Tuesday, April 3, 2012

ADHD and "Cyber Junkies"

Once my boyfriend starts on the Internet, there's no turning back. It seems the perfect trap for people with ADHD: He can drift aimlessly from topic to topic with just the click of a mouse. I just wish he could use all that internet time for something useful.   –Beth

My wife was supposed to turn in her masters-thesis outline by Tuesday. After doing nothing for six months, she worked at the computer all night in a last-minute attempt and still spent half the time playing games on Facebook. I think a typewriter would have presented fewer distractions.

My husband seems very addicted to the computer.  Ours is downstairs, and if I ask him to get something from down there it takes him 20 minutes because he stops to play a game or do some "social-networking." When I finally call down to see what is taking so long he yells back in anger. He was addicted to porn at one point. Who knows. Maybe he still is.   –Kim

It's not only the partners of adults with ADHD who report concerns about computer addiction. The adults themselves  curse electronic gadgets' mesmerizing hold over them. In this previous post, for example, Glen says he staves off sleep by scanning every news headline worldwide on the Internet. And he is not alone.

Clearly, many of us recognize this potential problem. But what to do about it? Below, national cyber-addiction expert, author, and support-group leader Kevin Roberts offers pro-active strategies.
                                                                                     –Gina Pera                                    

Are you a Cyber Junkie? 

Five Steps to Take Back Your Life


By Kevin Roberts

Author and cyber-addiction expert Kevin Roberts
Do you, like many adults with ADHD struggle to regulate the amount of time you spend online?  Has “social networking” on Facebook turned into real-time isolation?  Is the cyber world sabotaging your chances for success and happiness? If these questions hit home, you’re not alone.

I am an ADHD adult who also suffers from anxiety.  In addition to these challenges, I spent 14,000 hours over ten years wasting my life on computer games, endless Facebook sessions, and random Internet surfing.  The problem is now under control, but it is a daily effort to keep it that way.

We know that somewhere around 50 percent of untreated ADHD adults will, at some point in their lives, turn to substance abuse.  Data has started to mount that an even greater percentage of people with ADHD struggle with excessive, or even addictive, use of the cyber world.  In both cases, people who do not get treatment usually attempt to self-medicate, meaning that they engage in substances, or behaviors, that temporarily ease the discomfort or the disorder.

In my case, I was aware of the ADHD but not of my anxiety.  Computer gaming was my escape, my reprieve from inexplicably feeling ill at ease.  I say escape because when I was on the computer, I had something to occupy my mind, and did not have to focus on feeling bad.  I didn’t know it was anxiety, but I knew at some level, something was not right.  Compulsive computer gaming allowed me to avoid delving into that.

When I finally got disgusted enough with my life, I went into therapy and learned there were triggers that sent me into the cyber-mediated time warp.  I use that term because I, like many cyber junkies, lose track of time when I am on the computer.  Four hours feel like twenty minutes!  I came to a point when I realized I had a problem, and that my life was not the way I really wanted it.


STEP 1:  Do you have a problem?

Do you spend more time on the computer, video games, or smart phone than you want to?  Do these behaviors prevent you from having the life you really want?  You may not be a full-fledged addict, but at the very least consider that your online and cyber behaviors may be preventing you from living life to the fullest. Taking this cyber-addiction quiz might help you assess your situation.

To some extent, all the “cyber junkies” I have encountered have issues in their lives that the cyber world helps them avoid. These issues are, for the most part, not the result of their excessive cyber activities, but rather are the factors that drive them to those activities in the first place. Some of us adults with ADHD struggle with social skills, consistent fulfillment of duties and responsibilities, and even with simply keeping our houses clean.  If you regularly choose, like I used to, cyber activities over tackling the challenges of life, it might be time to admit something is amiss.  If you think there could be a problem, get some help!

With my therapist’s guidance, I discovered that what I had for years called boredom was something much more complex.  I would tell myself, “I’m bored,” which I desperately wanted to get out of.  Boredom had plagued me my whole life, especially in school.  I suppose in some ways boredom is restlessness, not satisfied where I’m at, having a desire to do something different, but not knowing what to do.  Rather than wade through this confusion, I shut my mind down to everything except my game. Once I realized that “boredom” was the gateway to addictive binges, I knew what to watch out for. 

  STEP 2:  Know your triggers. 

