*Military OneSource does not provide medical counseling services for issues such as depression, substance abuse, suicide prevention or post-traumatic stress disorder. The article below is intended for informational purposes only. Military OneSource can provide referrals to your local military treatment facility, TRICARE or another appropriate resource.
The demands of military life, such as frequent and significant change, separation from loved ones or periods of uncertainty can be stressful and overwhelming. You might feel lonely, anxious or concerned about family and friends, and you might be looking for ways to escape these feelings. The Internet can be a great resource that offers a vast network of support as well as a way to connect with those back at home. But the Internet offers a host of websites that contribute to dependent behavior that can be damaging to the user when used in excess.
Like other addictions to alcohol or gambling, online activities can become compulsive, uncontrollable behaviors that interfere with normal living and create stress in areas like relationships, school and work. Online dependency can lead to a frustrating cycle as users struggle to control their compulsive behavior, despair over their failure to do so and then find temporary relief by returning to the behavior.
This article describes some common Internet-based dependencies and provides some resources for support.
Types of online dependency
Online sexual behaviors range from watching online pornography to erotic text and video messaging with others. In either case, users can quickly be drawn in by sexual fantasies and behaviors they can experience anonymously and conveniently in cyberspace. Many people engage in sexual activities online that they would not perform in real life. A dependence may form when online sexual activities begin to interfere with real-life relationships and activities. Warning signs of online sexual dependency include:
- Many hours spent alone with the computer involved in fantasy sexual activities while real-life relationships suffer or fail to develop
- Frequent seeking of online sexual material for sexual arousal and gratification
- Increased interest in sexual fantasies or behavior that would not be carried out in real life (for example, S&M, cybersex with children, assuming a different gender or sexual orientation)
- Hiding online sexual activities from a significant other, loss of interest in a sexual partner
- Feelings of guilt or shame relating to online activities
It is important to note that the viewing, possession, receipt, distribution and production of child pornography is illegal both under federal law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Individuals found guilty face the possibility of significant confinement time, having to register as sex offender and other lifelong consequences. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, "child pornography" means material that contains either an obscene visual depiction of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct or a visual depiction of an actual minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct. "Minor" means any person under the age of 18. Military members face the possibility of a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, confinement for 10 years for viewing or possession and up to 20 years confinement for distribution of child pornography. Federal civilian criminal penalties are similarly severe.
Gambling and online auctions
Thousands of websites allow individuals to participate in online gambling by taking bets around the clock on sports, bingo, poker and other games played through online casinos. From the comfort of home, practically anyone with a credit card or bank account can gamble night or day, with minimal risk of being screened or hassled. People who wouldn't usually go into a casino or to a racetrack can be seduced by the emotional high that comes with winning.
Similarly to online gambling, people can also develop dependence on online auctions, as each winning bid brings an emotional high. It becomes easy to keep bidding on items they may or may not need to experience the feelings of pleasure and achievement that come from winning the auction. Bidding can interfere with a person's life as they find themselves compulsively checking the status of their bid. Other signs of compulsive online gambling or bidding are:
- Needing to gamble with increasing amounts of time and money, borrowing money to support the habit
- Repeated, unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop gambling
- Concealing the extent of online gambling from friends and family
- Using gambling to escape from problems or relieve guilt, anxiety or depression
- Suspecting or finding that gambling has damaged relationships, work, studies or career opportunities, or finding that gambling has created legal problems
Millions of American families enjoy playing video and online games as part of a range of healthy activities. Some games have chat features that give players a social outlet and a sense of belonging while interacting as the characters they represent. These games lure players with complex systems of goals and achievements. Each goal leads to another as players develop their characters from one level to the next. But for some players, online games can turn from a hobby into an obsession.
Players who become immersed in a game's fantasy world are most likely to be older teenage males and young adult males. They play for hours at a time, and can lose sight of real-world obligations even to the point of not sleeping, eating or taking care of personal hygiene. As with other addictions, players tend to deny they have a problem. When obsessed players do try to get out by killing their characters and quitting the game, they're likely to return to a new game and play addictively again unless they gain some awareness of the personal issues underlying the game habit. Warning signs of obsessive online gaming include:
- Inability to stop the activity
- Lying about gaming activities and withdrawal from family and friends
- Performance problems at school or on the job
- Physical symptoms such as carpal tunnel syndrome, dry eyes and weight loss
- Preoccupation with gaming when offline
Resources and help
Finding that you can't control, cut back, or stop an online activity on your own is a sign of dependency. Your compulsive behavior may be blocking out or distracting you from an underlying cause. Like other addictive behaviors, online activities can offer temporary feelings of power and control, self-worth, accomplishment, excitement, intimacy or belonging. These feelings, which may be missing from everyday life, are strong enough to keep people coming back to compulsive online activities long after recognizing them as unhealthy and unwanted.
More and more health care providers are recognizing and treating obsessions with online activities. Therapists help clients develop strategies to manage their time online and understand the underlying issues that fuel their obsession. Stopping Internet use completely is not usually a treatment goal, but giving up a particular program or activity may be necessary.
Some people find support groups very helpful, especially people who lack a strong social support system in their real lives. Others benefit more from individual counseling that helps them learn ways to control compulsive behavior and understand the underlying causes. When marital relationships have been affected, couples therapy can be the best approach.
You can also seek help from your local mental health center, hospital, military treatment facility or installation family support center. To find a support group, ask local service-providing organizations if there are any Internet addiction support groups in your area. If not, then ask about addiction recovery programs, twelve-step programs or mental health professionals offering recovery support groups that may include those with online dependencies.
If you need any help connecting with these resources and supports call Military OneSource at 1-800-342-9647. Consultants can put you in touch with programs and services in your local community.
It's not easy to ask for help overcoming online dependency. Many people are embarrassed by their behavior and their inability to control it and tend to downplay the extent of the problem. But avoiding or postponing asking for help only prolongs the suffering that online dependency causes. If you need help, the above resources are a great place to start.