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Add “Internet addiction” to the list of ills now facing a 21st century society.

While the Internet has opened the world to many in ways never imagined, there is a darker side that is causing people to withdraw from society and turn to destructive behaviors.

Examples of Internet addiction include Online gambling, gaming and shopping, and obsession with pornography, blogs, social media and chat rooms.

Vicky Mieseler, vice president of clinical services at the Ozark Center of Freeman Health System, said the key to understanding whether an individual has an Internet addiction is determining how much usage is too much.

“When you’re looking at someone who spends a great deal of time on the Internet, you’re trying to determine if they’re spending an exorbitant amount of time doing that as opposed to everyday living,” she said. “If it’s causing you a problem in your life, then it’s a problem.”

Mieseler said Internet addiction is similar to substance addictions in that many of the same symptoms are present.

“If you’re more interested in spending time with the thing you’re addicted to than you are with your family and friends, then that’s a symptom,” she said.

“If you’re preoccupied with the thing you’re addicted to, then that’s a symptom. Those things are the same for any addiction.”

Internet addiction can lead to more serious symptoms, including health problems from a lack of sun or exercise, increased senses of loneliness and depression, and the loss of social skills, Mieseler said. If left untreated, Internet addictions can increase the likelihood that the individual will get divorced or fired, or have financial, academic or sexual problems, she said.

“(Internet addictions) can be very serious,” she said. “That’s your whole life right there.”

Whereas treatment for substance addictions focuses on abstinence, Internet addiction treatment focuses on abstaining from the specific problem, not necessarily from the Internet itself. The reason for that, Mieseler said, is that it’s not realistic in today’s job market for an individual to never use the Internet.

“A person who is an alcoholic should never drink again,” she said. “The goal (of Internet addiction treatment) is to never engage in the problematic aspect of the Internet. If your addiction is centered around social networking, then our goal for you would be to stop using Facebook or the other social networking options available.”

Mieseler said anyone can become addicted to the Internet though certain groups of people are more at risk.

“Teens are more at risk because, let’s face it, they have been raised in technology their entire life,” she said.

Other at-risk groups include people who are immobile or homebound, people who lack social support, people who suffer from depression or anxiety disorders, and people who have addictive personalities.

Research on Internet addictions is scarce because Online technologies are relatively new.

“I think the field of mental health is trying to catch up, and we’re beginning to see new addictions, and we’re having to race against the clock to get programs in place to meet those needs,” Mieseler said.

One of the first large-scale studies conducted on Internet addictions was completed in 2006 by Stanford University’s School of Medicine which interviewed 2,513 adults in a nationwide telephone survey.

Researchers said 68.9 percent of respondents were regular Internet users, and one in eight displayed at least one possible sign of problematic Internet use.

The team, moreover, said the following:

That 13.7 percent found it hard to stay away from the Internet for several days at a time.

That 12.3 percent had seen a need to cut back on Internet use at some point.

That 8.7 percent attempted to conceal nonessential Internet use from family, friends and employers.

That 5.9 percent thought their relationships suffered as a result of excessive Internet use.

Elias Aboujaoude, the study’s lead author, said he was particularly concerned by the number of people who hid their nonessential Internet use.

“Obviously something is wrong when people go out of their way to hide their Internet activity,” he said in a news release. “We often focus on how wonderful the Internet is — how simple and efficient it can make things, but we need to consider the fact that it creates real problems for a subset of people.”

Internet usage in general has clearly increased over the past decade with 68.7 percent of homes boasting Internet access in 2009, compared with 41.5 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Emily Younker writes for The Joplin (Mo.) Globe. She can be reached at eyounker@joplinglobe.com.

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