The treatment of Internet Addiction is similar to the treatment of any other serious addiction. It generally begins when the individual reaches a “bottom” – a place where the negative consequences of the addiction are so severe and damaging that he or she decides to seek or accept help. With Internet Addiction the bottom often involves a sense of disconnection or alienation from physical experience; a breakdown of physical relationships; impaired performance in school, work and other important instrumental activities; emotional distress in the form of anxiety or depression; and operating within a virtual identity that becomes more compelling and psychologically real than one’s physical self.
Depending on the severity of the problem and the individual’s circumstances and resources, treatment for internet addiction can take place in a variety of settings ranging from: Outpatient individual or group therapy; Community-based, 12-step programs modeled after AA or NA; Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOPs) lasting from one to several months; or Short or Longer-term Residential Programs lasting from several months to a year.
Recently, as the number of cases involving problematic levels of Internet use has increased, there are more therapists who cite “Cybertherapy” or “Internet Addiction” or “Positive Device Management” as an area of specialization and more treatment programs that address this clinical issue.
While the setting and intensity of the treatment for internet addiction can vary, a 3-phase sequence of clinical goals is generally consistent across the different modalities.
Phase I: Temporary Abstinence
In the first phase, individuals temporarily abstain or severely curtail their digital usage. Because of the similarity to detox in the treatment of substance abuse, this initial period is sometimes referred to as “de-tech.”
Phase II: Addressing Underlying Issues
In the second phase (which usually overlaps with the de-tech period), individuals address any underlying mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, ADD, or trauma that may be contributing to their excessive Internet use and, in general, try to understand factors that lead to increased virtual involvement. In addition, clients learn cognitive and behavioral coping strategies to effectively manage and take control of their digital involvement. Efforts are also undertaken to reconnect the individual to the satisfaction of physical experience by promoting bodily awareness (via healthy eating; meditation, deep breathing, and mindful exercise; consistent sleep, and a range of somatic therapies), encouraging open and supportive face-to-face relationships (via individual, group, and family therapy); and engaging in “eco-therapy” interventions which involve activities in natural environments or wilderness experiences. In sum, the second phase of treatment is designed to simultaneously reduce the forces that drive excessive Internet use and to increase satisfying experiences in the physical world in order to recalibrate the ratio of involvement in the digital and physical realms.
Phase III: Relapse Prevention & Sustainable Use
Finally, once balance is restored between the physical and virtual domains of experience, the third phase of treatment focuses on issues of relapse prevention and maintaining adaptive, sustainable levels of Internet use. This often involves continuing in some form of a recovery process (e.g. individual or group therapy, participating in a 12-step community); staying involved in physical experience, especially in caring relationships in the physical world; remaining aware of one’s values and goals and acting in accordance with them, and being of service to others, including supporting others who are struggling with issues of Internet Addiction.
Richard Gilbert is Professor of Psychology of Loyola Marymount University and the Founding Director of The P.R.O.S.E. (Psychological Research on Synthetic Environments) Project, a research lab that investigates the psychological and cultural impact of leading-edge digital technologies such as virtual and augmented reality and artificial intelligence. In 2011, he and his colleagues published the first article ever written on addiction to virtual reality, virtual worlds, and the emerging 3-dimensional Internet.