Addiction to the Virtual World

Defining Addiction

Addiction is a compulsive physiological and psychological need for a substance or practice.  Addiction is connected to the release of dopamine hormone neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers.  There are addictions to substances such as nicotine or drugs, and there are addictions to activities such as computer games.  In both cases, the brain's reward mechanism is strengthened, causing repeated use of the substance or repeated activity with progressively increasing intensity.

There is no consensus in the field of psychiatry on how to address the phenomenon of Internet addiction; is it a physiological dependence, such as with substance abuse, or not?  All agree, however, that there is a situation of real dependence in the virtual world.

An addiction to the Internet or multimedia is usually to a particular topic or area, such as an addiction to games, chats, social networks, video and movie channels, or to sexual or pornographic content.

An addiction can be light or heavy, but even a light addiction is dangerous due to its disruption of a routine course of life.  If an initial addiction is not treated, it easily exacerbates, given the need for stronger stimulation as the threshold of initial pleasure rises higher and higher.

How to Recognize Addiction

An Internet addict usually tries to hide an addiction, but there are behavioral and mental indicators of addiction, such as progressively increasing surfing time, an inability to disengage, nervousness, stress (when someone stops the addict's surfing activity), surfing online at unusual hours, a decrease in eating and sleeping, and more.  The following list composed by experts contains some of the indicators when an addiction is suspected:

  • Increased need for Internet/multimedia surfing time
  • Loss of interest in socialization
  • Physical neglect
  • Reduction in eating, or overeating
  • Neglect of personal hygiene
  • Reduction in physical activity
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of sleep, and red eyes
  • Lost sense of time
  • Irritability or violence

Damage Caused by Addiction

Most addicts struggle with their addiction to the point of a total loss of control.  An addiction disrupts the course of everyday life at school, work, and one's relationships and social life.  The sense of complete lack of control is heavy to the addict, particularly if the addiction leads to depression or suicidal thoughts, or to the harming of others or sexual abuse when the addiction is to sexual or pornographic content.

What to Do if You Suspect Your Child is Addicted

Addiction is like an illness that is difficult to handle on one's own.  Be sure to convey empathy and support the child's efforts to combat the addiction.  If you suspect your child is heavily addicted, seek immediate professional help and guidance.  If it is a light addiction, and even a legitimate one such as to a positive video game, construct an action plan, together with the child, to gradually reduce the hours of play.  If this does not work, seek professional help.

Contact Netivei Reshet's hotline at 02-590-6602 for information about professional assistance.    

Preventing Addiction

The best means to prevent addiction is to be actively involved with a child's screen activity.  Set a reasonable amount of time for Internet and multimedia use, and balance it with other non-screen activities.  See our recommended screen times for each age group here.

The virtual world presents new technology and content all the time, so be alert as to which devices may be more addictive than others.  For example, a fast video game with rhythmic background music creating strong brain stimuli is more likely to be addictive than a quiet thinking game.

Some individuals are more inclined to develop an addiction, such as those characterized by obsessive compulsive behavior, or those possessing emotional difficulties.  These types may require additional attention and care when determining an appropriate schedule for their Internet and multimedia use.