When you stop and think about it, it really is amazing just how big a role the Internet plays in our daily lives. In fact, it can safely be said that those under the age of 25 probably can't envision a world without the Internet. Research has confirmed the ubiquitous nature of the Internet; a 2010 study from Forrester Research found that, for the first time, consumers spent as much on the Internet as watching TV. Another report found that Americans aged 13-24 actually spent more time on the Internet (16.7 hours per week) than watching television (13.6 hours).
Given the Internet's meteoric rise over the past two decades, it perhaps isn't surprising that some people develop a literal addiction to this worldwide, interconnected network. Below are some examples of the health risks of spending far too much time online:
-- In 2005, a 28 year-old South Korean man died after spending a stunning 50 straight hours playing an online game.
-- An even more incredible case of Internet addiction also comes from South Korea. In 2002, one gamer spent an unfathomable 86 straight hours playing an online game, a dubious streak that wound up claiming his life.
-- A 20 year-old English man suffered a fatal blood clot after a 12 hour online gaming session.
Granted, these are extreme cases, but it appears that more health professionals are prepared to classify "Internet addiction" as a mental health condition. In late 2012, several news stories reported that the American Psychiatric Association was considering adding "Internet Use Disorder" in its latest revision of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders. According to the New York Post, the entry for Internet Use Disorder would feature the following symptoms:
-- Preoccupation with online gambling and a need to spend more time wagering via the Internet.
-- Withdrawal symptoms when computer use is denied.
-- Continued excessive Internet use by an individual, even if he or she knows how dangerous the problem has become.
-- Lying to shrinks and loved ones about excessive Internet use and online gambling.
-- Losing interest in other forms of entertainment and hobbies.
The potential inclusion of Internet Use Disorder raises a disconcerting question -- with an estimated 282 million Americans using the Internet in 2012, exactly how many users would qualify as addicts? Some sources claim that the number might be quite large; the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery suggests that as many as 1 in 8 Americans might struggle with some form of Internet dependency (the same organization also reports that the number might be as high as 30 percent in several Asian countries, like South Korea, China and Taiwan).
The "Shutdown" Law
You've probably noticed that South Korean Internet users keep appearing in this article. There is good reason for this, as the country appears to have a large population of hardcore online gamers. The South Korean government has noticed this trend as well, to the point that a new law was issued in 2011 aimed at curbing Internet overuse.
The Shutdown law prevents children under the age of 16 from playing online games between the hours of 12AM and 6AM. In theory, this will force intense adolescent gamers to get some badly needed sleep. In practice, the gamers might turn out to be one step ahead of the government. A significant number of teenage players have been able to illegally hijack their parents' online identities, allowing them to circumvent the law. In response to this development, the South Korean government is pressuring gaming companies to turn over personal information about young gamers, including social security numbers and phone numbers.
While Internet users in the United States typically don't have the insatiable online appetite found in many South Koreans, research indicates that Americans have become heavily attached to modern technology. A 2010 University of Maryland study examined the impact of heavy Internet and cell phone use on college students. The participants were barred from using every type of media for 24 hours -- in other words, they couldn't use their cell phones, surf the Internet or watch TV for an entire day.
The results of the study did not paint a pretty picture; many students reported feeling withdrawal symptoms after just one day without modern media channels. Students who were used to sending text messages throughout the day, for instance, felt as if they had been somehow separated from friends and family. A large number of participants made the same claim regarding e-mails and social networking sites, stating that they felt alone and isolated without access to these mediums.
As technology continues to evolve, the issue of Internet addiction will doubtlessly receive further attention from researchers. As it currently stands, the term "Internet Use Disorder" is vaguely defined, as it is still being evaluated by the American Psychiatric Association. In the meantime, you can prevent yourself from becoming too attached to the Internet by using the proceeding guidelines:
-- Limit the amount of time you spend online each day.
-- If you find yourself spending endless hours on the Internet, install a "shutdown timer" on your desktop, which will automatically turn off your computer after a predetermined amount of time. These timers can be found through a simple search engine query.
-- Make plans with your friends and acquaintances to hang out at various places, such as malls and bowling alleys.
-- Instead of using instant messages, opt for making phone calls.
Keep a log of all the sites you visit, and the length of time you visit them. Record your emotions when you looking out these sites; this will allow you to determine if you're using the internet to deal with stress and/or boredom. If this is indeed the case, use other activities to occupy your time, such as learning a new hobby or exercising.
Michael Harris is a contributor to Natural Knowledge 24/7, a monthly newsletter focusing on health and wellness issues. This article, along with many others covering a wide range of subjects, can be found at http://naturalknowledge247.com.© 2013 Michael V. Harris
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