will set a maximum allowed time per day or week. The goal is to keep under this maximum--the farther under, the better. To ensure this goal is met, users can rely on timers or alarms, to monitor how long they have spent online. For example, if an Internet user feels he is spending too much time in chat rooms, he may set a goal to spend no more than two hours per week using the Internet for this purpose. He sets a thirty-minute timer for each of the four times per week he wants to use the Internet for chat rooms, and as soon as his timer goes off he exits the chat room. He also records his actual usage on the log so as to see how well he is able to conform to his goal.
As anyone can quickly surmise, conforming to goals and logging your behavior is hard, disciplined work that is difficult for many people to sustain on their own. Therapists help patients to sustain this disciplined work by having them give weekly progress reports (either in individual or group therapy settings), or setting up (healthy) rewards that patients can earn when goals have been met for an agreed upon amount of time. Since one of the main draws of the Internet is the secrecy it appears to give, sharing online experiences in the context of offline relationships may discourages a user from 'hiding' in the Internet. Sharing progress in a group therapy session, with a therapist, or with a family member can help motivation to cut back on Internet time.
Even with the best intentions, it is easy for an addict to 'forget' to record a lapse, or to simply not bring it up in sessions. Denial and people's desire to please can be powerful forces to overcome. Objective monitoring can be useful when self-discipline and self-reporting are not enough to keep an addict on the straight and narrow. Regular urine, blood and hair samples are used for this purpose when dealing with drug addicts. With regard to Internet addiction, it is possible to install computer programs designed to monitor where someone surfs and how long they spend there to provide an accurate and objective report of someone's surfing behavior. PC software such as Spy Buddy, SpectorSoft Spector Pro, Pearl Echo, Cyber Snoop and others will monitor the kinds and number of websites a person uses and the amount of time spent Web surfing or checking e-mail. Such programs can help compulsive Internet users supervise their own Internet use, but only if they are installed so as to be hard to tamper with.
The therapy techniques described above are best delivered by a trained mental health professional in the context of a therapy relationship. A fair amount of self-help literature in the form of books and websites are available for those whose problems are not so demanding, or those who simply wish to be more educated about this problem. See the reading suggestions below, or the Links section of this topic center for suggestions.
The bottom line when dealing with Internet Addiction is to identify triggers that lead to problematic use, to set realistic goals for reducing use, and to then stick to and monitor conformance with those goals, sharing this conformity data with someone else to encourage honesty and sticking to the plan.
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