Photo used by permission: FundraisingnetzI play World of Warcraft – a massive, multi-player online role-playing game. My husband and I have friends that we enjoy playing with regularly, and sometimes spend a few hours at a time questing together and fighting imaginary monsters. A few months ago, I read an article about a guy in the UK who was so addicted to the game that he played for 40 hours straight and didn’t leave his apartment for five weeks. Whoa. I do know some people who spend a lot more of their time playing online than I do, but how can something that’s simply a casual pastime for us be completely consuming for someone else?

The condition is known as Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), and while it is not currently classified as a mental disorder, a growing number of medical professionals around the globe are recognizing it as a serious mental health issue. The American Psychiatric Association released the latest version of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in May 2013, and within it, Internet use “Gaming Disorder” was named as a condition worthy of further research.

A voluntary inpatient program to treat Internet addiction was launched in September 2013 at the Bradford Regional Medical Center in Bradford, PA – the first Internet addiction program at a U.S. hospital. However, digital detox camps and retreats where those that can’t seem to extract themselves from the Internet can go to get a forced break have been around for some time now. Such camps are gaining popularity in Asia, where several people have died in recent years after gaming marathons that spanned several days.

What is it about the Internet that can be so addictive? Many use it as a form of escape from their daily lives. People with mental conditio

ns such as anxiety or depression can find an outlet with time spent online, whether it’s through gaming, online gambling, social networking or pornography and it becomes a pattern of use that they can’t pull themselves away from, even when their time online becomes no longer productive or enjoyable.

If you are concerned that you or someone you love may be spending an unhealthy amount of time online, there are symptoms to look out for that may indicate Internet Addiction Disorder. Dr. Mark Griffiths, a professor at Nottingham Trent University and a researcher in behavioral addictions describes the phenomenon using several criteria. For persons showing symptoms, you’ll notice that they are unable to focus on anything else, often to the detriment of their personal lives. The affected person can even gain a “tolerance” to the activity, therefore requiring more and more time spent to receive the same “buzz” or euphoria they initially received. If they stop cold-turkey, they can seemingly go through “withdrawal” symptoms causing personal or emotional stress, and they find it very hard to restrain themselves from lapsing into old patterns of lengthy Internet usage.

Burgeoning research has shown some alarming effects on the bodies of those who spend too much time online. A study of 60 adults in the UK, published in February 2013, found that people in the study with high Internet usage experienced a negative impact on their mood as compared with people with low Internet usage. Tthose who are seemingly addicted are compelled to return to the Internet over and over to attempt to regain the “high” they initially received, and therefore find themselves spiraling out of control.

Another smaller study published in January 2012 looked at brain scans of adolescents addicted to the Internet compared to their non-addicted peers and found a decrease in the brain’s white matter integrity, which may lead to behavioral impairments in the teens. These behavioral problems could include emotional volatility, difficulty in making decisions and self control issues. It was unclear whether the subject’s Internet addictions caused the brain abnormalities or whether the abnormalities existed prior to the addiction and possibly contributed to it. Further studies will need to be performed to show the direction of these relationships, but there is some evidence studies to suggest that adolescents with IAD are more likely to be anxious or depressed.

If all of this discussion feels a little too close to home, there are ways you can help yourself or a loved one cope. Although self-help is possible, it is recommended that you seek professional intervention as well, because researchers have noticed correlations between IAD and other psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety and other addictions. Attempt to alter your Internet usage patterns by setting goals for yourself and sticking to them. If you find yourself losing track of time surfing the Internet in the evenings, turn your computer off and leave the room, use apps or resources to resist tech distractions or try limiting your usage to only mornings. Try replacing your Internet usage with healthier ways of burning off steam such as exercise, going to lunch with a friend or taking a class. Staying connected to the outside world can help you pull yourself out of the net.

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