When you begin to work on yourself, you will find that you become much more aware of the small choices that lead to spending too much time on a computer, smart phone, or video game.  For many cyber junkies, being alone at home increases the likelihood of a cyber-binge.  Others find that emotional upset, whether at work or home, often precedes the hours-long episodes of “screen stasis.”  My therapist had me keep a journal to help me ascertain what my triggers were.  I found this to be most beneficial. 

When we take ownership for our choices, we begin to take power over our lives by short-circuiting what used be an automatic series of behaviors.  The trouble with cyber addictions is that the computer, or smart phone, is always there.  If you’re bored with the task at hand, there’s always a distraction waiting for you online. 

 As I started to successfully interrupt the cascade of events that took me from “boredom” to compulsive gaming and Facebooking, I also noticed a huge uptick in my anxiety.  For me, anxiety is an underlying sense that something bad is going to happen, coupled with helplessness that I don’t know how to prevent it.  The reason I began to experience it much more intensely is because I was actually feeling it, instead of escaping.  Sometimes, it feels worse before it gets better.

I worked with a therapist who got me in touch with the bodily sensations of anxiety: a churning abdomen, tension across my forehead, and jittery hands.  With his help, I was able to recognize those visceral signs and, instead of bee- lining to the computer, I used some of the biofeedback techniques he had taught me to calm down my body, and mind.  I was able to exert control over the seemingly automatic reactions of my body.

  STEP 3:  Cultivate Awareness, Deal with Your Issues. 

If you’re like me, you may often feel like a victim, like there’s nothing you can do differently.  I assure you that no matter what your core issues are, help is available and you’re not alone.  I dropped out of college for several years, and used to spend all my free time playing video games and engaging in endless online social networking.  I am now about to have my second book published, which was made possible by following the five steps in this article!  I also went back to school and got my Master’s degree, a feat which involved a lot of time in front of the computer and therefore really tested me.

The key is to develop exercises and behaviors that make you more aware and that give you a chance to choose a healthy path.  Spending too much time on the computer is often intertwined with not knowing what else to do.  Develop your own daily routine that keeps you mindful of the life you want, whether an aerobic exercise program, meditation practice, or real-world adventures. 

In spite of therapy, meditating, and doing biofeedback every day, I would still fall into the occasional binge, sometimes for a week or more.  I tried several medications for ADHD and anxiety.  I went through a merry-go-round of five different medications, and had powerful side effects with four of them, and the fifth had no impact at all.  On the other hand, I know of several cyber junkies with ADHD who have found that the right medication significantly helps the problem. One 18-year old put it this way:  “When I’m on my meds, the big jolt I get from video games is just not there, and so I don’t feel like getting on.” I have seen ADHD medication transform lives!  This approach deserves serious consideration. 

While not finding the right med for myself, I had been meeting with my therapist once a week, but that just didn’t seem like enough.  I couldn’t afford to go more often, but felt like I needed a higher level of support.  Like many ADHD people, I get excited when something is new, but as routine settles in, I have extraordinary difficulty keeping it going.  As Dr. Russell Barkley has so aptly stated about ADHD people:  “It’s not that they don’t know; it’s that they have problems doing what they know.” 

I have found that the only thing that can keep me on track is support, frequently reaching out to others.  I participate in CHADD support groups, cyber recovery support groups, and have two close friends with whom I check in every day.  These two are also cyber junkies, so we help each other.  I really cannot do it alone.

STEP 4: Develop a Support Network.

During my years of active cyber addiction, I had isolated myself and cloaked my behaviors to such an extent that no one had any clue about the true scope of my problem.  When we try to come out of addiction-mediated isolation, part of that process has got to involve reaching out to other people, not only to get help and support, but to give those things as well!  Support is especially crucial for ADHD people. 

Even with support, you will not be successful unless you remind yourself each and every day why you are making the effort.

STEP 5:  Brainstorm Goals.

In ADHD, the prefrontal cortex functions atypically, accounting for a good chunk of our difficulties with planning, organization, and following through.  One great method to improve this cerebral reality is setting goals.  I type out short-term and long-term goals sheets and I make many copies, putting them in my car, on the bathroom mirror, on the refrigerator, and even in my shoes so I see them before I leave the house.  I have one 18x24 inch poster board with my long-term goals in block letters.  That awaits me every day in the passenger seat of my car.

Again, I get excited at the beginning of a new goal, and then progressively lose steam.  You have to expect that will happen and take measures to ensure that you keep going!  Write down your goals and make sure you are reminded multiple times every day.  Daniel Amen calls this “developing an auxiliary prefrontal cortex,” and I am inclined to agree. 

