When Using the Computer Becomes a Problem

By September 2, 2014February 11th, 2015Health and Wellness

The computer is a tool that can make much of our life’s work and communication easier and faster. Computers are everywhere – in the workplace, at home, and in our phones, pockets, and briefcases. Unfortunately, computer use can also have a dark side and can be the vehicle for a wide range of personal and social problems.

Generally speaking, a person may have difficulty with the responsible use of computers if he/she has difficulty with impulse control or exhibits other compulsive behaviors or addictions. In addition, a person may have difficulty with the responsible use of computers if he/she lacks social skills or is otherwise socially isolated.

It’s important to be clear that the computer is not the problem. Each of us is responsible for our individual behavior and for maintaining a healthy balance in our life. A problem exists when an individual has lost control over his/her behavior and feels compelled to use the computer to carry out certain activities. A problem also exists when an individual begins to experience significant difficulties in personal, social, or occupational areas of life due to their use of the computer. These problems may surface as conflict or breakdown in relationships, financial problems, decreased productivity, loss of employment, social withdrawal, engaging in illegal activities, or acting out the fantasy behavior of the virtual world in the real world in the form of aggression or distortion.

A person may be identified as having a problem with computer use if he/she exhibits some/or all of the following behaviors over a significant period of time:

  1. Feels preoccupied with one or more games/sites on the computer;
  2. Feels a need to access one or more games/sites with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction;
  3. Has an inability to control computer use;
  4. Feels restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop computer use;
  5. Uses the computer as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a poor mood (feelings of helplessness, guilt, loneliness, anxiety or depression);
  6. Lies to family members or friends to conceal the extent of involvement with the computer games/sites;
  7. Jeopardizes or risks the loss of a significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the computer use;
  8. Keeps returning even after spending an excessive amount of money to purchase products and/or access to various sites;
  9. Goes through symptoms of depression, irritability, anger, aggression, anxiety, and/or social withdrawal when unable to access the computer.
  10. Stays on the computer much longer than originally intended.

Modified from: “Pathological Internet Use: The Emergence of A New Clinical Disorder”, by Kimberly S. Young, Psy.D. University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, 1997.


There are several factors related to using the computer that inherently reinforce compulsive behaviors. These include:

Easy Access and Affordability: People are becoming more familiar with computers and they are more readily available for use at home and in the workplace.
Social Support: There is the opportunity to meet, socialize, and exchange ideas with a wide variety of people, to make new friends, and to develop emotionally intimate relationships with the possibility of taking the relationship beyond the computer interaction.
Sexual Fulfillment: There is the opportunity to engage in sexually explicit fantasies, sexual exploration, information gathering regarding sex and sexuality, to “cheat without cheating” in relationships, and to give in to sexual compulsions without immediate consequence.
The Opportunity to Create a Persona: There is the opportunity to engage in imaginative, aggressive, and competitive play, and/or to compensate for a lack of social skills, loneliness, an unsatisfactory life, low self-esteem, and feelings of inadequacy. You can pretend to be whoever you want to be.
Anonymity: There is the opportunity to engage in behavior with immediate reinforcement but without immediate negative consequences, and to explore socially unacceptable aspects of one’s self or others with relative anonymity.


When a person’s computer use becomes a problem, there are several subtle warning signs that gradually increase in magnitude until the disruption is evident in your personal, work, or social life. Here is a list of some things to look for in determining whether or not there is a problem with computer use. It’s important to remember that these symptoms may indicate a problem with computer use or they may indicate problems in other important areas. If you, your child, your friend or your partner is exhibiting some or all of these signs, begin by expressing concern and asking questions about what is going on.

  • Loss of productivity
  • Lack of concentration
  • Loss of interest in work
  • Social withdrawal
  • Isolation/loneliness
  • Depression
  • Problems/breakdown in relationships
  • Increase in personal telephone calls/mail at work
  • Sneaky/secretive behavior
  • Change in behavior
  • More sexually explicit behavior, i.e. sexual harassment
  • Financial problems
  • Substance abuse
  • Other forms of compulsive behavior (shopping, gambling, food)
  • Sleep disorder
  • Excessive use of the computer, i.e. before or after working hours, during breaks
  • Obsessively discussing computer behavior
  • Excitement or arousal with computer activities

Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., R. Psych.
Consulting Psychologist