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May 2017
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From real communication to virtual communication 

Today, social communication is sustained by modern instruments which allow us to overcome barriers and constraints of time and space, and one of the new methods of communication which offers us the most possibilities is the internet.
The number of daily surfers has grown immensely and now includes every race and age and, thanks to the internet, children have found new games and young people, adults and even pensioners can find information, communicate, buy products and experiment with themselves through so called virtual communication.
However, like all methods of communication, even the internet is not free from bad use and abuse which, in recent years, have caused us to observe a modern form of addiction in the field of mental health, called internet addiction, net-mania or even Internet Addiction Disorder (I.A.D.).

Net-mania: a sum of many factors

Thanks to observations and studies on clinical cases of net-mania, as well as autobiographic literature written by internet addicts and the results of specific questionnaires filled out by people who had symptoms of internet addiction, three categories have been described which contribute to the onset of internet addiction syndromes, however, these are not always present in every net-mania case.

The three categories are:

  • Predisposing psychological illnesses
  • Risky behaviour
  • The internet's potential to bring about psychological harm

Predisposing psychological illnesses
Addictions to the web often represent another piece of the puzzle in those who show signs of precarious emotional stability, or who have other psychological disorders, for example, depression, bipolar or obsessive-compulsive disorders, and this must be highlighted. In fact, in these cases, turning to the internet seems to be closely related to an attempt to compensate for actual relationship problems by searching for friends or sentimental relationships on the web since it is a quicker route and it allows us to overcome insecurities which are magnified in daily, face to face relationships.
Social contact through chats, IRC, internet communities and emails, if used with prudence, can be useful instruments for overcoming communication problems as they allow a person to get involved by gradually getting to know people/sites, however, these are not free from risks of misuse (for example, meeting up with people one has met on the internet in dark places at night) and abuse (I.A.D.).
This first consideration is closely related to all the people with certain types of psychological disorders and who have to moderate their internet use and reflect (or be guided to reflect) on the needs which the internet sometimes creates the illusion of being able to satisfy (in these cases there is no relationship, rather the internet makes us think we are relating to people) and on aspects about their personalities and insecurities which need to be confronted gradually, since the need to communicate needs to be satisfied by learning to do it face to face, rather than being happy with compromises.

Risky behaviour The internet, which is rich in potential, opportunities to learn, discover and compare things, responds very well to the needs of people who have never experienced any kind of psychological disorder, but who are not free from the possibility of becoming victims of their own needs through risky behaviour of excessive consumption, which sometimes results in complete withdrawal from life experiences and real relationships. Abusing the information available on the internet can cause a cognitive overload which saturates the brain, reducing rational attention. At the same time, the consequential isolation sustains the use of the internet in order to find occasions to socialise virtually, which can lead on to negatively affecting the delicate equilibriums of identity by creating the possibility to try out roles and parts of ourselves which we are not able to try out in real life. This then increases the amount of hours spent online, resulting in the victim being glued to the chair and monitor for the entire day, giving up healthy and real life experiences. The reason behind this frequent use of the internet by people who have never shown signs of poor mental health appears to be the behavioural tendency called telematic solipsism, that is, the tendency to choose the internet as a place of refuge where one can go to find relief from daily problems. However, this can potentially increase the chances that the internet conquers ever larger slices of time of the victim’s days.

The internet's potential to bring about psychological harm In addition to all of the above, we must remember the fact that the internet, with all its resources, has the potential to induce feelings of supremacy, like being able to beat distance and time, or even change our personality or identity, therefore it is necessary to use this powerful instrument whilst staying in control of our rational capacities so as to keep our behaviour in check.

Needs experienced on the internet, emotions and illusions

Apart from the various components which can contribute to causing different cases of internet addiction, the constant characteristic which features in the background of an internet addiction is the ability the web has to respond (or appear to respond) to many human needs, allowing us to try out experiences which are important for constructing our personalities, and experiencing emotions which, at the same time, make us feel protected.  

