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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Internet to Sex: Defining Addiction

Addiction is used to describe everything from the Internet to shopping to sex. So how do you tell when something really becomes an addiction?

Defining Addiction continued...

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) describes addiction as a compulsive behavior with a continued craving to use a psychoactive substance.

Although ASAM neither favors nor opposes treatment for other problems, the organization's president, Lawrence Brown, MD, MPH, does believe that the term addiction is often misused.

"Most people know someone who they think is an 'addict,'" he says. "What they mean by that, if you ask 10 people, you may likely get 10 different answers -- even among my esteemed colleagues."

Brown says his group is only concerned about matters that are scientifically proven to be a great public health concern. He notes the overwhelming data on the negative consequences of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. This is why ASAM is currently focusing efforts only on addictions to these substances.

On the other hand, psychiatrist Michael Brody, MD, a spokesman for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, defines addiction with the following criteria:

  1. A person needs more and more of a substance or behavior to keep him or her going.
  2. If the person does not get more of the substance or behavior, she or he becomes miserable and irritable.

An addiction can apply to anything from caffeine to the Internet, says Brody.

Regardless of the debate on the terminology, the fact is that compulsive use of things such as the Internet exists and causes real problems, says Greenfield. He also notes that people who abuse the Internet show the same characteristics as those who abuse drugs or alcohol. These warning signs of addiction include:

  • Greater sense of isolation
  • Diminished social interaction
  • Reduced attention to personal hygiene
  • More legal difficulties
  • Change in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Increased irritability
  • Reluctance to change the compulsive behavior

The Root of Addiction

At first, Rachel (not her real name) didn't think anything was wrong with using sex as weapon to get her way in relationships with men -- even when her plan to turn an unfaithful boyfriend's head meant sacrificing grocery money for the latest line of lingerie and toys.

"I did feel an adrenaline rush when ... I could turn his head instead of him cheating with somebody else," says the 47 year-old school counselor. "It felt like a hit -- like I downed shots of liquor -- when my plan worked."

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