Marc Potenza, a psychiatrist at Yale and the director of the school’s Program for Research on Impulsivity and Impulse Control Disorders, has been treating addiction for more than two decades. Early in his career, he, like most others studying addiction at the time, focused on substance-abuse problems—cocaine and heroin addicts, alcoholics, and the like. Soon, however, he noticed patients with other problems that were more difficult to classify. There were, for example, the sufferers of trichotillomania, the inescapable urge to pull your hair until it falls out. Others had been committed for problem gambling: they couldn’t stop no matter how much debt they had accumulated. It was to this second class of behaviors—at the time, they were not called addictions—that he turned his attention. Were they, he wondered, fundamentally the same?
Behavioral addictions are quite real, and, in a number of respects, Internet addiction shares their core features. But the differences that set it apart mean that the avenues of treatment may differ somewhat from those typically associated with behavioral—and substance—addictions. One of the most effective ways of treating those addictions is by identifying and removing the catalysts. Cancel the credit card. Get rid of the bottles. Avoid the places you go to drink or to gamble, and, at times, avoid the people you do these activities with. Be aware of your triggers. With the Internet, though, that solution is far more problematic. Computers and virtual connections have become an integral part of daily life. You can’t just pull the plug and expect to function. A student may be suffering from what she’s doing online, but she also might need to use the Internet for her classes. The thing she needs to avoid in order to do well is also the thing she needs to use to reach the same end.
You may not be able to remove the triggers, but you can reprogram the thing itself, a kind of virtual bottle that automatically clamps shut when you’ve had too much to drink or a casino that turns off its lights as you move into dangerous territory. “The hope is to harness these same technologies within the mental-health field to promote health,” Potenza said. Already, there are apps that block certain Web pages or that disable a computer’s Internet connectivity.
The solution could also be a digital detox … a temporary abstinence from the online world. A period of time during which a person refrains from using electronic devices such as smartphones or computers, to be used as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in the real physical world