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ON THE MIND

Too caught up in the Web

March 05, 2007|Jonathan Alpert | Special to The Times

Today, you can earn a living, learn a trade, meet people and even plan a funeral entirely online. In fact, with the exception of hygiene and eating, almost all needs can be met in cyberspace.

Not only does the Internet put a colossal resource of information at your fingertips and -- courtesy of BlackBerries and cellphones -- make accessibility almost effortless, it creates the ability to carry out a private, often secret, life. Such a scenario is ripe for addiction.

The American Psychiatric Assn. at present does not recognize Internet addiction as an actual disorder, but then again, some people spend too much time watching television, reading, or following sports, and no such diagnosis exists for those activities. It isn't necessarily the number of hours spent online that determines a problem, but rather the effect such use may have. If Internet time has interfered with relationships, finances, employment or health, consider that a warning sign.

Typically people spend too much time online for one of two reasons. The first is that it serves as an escape from real-life problems. Similar to the function drugs play for people who are anxious, depressed or bored, the Internet can provide an outlet. Like other types of addictions, it offers a high, a thrill, an escape into a magical, sometimes even erotic, fantasy world.

The second reason is compulsion. Over time, users may need markedly increased amounts of time online to achieve satisfaction. This motivation is further defined by a euphoric feeling when using, the inability to stop, cravings for more, interference with life, irritability or depression when unable to use, and finally, lying to cover up use.

Here are some tips for cutting back:

* Seek help for the real problem. If the Internet is being used as an escape from depression, anxiety or relationship issues, psychotherapy can help address the underlying reasons. Not only can such treatment illuminate those problems, it can teach stress-management skills.

* Identify triggers. Are you bored, stressed or lonely? If so, create a list of alternate ways of dealing with those feelings.

* For compulsive users, reduce time spent online. Abstinence is unlikely given the usefulness of the Internet, so set reasonable and attainable goals. For example, if you spend 10 hours a day online, try cutting it by 2 hours. Write in your calendar when you'll allow yourself time to use and when you won't. Plan short, but frequent use as this will help to eliminate cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

* Next, disrupt the pattern of your behavior by doing things you'd normally do online in real life. For example, replace watching movies online with going to a theater, send a paper greeting card rather than an online one, call a friend instead of e-mailing him or her, and shop at an actual store, instead of online.

* Rearrange your schedule to disrupt your routine. If you usually check your e-mail first thing in the morning, check it after breakfast. If you typically go online when you get home from work, wait until after dinner. Take a break every 30 minutes so as to disrupt your pattern even further.

* List the top three problems related to use, followed by three potential benefits of cutting back. For instance, maybe your relationship is strained or your health is declining because of Internet use. The obvious benefits would include spending more time with your partner and going to the gym. Place this list in highly visible areas, where it will serve as a reminder of your goal.

*

In On the Mind, Jonathan Alpert, a psychotherapist in New York, answers questions about healthy mental living. Send questions and comments to health@latimes.com.

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