Make these steps a habit over the next thirty days and you will be on the road to a more balanced, productive, and successful life.  Yes, ADHD carries a great many liabilities.  No sane person can deny that.  But I have found that with proper treatment, support, and goals, ADHD people are capable of truly extraordinary accomplishments.  Don’t let the cyber world rob you of success!  

How about you? Can you relate to the "siren call" of just checking your e-mail one more time before you go to bed? Can't tear yourself way from that online multi-player game or that great recipe website? Is "cyber addiction" a problem in your life? Or, what did you do to wean yourself off so much online activity?  

Kevin Roberts is an ADHD coach, educational consultant, and addiction counselor.  A nationally recognized expert in cyber addiction, he is the author of Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap (Hazelden 2010). Click here to visit his blog. Kevin leads face-to-face support groups in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.


  1. Wow, thank you so much for posting this Gina. I have oficially recognized myself as a cyber junkie, and I guess that just adds up to my ADHD pile of difficulties.

    In my case I have a lot of time to be home alone, and I also do a lot of my work and study-related activities on the computer so I'm the perfect target for a behavior like this, and it does feel like an addiction.
    Just today, I wan running late for my classes (I teach English... yeah, I know, an ADHDer teaching!) and falling behind on the lesson planning, and my first solution to the problem was surfing the internet! As if it were some sort of relief or something! There I felt like a true junkie. And later tonight after coming home from the lesson, I saw this post. Awesome timing! ;)

    I definetely am trying to recognize my triggers. It's hard because I don't always remember to do so, and I don't always remember what triggers what; but when I do remember, it's really helpful. I guess having insight and getting to know ourselves is key to handling this disordered mind of ours.

    Well that's all I had for now. Bye :)

  2. Thank you Gina! I read this article with interest. I recognize myself in it and consciously try to deal with Internet use. But it's so hard because I do not feel I'm on the computer so long. It seems much shorter.

    Your Duch reader.

  3. Thanks Gina.


  4. This really explains why I quit World of Warcraft a couple of weeks ago: “When I’m on my meds, the big jolt I get from video games is just not there, and so I don’t feel like getting on.”
    I've been on Concerta for 3 months now ;-)

  5. Very interesting, Kaetje! I hope you've found something interesting to do with all that extra time. ;-)

    Roos -- great point. Time can seem to fly when engrossed online. Add that to the difficulty many adults with ADHD have in noticing the passage of time, and it can be a real time trap.

    Dylan - you're most welcome.

    Georgina -- I agree, it's sort of like someone who is dieting still needing to eat. Most of us can't stay away from the computer or the Internet entirely; we use it for work or other useful purposes. So, we have to self-regulate.

    My husband and I have made it a rule to leave Sundays as a computer free day. As you might notice, today is a Sunday! I am just here for a few minutes, and then back to reading my book. :-)

  6. Took the quiz. Have a problem, haha. It's so easy to go down a rabbit hole while surfing the web, especially when you're doing research. I always wondered what college students did before the internet (God forbid, you have to go the the LIBRARY), but maybe it was better that way??


    1. Hi Brett,

      I graduated college in 1978, and let me tell you, I am SO GLAD the Internet was not around! Too much temptation, too much shortening of the attention span. Too much like my latest addictive discovery: M&M chocolate pretzels!

      I know I sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but I also honestly think that dealing with card catalogs (yes, ancient times!) and painstakingly looking up sources in books and microfiche made me be a much more selective researcher. I also learned to judge my sources and focus on the more reputable ones.

      The answer these days is to have definite routines where you UN-PLUG. From everything.

      Good luck!

  7. The thought of really unplugging is a dream! I am new empty nester since my daughter went off to college with her year round apartment. She is wonderfully launched and everyone tells me that I am a very successful parent. However, I am a 11 year single parent, 3 year diagnosis with ADHD, self employed, and struggling witht dating! On line dating plus work keeps me on line too much. A casual observer would not notice my issues since I am reasonalbly attractive, out going, and considered successful....but I am so lonely. As one girl friend stated....the computer has become your boy friend. She is not wrong. This feels like prison that I have locked myself into. I keep hoping that I will meet a guy who will distract me to unplug. So far I am pursued by men who are too faraway to be seriously considered. The laptop and Smart Phone have me so involved that they feel like an umbilical cord. I know I have crossed the line to be addicted to cyber space. Where do I start to handle this?


Thank you for your comment. To receive any responses by e-mail, click the "subscribe" link just below this box.