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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?

Dangerous Online Habit continued...

Greenfield, who has authored a book called Virtual Addiction, is one of several mental health experts that recognize Internet addiction as a growing problem, certainly one that could facilitate other compulsions. He says that 6%-10% of online users are addicted to the Web, and about half of them visit porn sites or have cybersex chats.

His estimations appear similar to the figures used by the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, which put the number of addicted Internet users at 5%-10% of those online.

The institute has compiled the findings of various studies on addictions and has determined the following: Of the general population, 8%-10% are addicted to alcohol or chemicals, 1.5%-3% to gambling, 1%-3% to food, 5% to sex, and 2%-8% to spending.

There are specialists, however, who question the legitimacy of the use of the word "addiction" in relation to various topics. The term, critics say, may now be used too loosely.

Defining Addiction

Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh recently confessed to his listeners that he was addicted to painkillers. Actress Halle Berry's estranged husband, Eric Benet, reportedly checked himself into a rehabilitation center last year for treatment of a sex addiction.

There's certainly nothing new about addictions among celebrities and common folk, but the type of compulsive behavior reported appears to be more varied. It seems people used to talk only of alcohol or drug addiction. Now, the discussion also involves things such as food, sex, shopping, gambling, and the Internet.

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

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