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Interventions for Problematic Internet Use
Web Addicted Teens continuing education counselor CEUs

Section 5
Compulsive Internet Use and Mental Health

CEU Question 5 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Internet
Psychologist CEs, Social Worker CEUs, Counselor CEUs, MFT CEUs

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In the last section, we discussed the concepts of internet time consumption.  These concepts included:  unchecked time flow; internet interference; and denial.

In this section, we will examine underlying emotional causes that trigger a client’s problematic internet use.  These underlying causes include:  depression; low self-esteem; and anxiety.

3 Emotional Triggers

♦ #1 Depression
The first emotional cause is depression.  Internet usage provides the perfect escape for depressed clients.  They can remain at home; they aren’t required to meet people face to face; and they can meet other people with the exact same problem.  A small and ineffective support group forms, but one that encourages the depressed client to withdraw further away from life and not to carry on with it. 

Olivia, age 18, had recently been forced to move out of her parents' house and into foster care after her father had beaten her mother and Olivia.  Even after being adopted by her aunt, Olivia became severely depressed.  She stated, "I felt like I had nothing to live for.  I didn't have a real home and I can't talk to my parents.  There was nothing left to me.  To distract myself, I went on the internet and lo and behold, there are other girls online with the same problems!  We chatted for hours and days." 

I asked Olivia, "Did you feel any better about life after talking to these girls?"  She stated no.  I then told Olivia, "This type of therapy replacement is only doing half the job of an effective support group.  Instead of moving on with your life with new found hope, you become more entrenched in your bitterness towards the world.  Without facing your troubles and gaining this new outlook on life, you will not be able to completely overcome your depression." 

I referred Olivia to a teen's support group in the local area and also gave her tips to minimalize her online time.  Think of your Olivia.  What other ways could you address his or her depression?  Is this one of the underlying causes of his or her problematic internet use?

♦ #2 Low Self-Esteem
The second emotional cause is low self-esteem.  Many clients who become addicted to the internet do so because they lack confidence in their own abilities or even their physical appearance.  Because many internet-addicted clients use aliases while posting or playing games, they have the ability to change their identity or hide any flaws they may perceive. 

The nature of the internet use can vary by gender.  Female clients seek companionship and relish the idea that no one can judge them primarily on their looks.  Males, seeking self-esteem through power and domination, gravitate towards online war games in which they can be transformed into a strong, powerful soldier fighting in a futuristic world. 

Jason, age 19, was awkward and shy around other people at his school.  He never felt like he fit in.  However, when he joined a game network, also known as MUD, Jason felt like a completely different person.  He stated, "MUDs are like religion to me, and I am a god there.  I am respected by all the other MUDders.  I know that I am playing against other highly intelligent people, and developing the winning strategies and getting stronger at the game gives me a great high.  Even when I’m not playing, I’m wondering if there will be more newbs for me to kill that night or which other guys will be playing." 

I stated to Jason, "Although the internet may be fulfilling a superficial self-esteem need, your serious confidence problems will not subside until you have addressed them directly."  Think of your Jason.  Is he or she using the internet as a remedy for low self-esteem?

Technique:  Transferring Positive Qualities
Even though Jason and Olivia had used the internet in a way that only exacerbated their emotional problems, I felt that it would be possible for them to transfer the small bit of confidence they found in themselves into their real life.  As such, I asked them to try the "Transferring Positive Qualities" exercise. 

I stated to each of them in separate sessions, "While you’ve been using the internet to find yourself and to begin to climb out of your shell, you may have made a positive first step.  But instead of limiting your social life to the faceless community, move on to real-life situations.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have that kind of caring support and respect from people you could see and touch?" 

I then asked them to write a list of attributes they have discovered through the use of the internet.  Olivia’s list included the following:
            -- I’m a sympathetic person
            -- I can be very articulate
            -- I can read people’s inner emotions
Jason, the client with a slightly different underlying emotional cause, wrote the following list:
            -- I can adapt quickly to rules
            -- I learn quickly
            -- I like to develop new strategies and apply them
Think of your Jason and Olivia.  Would they benefit from "Transferring Positive Qualities?"

♦ #3 Anxiety
In addition to depression and low self-esteem, the third underlying emotional cause is anxiety.  Clients who participate in high stress level jobs find the internet a convenient numbing tool.  Steven, age 16, had already been accepted into three ivy-league schools and was graduating two years early.  But his driving nature had taken its toll.  Even at this early age, Steven was showing signs of anxiety disorder and panic attacks and also deep pangs of guilt over his parents' divorce. 

He soon found the escapist benefits of the news groups and message boards the perfect fit to his anxious feelings.  Steven stated, "I got completely absorbed in these groups, and when I was there my pain and guilt went away.  If one of my groups folded or got boring, I’d immediately find a new one to replace it.  It was like having an insatiable thirst and never having enough water." 

I stated to Steven, "Even though it may feel like the internet is numbing your pain, in fact it is still underneath the surface.  Not only is your social life suffering, but your school work may as well.  Doesn’t this cause you even more anxiety than before?"  Think of your Steven.  Is he or she using the internet to numb anxious feelings? 

In this section, we examined underlying emotional causes that trigger a client’s problematic internet use.  These underlying causes included:  depression; low self-esteem; and anxiety.

In the next section, we will discuss concepts regarding children who become addicted to the internet.  These concepts include:  susceptible clients; warning signs; and acceptance.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Ciarrochi, J., Parker, P., Sahdra, B., Marshall, S., Jackson, C., Gloster, A. T., & Heaven, P. (2016). The development of compulsive internet use and mental health: A four-year study of adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 52(2), 272–283.

Donald, J. N., Ciarrochi, J., & Sahdra, B. K. (2020). The consequences of compulsion: A 4-year longitudinal study of compulsive internet use and emotion regulation difficulties. Emotion. Advance online publication. 

Fontes-Perryman, E., & Spina, R. (2021). Fear of missing out and compulsive social media use as mediators between OCD symptoms and social media fatigue. Psychology of Popular Media. Advance online publication.

Xiao, J., Li, D., Jia, J., Wang, Y., Sun, W., & Li, D. (2019). The role of stressful life events and the Big Five personality traits in adolescent trajectories of problematic Internet use. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 33(4), 360–370. 

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 5
What are three emotional causes that trigger a client’s problematic internet use? To select and enter your answer go to CEU Test.

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