The internet cancels out space and allows us to do things we cannot do in real life, or things that take a lot of time, like surfing for hours and interacting more slowly, often in pairs or small groups. Chats break down barriers, allow us to speak to large groups in different places, which is quite hard to do in reality, and allows us to carry out parallel conversations, which is only possible virtually. Furthermore, more stable communities create feelings of being a part of something, which are more or less real, by responding to a human need and allowing us to carry out psycho-social moratorium, that is, practising roles and interactions without consequences, responsibility, choice or definitive constraints. In virtual ‘rooms’ we can experiment with our identities on all levels, changing our age, profession and even gender and listening to the reactions of others and gaining more confidence by comparing real and fake personalities. Recitals in online theatres are declared and shared in the M.U.D. (multi user dimensions), where the game of roles is exaggerated to the limits of one’s imagination and where, in the shadows of the invented person, the cruellest of instincts can come out, whilst being safe from consequences. 

The path that leads to internet addiction

In the 1990s, the famous psychiatrist Goldberg proposed very controversial diagnostic criterion for the diagnosis of I.A.D., referring to the habitual symptoms observed in common addictions. More precisely, Goldberg underlined the importance of the diagnosis of clinical signs of tolerance, abstinence and damage in the areas of social and professional interactions, as well as other important areas.
More recently, in order to identify and distinguish the signs of internet addiction from excessive, but not pathologic, internet use, we can refer to certain types of behaviour which represent various qualitative and quantitative indicators which differentiate between normal and pathologic internet use and which have allowed us to identify 3 phases in the path towards the most stabile form of pathological internet addiction.

  1. The first step, or initial phase, towards internet dependency. This is characterised by obsessive and ideo-affective attention to subjects and instruments connected to the web which cause behaviour such as continually checking emails, searching for particular communication programmes and instruments and using chats for long periods of time.
  2. The second step, or toxicophilia This is characterised by an increase in the time spent online, along with an increasing sense of feeling bad, agitated, missing something and low levels of activity when not connected to the internet (a condition that is comparable to abstinence). Initially this was also accompanied by an increase in bills, however, today this irrelevant as it is now possible to stay connected to the web for long periods of time for free. There are still some important toxicomania indictors though, such as feeling bad when offline and abusing the internet, often during work hours or at night instead of sleeping.
  3. The third step, or toxicomania This is the phase in which internet addiction is at its most extreme, damaging various parts of one’s life, such as work and relationships, and where problems occur concerning work/school results, work/school truancy and (complete) social isolation.

From this classification it is easy to see that the more toxicomania type behaviour is present, which indicates the extremeness and seriousness of the disorder, the more difficult and longer the path to recovery, which allows the victim to use the internet normally, may be.

Another important distinction that is made in the description of the symptoms associated with internet addiction, concerns the difference between:

  • online conditions
  • offline conditions.

In the first case, the behaviour involves spending excessive amounts of time on the internet (60-70 hours a week). In the second case, the victim shows signs of anxiety and restlessness, as well as relationship and work or school problems which occur between one connection to the internet and another and accompany the symptoms which characterise this syndrome.

Help to get out of the web

Just as the guiding principles initially used for the diagnosis of net-mania were discussed some what heatedly, there has been a lot of criticism about the so called online self-help groups, which were one of the first methods used, especially in America, to help provide support for overcoming the problem of internet addiction. 
This type of treatment method is similar to treatment for substance addiction when the drug itself is used, but it appears that it has not always been successful if it used for more than just a starting point for sharing the acknowledgment of a problem which must be dealt with decisively, as this must be done away from a computer and a modem.
On the contrary, there are an ever increasing number of useful tests and questionnaires online to self-assess one’s relationship with the internet and these can be a starting point in recognising a problem which is often experienced for a long time, but with no obvious symptoms.
The next step can be individual or shared professional help involving guided reflection on why it is necessary to overcome insecurities which may be the root of the problem of using the internet to socialise.

Lastly, preventing an addiction is a useful instrument for everyone and those who already have psychological disorders should pay special attention to certain ‘rules of use’ when using the internet. In this latter case, remember the following:

  • it is necessary to limit the amount of time spent online daily (no more than 1 or 2 hours) so as not to establish a daily habit which must be undertaken at all costs;
  • it is important to integrate online activities with similar, real life activities (for example, shopping, entertainment or socialising) so that the internet does not become the only means through which the victim relaxes, escapes and gets in touch with him/herself;
  • that real socialising must never be completely replaced by virtual socialising;
  • when an internet addict is showing chaotic and uncontrollable signs of needing to connect to the internet, seek professional help.

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