The internet has become an unavoidable part of 21st Century life. Almost 3.5billion people use it, that's just under a half of the world's population. Whilst it has revolutionized our lives in countless positive ways, of course it has some drawbacks. Data leaks, trolling, cyber bullying, dark webs and hacking scandals have been just a few of the big stories to hit the press over the past decade, but there is also an equally worrying issue affecting an increasingly number of internet users, particularly in the younger generations; addiction. And it comes in many different forms
When you think of gambling addiction you're probably imagining a middle aged man squandering his life savings in poker at a casino? Instead switch the picture to a university student, who spends his weekly budget playing fantasy sports online, do you think he has a gambling problem?
The internet has changed the nature of gambling addiction, and with it the ability to regulate and treat those that are suffering from it. It's easy to notice someone who is sneaking out to a casino every night, or a betting shop. It's much more difficult when it comes to the online sphere as most of us use our laptops on a daily, even hourly, to work, socialise, shop...
"The issue of problem gambling has been on a gradual rise within Europe, with online gambling's popularity spanning across at least 6.8 million consumers within the EU. Despite this growing matter, however, there remains a severe lack in the availability of addiction counselling courses across European universities specifically targeted at problem gambling."
Even when there's no money involved, online games can become addictive and these addictions can have long term negative consequences on gamers' physical and mental health. Several news stories over recent years have shown the potential devastating impact of addictive gaming on young people.
Last year a 17 year old teenager in Russia died from a blood clot after gaming for 2,000 hours over 22 days, similar stories have been reported from China, America and the UK over the past decade.
Implications on the addict's heath include lack of sleep and disruption to eating habits which lead to fatigue and sleep disorders. Many gamers also choose to isolate themselves in friends and family in order to play video games which can in the long term lead to social anxiety and depression.
The issue has become so prevalent that it has recently been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) recently as "internet gaming disorder."
"The DSM warns that such "persistent and recurrent online activity results in clinically significant impairment or distress," adding that certain neural pathways are triggered just like a drug addicts' would be when ingesting their substance of choice. To put that comparison in perspective, there could be about 1 million more diagnosable dependent gamers in America than coke addicts."
Whether or not we want to admit it I think many of us are on the scale for social media addiction. Can checking your Facebook and Instagram at least once every 15 minutes be described as healthy?
Demonstrating proof of its addictive qualities, researchers in Norway have even now come up with a Facebook addiction scale, which measures problem behaviours in association with Facebook use.
"We have also found that people who are anxious and socially insecure use Facebook more than those with lower scores on those traits, probably because those who are anxious find it easier to communicate via social media than face-to-face," says Andreassen."
Well we all know that the internet didn't invent porn, but it certainly made it easier to access. Psychotherapist Michael Halyard believes this to be the main reason why porn addiction has been increasing in recent decades.
"Modern pornography is more addictive than traditional pornography due to its easy availability, explicit nature, wide range of images and video available, ability to access it on any handheld device or tablet, and the privacy that the experience offers. People can spend hours searching the Internet on their computer or device for the newest or most hardcore pornography.
This omnipresent availability makes it easy for people with addictive personalities to cross that indivisible line into addiction. For many adults, the moderate use of pornography can be
a healthy part of their sexuality. For porn addicts, however, pornography can be as damaging as gambling, alcohol or drugs, and can take over a person's life."
Once again due to its nature addiction to porn online is very difficult to monitor, and therefore to diagnose and offer help. Whilst 20 years ago friends, relatives or partners might have picked up on it through a quick search on a home computer, the fact that we all now have our personal devices makes it a lot easier to hide it if we have a problem.
Unrestricted access to the internet and all of the opportunities that it provides is integral to a free and democratic society. Like all aspects of life it can be a great and powerful asset when used in moderation. The key to recognising an addiction of any kind is awareness. If you think that someone you know is spending an unhealthy amount of time on their laptop or their phone, then ask them about it! Just challenging it may start them thinking about their behavior. Suggest an alternative activity you could do together that doesn't involve technology, or set a collective challenge of being off line for at least 3 hours of the day (or whatever you think would work best.)
If you can see that someone's physical or mental health is severely deteriorating because of the amount of time they spend online then seek help. They will thank you in the long run.