The Seduction of the Virtual World: Does Internet Addiction Impair Real-World Social Skills?

Andy does two things when he gets home from school: he grabs a soda and a box of cereal from the kitchen then bolts up to his room to play video games online. There was a time Andy hung out with his friends after school, but they are all in their bedrooms as well now. They still play together, just online instead of in the real world.

This behavior might seem pretty normal in today’s world, but when should a parent be concerned that game time has turned into a child’s life? How does this affect social skills in the real world? Can someone become so enmeshed in the virtual world that they become socially isolated?

Dr. Hilarie Cash, who co-founded the reStart Internet Addiction Recovery Clinic in Washington, the first program of its kind in the United States, says that technology “can be more immediately gratifying than the labor of building an intimate relationship.”

Dr. Elias Aboujaoude from Stanford University’s Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Clinic says, “"What we’re seeing is that people with social anxiety are gravitating online as a substitute, and that can be OK to a certain point. There’s nothing wrong with having these connections, unless your real-life relationships begin to suffer, and that’s when it becomes problematic. Some of them truly have difficulty forming real-life relationships."

How can you tell if you or someone you care about is addicted to the Internet? Here are some signs to watch for:

Excessive time is spent online, at the expense of other activities

Friends or family complain about your time spent online

Internet usage is interfering with other important life activities (work, school, family)

You spend less and less time with real people so you can spend more time online

You get “itchy” when you can’t be online for any length of time

You have let friendships and other relationships lapse so you can be online

Do you feel euphoric during online activities?

Do you feel more lonely at times than you had before you spent this much time online?

If you answered yes to more than one of these questions, you may have or be heading toward Internet addiction. If you are, there are some steps you can take:

Set time limits on Internet usage

Schedule more real-world interactions (time with friends and family)

If you find you are still struggling, consider cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the most effective forms of therapy for compulsive behavior issues.