09/27/2013 05:28 EDT | Updated 11/27/2013 05:12 EST

Is Someone You Know Showing These Signs of Internet Addiction?

On Monday, we three shared the stage to lead a Social Media Week Toronto talk entitled "What is Your Relationship to Social Media?" Our talk focused on Internet addiction and overuse.

As we move deeper into the digital life and our screens move closer to our bodies -- first they were across the room, then on our laps, now in our pockets and on our face with Google glasses -- the obsessive need for technology grows and creates a new set of concerns about proper Internet use. For most people, online activity can be controlled and contained within normal constraints, but for some people Internet use becomes obsessive and their preoccupation with the online world can take over their lives.

The Internet Group was founded upon the realization that many of our clients coming to us with depression or anxiety were using the Internet as a means of escape. One person might get introduced to the online world through Facebook, and begin to gradually rely more and more on the validation they receive via posting and liking. A gamer can be introduced to a game that becomes an immediate addiction and source of virtual escape.

This is not a surprise; Internet use can stimulate the production of dopamine and endorphins. It is capable of providing a high, just like alcohol or cigarettes, and breaking a bad Internet habit can be just as difficult. And no matter what site is being overused, we see similar addictive behaviour patterns leading to real-world dysfunctions in all overuse scenarios. Here are a few signs that somebody you know might be struggling with an Internet addiction:

Excessive Preoccupation with Screens

Are you consistently choosing time with your screen over other activities? When we begin to withdraw from family, friends, hobbies, academics and careers in order to spend more time online, that should be cause for concern. This screen-preoccupation can also lead to an increase in irritability and restlessness when offline, which can create strife and tension in personal and work relationships.

Concealing Behavior

Do you find yourself lying to your friends, families, or employers about how often you are online? Often, overusers will lie about their usage to conceal the extent of their involvement online. Whether it be a gamer hiding how much time she is spending on gaming from a parent, or a husband lying to his wife about the amount of time he is spending on Facebook, concealing behavior is a sign that something is not right.

Struggling to Stay Offline

Another factor we have noticed with this population is the inability to reduce their usage; even when an individual makes a plan on their own to reduce the amount of time spent on technological devices, the end result is more of the same old pattern. The escapism and validation offered by the Internet is difficult for this population to resist, even if they know the problems that will result.

The Solution

The good news is that by applying the single-most powerful therapeutic approach -- group therapy -- we can moderate Internet usage behaviour. Group therapy uniquely provides each group member with peer support and insight, enabling more rapid and effective therapeutic progress and behavioural change. Through the interaction in group therapy, clients can more easily learn about the triggers that lead to overuse, and address the feelings of irritation some people feel off-line, and help to curb the potential for overuse addiction. Our therapeutic goal is to help people understand and better manage the issues driving their escape response so that they can develop a balanced relationship with technology, and a more balanced life.

The Social Media Week crowd that attended the event really responded to this panel, which combined our three perspectives; a social media expert who has built a digital culture agency on the foundation of Internet use, and two psychotherapists who, as a result of seeing the needs of a community, built a specialized therapeutic program within their consultancy to address this growing need. You might think that we would have two very different, and potentially combative, points of view when it comes to social media use, but we've discovered that we share a common goal: a healthy screen/life balance.

We felt compelled to address this issue of addiction during SMW Toronto because it is a forum that brings together a community which likely "over indexes" more than the general population. These attendees also know better than most people that the Internet makes information a currency, creates exciting game interactions, and allows real-time communication -- because they help create the content. The community is not blind to its problems and wants to confront the fact that some of the very games and instruments they create are designed to make them hard to put down. And, more than most, they can attest to the importance of a lot of AFK (Away From Keyboard) time in their lives.

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