You may joke about getting your Facebook fixÃ¢â‚¬”or feel out of sorts when you don't have your smartphone with youÃ¢â‚¬”but can you really be addicted to the web?Ã‚Â A hospital in Pennsylvania is opening an inpatient treatment center for Internet addicts this week. The new center joins a handful of other digital detox facilities across the country, all of which treat people who canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t put the brakes on their messaging, web surfing, or game-playing.
The news begs the question: Is Internet addiction an actual medical condition? While the latest edition of the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (a handbook updated every year by the American Psychiatric Association) declined to recognize it, experts say you really can develop an unhealthy dependency on the web. One reason why: The constant contact and instant feedback we get when weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re online prompts the release of the brain chemical dopamine, which makes us feel good and crave another dopamine hit . . .Ã‚Â and that keeps us logged on. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Most of us overuse digital technology, but about 4 to 6 percent of people meet the criteria for true addiction,Ã¢â‚¬Â says David Greenfield, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.
The Symptoms Digital dependency can be hard to define, but some big red flags are hard to miss. First, you check messages or browse the web compulsively, without even being conscious of it, says Greenfield. Other signs you could be addicted to the Internet include experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as irritability and depression, when youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re forced to turn off your devices. You also may have an unhealthy relationship with the web if your need to be connected has put a dent in some aspect of your real lifeÃ¢â‚¬”such as your job performance or relationshipsÃ¢â‚¬”yet you still canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t set limits,Ã‚Â says Stuart Gitlow, M.D., M.P.H., president of the American Society for Addictive Medicine.
Of course, not being able to quit checking your Facebook feed or your inbox may not sound like that big a deal. But over time, these behaviors can lead to health problems ranging from carpel tunnel syndrome to conditions such as diabetes and obesity that are the result of inactivity, says Greenfield. The other thing is, web addiction sets you up for serious anxiety. Ã¢â‚¬Å“People addicted to the Internet are Ã¢â‚¬ËœonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ all the time, and that means their bodies are producing excess amounts of the stress hormone cortisol, which contributes to stress-related illnesses,Ã¢â‚¬Â he says.
What to do About It Think your web usage might cross the line into addiction territory? To get a sense for whether you might have an issue, you can take this digital distraction test, designed by Greenfield, online. If the test indicates you might have a problemÃ¢â‚¬”or even if it doesn't but you still feel you could use some helpÃ¢â‚¬”reach out to a mental health counselor who has experience with addictive diseases. He or she can help diagnose whether you have an addiction and then help you dial it back. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Most addicts wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need to check themselves into treatment," says Greenfield. "ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s more about being aware of your usage and vowing to cut downÃ¢â‚¬”so youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re in control and it doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t negatively affect the rest of your life.Ã¢â‚¬Â