Is online life dangerous?

Always online - Internet addiction is so dangerous

Nobody notices anything when Theo Fischer goes to the university library in the morning and boots up his computer. The psychology student does what everyone does: stare at the screen, switch websites, type, scroll. Even on the train and in line at the supermarket checkout, he does not stand out from others when he stares at his cell phone. But Theo Fischer, who wants to keep his real name to himself, has a sick relationship with the online world. One that is out of control.

He researches for hours when his virtual counterpart asks him questions

While others are working on their homework or studying on exams, Theo hangs out in psychology chat forums, in dating sites or on what he calls "sensitivity pages". He waits for Plings, revises his profiles and researches for hours when his virtual counterpart asks him questions. "It just goes on at home," he says. "I don't sleep much at night, my rhythm is mixed up. I also don't eat right anymore." He completely neglected his studies - he has already had ten semesters under his belt.

Those who can no longer control how often they use the Internet are addicted

In Germany, according to the latest drug and addiction report by the federal government, around one percent of the population suffers from "manifest internet addiction", and another 4.6 percent of Germans show addictive behavior that could lead to such addiction. According to experts, this occurs when Internet use can no longer be controlled and "leads to significant suffering" or "to an impairment of everyday functionality". Theo fully applies the definition. Also typical: For a long time he refused to admit that his behavior was that of an addict. He is also not one of the classic network junkies, the computer game addicts who acquire a new identity in a parallel world, immerse themselves in it for many hours and gradually lose touch with reality. "These game worlds have never appealed to me," says Theo. "I belong to those who are lonely, who feel an inner emptiness. I try to fill this constantly." He keeps turning on his PC, a new message could have arrived.

As many people are addicted to social networks as they are to computer games

The Federal Ministry of Health learned three years ago when the Pinta study was published that the group of people who are dependent on contact exchanges is growing fairly quickly. It says that just as many people are addicted to social networks as they are to computer games and the level of suffering is comparable. Nevertheless: almost only computer game addicts come to the advice centers and clinics. "We only have gamers with us at the moment," says the AHG-Klinik Münch, who treats Internet addiction as an inpatient.

So far, we can only guess where the discrepancy comes from. The Mainz psychologist Kai Müller believes that people who are dependent on social networks can better reconcile their addiction with everyday life and thus hide it more easily. "Computer game addicts, on the other hand, have to spend several hours at a time on a fixed PC," he says. "That doesn't even work on the cell phone every now and then." The Tübingen addiction doctor Kay Petersen can imagine that computer game addiction is perceived as a greater danger in society. "It's also better researched," he says. That is why the therapies are more geared towards her.

It wasn't until Theo read the university hospital's catalog of criteria that he realized he was an addict

Theo would not have thought of receiving therapy either. He is single and lives alone. As a student who can organize his own daily routine, he belongs to a risk group. Only when a circular from the University Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy landed in his inbox, in which people suspected of being Internet addicted were asked to take part in a therapy study, did he take off his blinkers. "I read the catalog of criteria and it became clear to me: you are one of them."

There is still no therapy that specifically deals with the dependence on social networks. So far, those affected have usually been put with the computer game addicts, observes the addiction doctor Petersen, who examined the therapy offers in Germany a few years ago. Often there is not even a distinction between online gamers and normal gamblers. He plans to present an updated inventory in April. "That could help to align the offers more closely to the target groups in the future," says Petersen.

There are no therapies against internet addiction

There are no therapies against Internet addiction on prescription, it is recognized as "non-substance addiction" by the health insurances as behavioral addiction. Doctors have to make do with diagnoses such as "impulse control disorders" or "depressive moods" so that the health insurers can still pay for a therapy. "Research is also lagging behind," says Petersen. Because the researchers disagree on whether Internet addiction is actually an addiction disorder. "You can't even agree on a common name for a diagnosis."

In behavior therapy, Theo learns to understand his addictive behavior

The therapies come from classic addiction treatment - Theo has attended behavioral therapy. In individual and group discussions, the participants learn to analyze their addictive behavior themselves. Then they are shown ways to abstinence. "I've tried a few things," says Theo. He blocked problematic sites - and shortly thereafter regained access to them using the administrator account. He pulled the software for the WLAN access from his notebook, made deals with himself: one day access, one day none. Now he has logged off the WLAN at home. "At least that's how I get to my sleep."

Drawing a clear line is much more difficult on the internet

It is much more difficult for him to make a clear cut than for computer game addicts. As with bulimics who have to eat anyway, he too cannot completely escape the Internet. Gamers, on the other hand, can log out of their game and digitally bury their "avatar" - their online identity - in cemeteries, for example. "Saying goodbye can be extremely painful, but it helps those affected to close the chapter once and for all," says the psychologist Sara Hanke, who accompanies the therapy concept in Tübingen.

Addicted to the overstimulation

In parallel to the process of breaking away from the websites, the participants have to think about how they want to spend the time that is freed up. "The Internet eats up all the interests of addicts. If the vacuum is not filled immediately, the risk of relapse is high," Hanke notes. "After all the overstimulation, many find it difficult to find something that captivates them as much as the computer does," says Hanke.

The government of the Internet nation South Korea has meanwhile taken drastic measures. Almost every household there has high-speed broadband internet - and studies show that one in ten is addicted to the internet.

In Korea there are camps in the mountains where internet addicts come down

In the first phase there were blocking times for certain servers, then the manufacturers had to redesign their games, and there are camps in the mountains where internet addicts are supposed to re-learn a life without an internet connection and mobile phone. The experiences there were difficult to transfer to Germany, says addiction expert Petersen.

Theo has largely defeated his addiction today. "I've logged out of the worst chat forums," he says. He doesn't have to think long about how to fill the vacuum. "I would like a girlfriend," he says. A real one.