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Impulse Control Disorders

by David Greenfield
New Harbinger, 1999
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jan 20th 2005

Virtual Addiction

David Greenfield's Virtual Addiction is now six years old, but it remains a useful guide to dealing with some of the problems that occur with Internet use.  It is aimed at a general readership so it does not use technical terms.  Greenfield bases his advice on his experience in treating clients who find that they are going online more than they want to, and are getting immersed in online activities in ways that cause trouble in the rest of their lives and reduce the quality of their lives.  He provides advice that seems eminently sensible even though he gives no strong evidence that it actually works.  Given that Internet addiction is still a relatively new problem, it is not surprising that there have been few studies into what kinds of treatment are most successful.  The problem of computer addiction for many people is that they cannot abstain from using their computers.  These days, most jobs require people to communicate by email, find information online, fill out forms online, or connect with an Intranet.  Both college students and schoolchildren need to go online to do research for their schoolwork.  It is also becoming essential to have a computer at home or at least to have access to the web one way or another.  Yet for the many people who have difficulty regulating how much they use computers, once they are online, the temptation is overwhelming to indulge themselves in chatrooms, instant messaging, shopping, playing games, viewing pornography, or simply browsing the web. 

Some forms of computer addiction are easier to regulate than others.  I remember one weekend afternoon when I was a graduate student sitting down in a computer cluster room and playing Tetris for a few minutes, only to find when I checked the time that I had been playing for several hours.  I also found that other games were also entrancing, and I was always saying "just one more game."  But I saw other people who ended up spending many nights playing Risk and other group games, even when this meant that they were not getting their work done.  Since then I have made sure to delete games from my computers, and this is easy to do.  Once deleted, I'm not tempted to download more games, although a couple of years ago I made the mistake of checking out a Sims game, and lost a whole day, so I had to delete that quickly.  Many people exercise similar forms of self-control in their lives.  Reducing temptation makes it easier to control one's actions. 

The trouble with the Internet is that it is full of temptations.  All parts of it are very accessible, and different parts are linked together.  Performing innocent searches will often result in advertisements for items or services that promise to make one's life so much better.  Opening apparently innocuous email can reveal pornography or advertisements.  Web pages pop up out of nowhere showing nude women, or one gets instant messages from strangers who seem extremely friendly.  One has to be quite an expert to know how to get rid of all the pop-ups, spam, and unwanted messages.  Most people are not expert computer users though, and so they are exposed to these temptations.  Even expert computer users get exposed to temptation, because like most other people, they often like to do some shopping, playing games, chatting, or sexually suggestive or explicit material, and websites that offer these things will generally offer more of them, to draw the user in. 

Of course, as Greenfield well knows, some people are delighted to discover the world of the Internet and so are very happy to spend large portions of their lives online.  But for most of us, there is more to life than online interactions, and although chatrooms and Internet friends can provide some sense of community, they are not as satisfying as making real life friends with whom one sits down to eat food, invites to one's home, or shares real activities with.  For many families, online activity starts to involve secrecy and lying, and when the truth comes out, everyone is upset and trust is diminished.  Yet the temptation of the online world is strong, and even when people resolve to cut down on the time they spend on the computer, they find they are often unsuccessful.  As with smoking, drinking, drugs, gambling, shopping, and many other enticing activities, simply saying "no" is not a good strategy.  It may take much more planning, work with family and therapists, and substitution of other fulfilling activities to enable one to really gain control of one's behavior. 

Virtual Addiction provides a good deal of advice about what kind of planning and cooperation from family will be useful to compulsive computer users.  It discusses the nature of addiction, doing self-diagnosis, and the problems with cyber-relationships, online shopping, online investing, and using computers at work.  For example, Greenfield suggests to those who do too much online shopping that they turn off the computer after each time they use it, decide what they need before they go online and stick to that, avoid browsing through lots of products, try to use phone or mail instead, shop online with other people around to help rather than doing it alone, tell other people about one's problems, and six other suggestions.  Greenfield's style is casual and confident, yet he takes these problems seriously. 

While there is no guarantee that the suggestions in Virtual Addiction will work, the mere act of getting it may symbolize one's commitment to dealing with one's problems.  It is a reasonable place to start, and even if it is a bit dated, the basic ideas will be as effective now as they were when the book was written.  Ironically, in order to purchase the book, you will probably have to buy it online, although you might be able to order it from your local bookshop. 

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.