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Column: Do you suffer from social media and internet addiction?

We live in an ‘always on’ world and because the internet is constantly accessible via mobile devices, it is very difficult to control.

Image: mandiberg/Flickr

DID YOU CHECK your phone right after you woke up this morning? Do you feel an irresistible urge to check your Facebook or Twitter account every few minutes? Do you suffer from withdrawal symptoms when your iPhone is charging?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of those questions, then you probably suffer from social media and internet addiction.

There is no doubt that technology is a great enabler and has enriched and made countless peoples’ lives better.

It is also true that it continues to evolve at lightning speed. If you take public transport to work, you will see commuters with their faces buried in their smartphones, whereas just a few years ago, most commuters would have still been concentrating on newspapers.

Mobile devices

Chances are you are reading this article on a mobile device rather than a desktop thanks to the massive increase in iPad and smartphone usage. However, the evolution of technology also poses a great number of challenges for internet users and society generally.

Heads down Source: Flickr/Creative Commons

One of the main issues is addiction. Technology means that as employees or business owners, we are ‘always on’; always available to take calls, respond to emails, tweets and Facebook messages. For many people, the concept of taking a holiday and switching off completely seems old-fashioned and antiquated.

However, there is a need for internet users to either switch off – sometimes known as a ‘digital detox’ – or to at least to regulate the number of hours that they spend online. Therapists are seeing an increase in cases and referrals that relate to internet and social media addiction and recent research carried out by Wilhelm Hofmann of Chicago University’s Booth Business School shows why: using social media can be even more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol.

‘Always on’

The problem is that we live in an ‘always on’ world and because the internet is constantly accessible via mobile devices, it is very difficult to control. There is also an issue with perception – constantly posting on Facebook or being on Twitter seems like a far less harmful pursuit than using drugs or nicotine – so people see internet addiction as a relatively benign habit.

facebook-mobile-app-640x340 Source: melenita2012/Flickr/Creative Commons

However, the reality is that internet usage is affecting relationships, college work and jobs. Internet addiction is time-consuming and users struggle to put down their mobile while having a meal or attending a meeting with friends, colleagues or family members. Therefore, it can lead to empty lives and limited human interaction.

More worryingly, studies have shown that there is a connection between high usage of social media, lower levels of self-esteem and higher incidences of depression. This suggests that vulnerable people feel more comfortable inhabiting a virtual world, when the reality is that they are the group that is most in need of human contact, interaction and support.

As most of us need to use the internet during the work day, where does necessary usage end and addiction begin? Researchers in Bergen, Norway have worked out a ‘Facebook Addiction Scale, which determines whether users suffer from an addiction to the social media platform. The scale can be applied to other social media platforms and internet usage generally and is an eye-opener for anyone who spends a lot of their life online.

If for example you spend a lot of time thinking about social media and the internet when you are not on it, it is a sign, the researchers say, that you are suffering from a type of withdrawal symptom. This is also true if you become restless or troubled when you cannot use the internet. If you need to use social media or the internet more frequently or if you go online to forget about your personal problems, then you have a form of addiction.

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Twitter Source: trekkyandy/Flickr/Creative Commons

More worryingly, if you use the internet so much that it has a negative impact on your job or studies, you need to address this problem.

So what can you do to tackle an internet addiction? Like any other addiction, the first and arguably the most important step is to admit that you have a problem. Once you have come to terms with your addiction, the next step is to change your environment and create boundaries and alternatives in relation to your internet usage.

If you have a work smartphone, leave it in the office when you go home. Limit your Facebook and Twitter to one hour in the evening and watch a film or read a book – of the non-Kindle variety – instead. More importantly, tell your friends and family about your planned digital detox and ask them to support you as much as possible and counselling and psychotherapy can also help.

If you feel that you do suffer from internet addiction, a good first step would be to take a break and go offline once you have finished reading this article.

Shane Kelly is Professional Services Manager with the Irish Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy

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About the author:

Shane Kelly

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