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Twitter, Facebook, Smartphones and Other Drugs

How long has it been since you last looked at your smartphone? Sent a tweet or liked a post? Snuck in a few minutes playing a game or browsing headlines at Reddit, Huffington Post or TMZ? We understand the Internet--and the gadgets that bring it to us--can be a distraction. You know you've got to finish that TPS report, but you can't resist one more online clip. Or maybe dinner's ready and the kids are calling for you, but those Orcs aren't going to kill themselves. Yes, the Internet can pull us away from more important things. But can the Internet be an addiction?

Officially, no. Or at least, not yet. In May 2013, the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) will be released. For the first time, this manual will include Internet Use Disorder, which is described as a preoccupation with Internet gaming and withdrawal symptoms when the Internet is taken away. The manual is prepared by American Psychiatric Association and used, according to the APA, "to produce an evidence-based manual that is useful to clinicians in helping them accurately and consistently diagnose mental disorders." However, inclusion of Internet Use Disorder in the manual is only to encourage further study, not to render an official diagnosis.

That said, signs of addictive behavior regarding online activities have been with us for years. For instance, people may remember the 2005 story of a South Korean man who collapsed and died after playing an online game for 50 hours. And in 2006, Webster's Dictionary selected "Crackberry" as the word of the year. The word's selection was a nod to the incessant checking of messages on mobile devices. Though BlackBerry has since tumbled from its kingpin perch, innumerable Internet-connected smartphones are happy to provide your next hit.

Meanwhile, social networking sites have emerged as the latest source of addiction anxiety. Blogger Lauren Dugan recently made the connection between tweets and addictive substances, writing, "Twitter is like a drug, in many ways: It gives your brain a short-term thrill that you look for over and over again. It alters your behavior as you seek the pleasure hits a retweet gives you. And it sometimes negatively impacts other areas of your life." This month, news reports emerged about studies conducted in Germany that shined a spotlight on Facebook's addictive properties, particularly for girls and young women.

If you're concerned about your own online behavior, there are resources. For instance, Dr. Kimberly Young, founder of The Center For Internet Addiction Recovery, developed the Internet Addiction Diagnostic Questionnaire to diagnose Internet use disorder. (And, yes, we recognize the irony that a questionnaire on Internet addiction is available online.) According to Dr. Young, saying yes to five of the following eight questions is considered necessary to be diagnosed.

1. Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet (think about previous online activity or anticipate next online session)?

2. Do you feel the need to use the Internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?

3. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop Internet use?

4. Do you feel restless, moody, depressed or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use?

5. Do you stay online longer than originally intended?

6. Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?

7. Have you lied to family members, a therapist or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet?

8. Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (for example, feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression)?

Other symptoms include:

-Failed attempts to control behavior

-Heightened sense of euphoria while involved in computer and Internet activities

-Neglecting friends and family

-Neglecting sleep to stay online

-Being dishonest with others

-Feeling guilty, ashamed, anxious or depressed as a result of online behavior

-Physical changes such as weight gain or loss, backaches, headaches or carpal tunnel syndrome

-Withdrawing from other pleasurable activities

For most of us, the term "addiction" may overstate our attachment to the Internet, but we can go overboard with our online activity. The next click on the next link can provide delight or surprise, but sometimes it's a good idea to leave the wired (or wireless) world behind for awhile and talk to a real live person. Or just go outside and breathe. Give it a try.