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What to do if Internet shopping becomes an addiction 

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Almost everyone can relate to the shopping temptations technology presents. Even the busiest nine-to-fivers browse shopping sites on their work computers. But when does Internet shopping become a problem?

  Shopping addiction, also known as compulsive buying disorder or compulsive shopping, is not new. Defined as an obsession with shopping and buying behavior that causes adverse consequences, shopping addiction affects approximately 5.8 percent of the U.S. population, according to a 2006 study by the American Journal of Psychiatry. What is just beginning to be understood, however, is the way the Internet can fuel such an addiction.

How does the Internet encourage shopping addiction?

While shoppers in the past had to leave home to buy merchandise, today's consumers can access an endless stream of goods and make purchases with the click of a mouse. E-marketing strategies (such as emails that lure shoppers with new merchandise and time-limited flash sales) can create a sense of urgency in individuals who otherwise might not buy so quickly.

  "The web and even more so with mobile technology makes it so easy to act on impulse," says Andrew Nelson, assistant professor of the School of Mass Communications at Loyola University. An award-winning journalist who designed Loyola's first social media course, Nelson says the Internet and social media make it easier for retailers to target consumers by tracking their patterns and generating peer endorsements.

  "Millennials are very savvy about social media, and brands have gotten really good at hitching a ride to that," he says. "When we invite social media into our world, commercial messaging becomes something we act on without even thinking about it."

What is Internet shopping addiction?

Dr. Jose Calderon, assistant professor of psychiatry at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine, defines addiction as "compulsive use of substances or behaviors despite ongoing negative consequences." As with other addictions, Calderon says, compulsive shopping is characterized by a loss of control and destructive results including debt, shame and relationship difficulties.

  There's disagreement about whether compulsive shopping is considered an impulse control disorder, an anxiety or mood disorder, an obsessive-compulsive disorder or an addiction.

  Calderon believes it is all of those. "Addictions in general cut across the board," he says. "There's a genetic predisposition and different realms from the biological to the emotional and spiritual."

  Treating the underlying issues is key. "Unlike alcoholism, the model of treatment is not abstinence," Calderon says. "At some point, everyone has to shop."

Who's at risk

Compulsive shopping is not the primary reason the majority of Calderon's patients seek his help. He says shopping addiction often goes "hand-in-hand with other addictions and problems with impulse control" such as alcoholism, tobacco use or binge eating. Other mood disorders such as depression and anxiety can be present as well. According to Calderon, studies show compulsive shopping is more common in women than men. But men tend to be underrepresented in studies and are categorized more often as collectors than shopaholics.

  Calderon says compulsive shopping is often a chronic condition that gets out of control at stressful times of life: the transition to college; the 30s and 40s when people experience job, family and financial stresses; and retirement.

  "People who are struggling with something internally and don't have good coping skills to deal with that," can be susceptible, says Dr. Mary Stock, a licensed clinical social worker who devotes more than half her practice to addiction work. "It's a quick fix. Addictions are always about running from something."

Recognizing the signs

According to Stock, Internet shopping becomes a problem when it makes your life unmanageable. Overspending, taking time away from work and family activities to shop online, isolation, lying and making excuses about your shopping, guilt, shame, lack of trust from others (as a result of lying), having to spend more to achieve the same feeling, and an inability to cut back on Internet shopping are telltale signs.

Beating the addiction

Calderon recommends people with Internet shopping addictions learn more about the problem by researching it. Once you've recognized the symptoms, educated yourself and decided to be proactive about changing the behavior, it's helpful to deal with the unique enticements of e-commerce and the underlying problems.

  "Technology makes the accessibility easier, but it's important the underlying issues are addressed," Stock says. Limiting computer access, cutting up credit cards, reducing credit card limits and investing in software filters that can block certain sites are ways to curtail Internet spending.

  Seeking help from a mental health professional or groups such as Shopa- holics Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous can help with the long-term part of the equation.

  "The largest impediment to anyone's financial security is credit card debt," says financial advisor Randy Waesche of Resource Management LLC. "If your credit card bills are growing monthly and all you can afford to spend is the minimum payment, you will never get ahead."

  Self care (learning to establish boundaries, develop coping skills and recognize triggers), mindfulness (being present in the moment, breathing and not acting on the impulse) and medication also can help. Calderon notes that antidepressants can have positive effects. Opiate blockers, while not well-studied, may lessen the pleasurable feeling or high that addicts experience. Finally, replacing online shopping with meaningful activities and interaction is an essential piece of the puzzle.

  "Addictions shrink people's lives," Calderon says. "People lose relationships, money and other things. There needs to be recovery of other areas of one's life that have been impoverished. As the behavior stops, people need to reclaim hobbies, exercise, relationships, reconnect on a spiritual level and be of service to others."

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