Online shopping: a virtual escape

26 May 2011

Written by: Penny Evangelou

My name is Penny and I am an online shopping addict.

Recently I discussed my finances with my mum — something I never do. I was telling her about my plans to head to Europe in the coming year and I told her how much I had saved. Her reaction was not quite what I expected.

She looked up at me and asked me the one question I dreaded, ‘Where did all your money go?’

From there on in, things started to get a little heated. I told her that she didn’t understand, that I didn’t get paid enough, that I had spent the majority of my money on 21st presents.

There was some merit to my rambling explanation, but it certainly wasn’t the whole truth. As the discussion waged on I got increasingly defensive about my spending habit — the first red flag of addiction. I ended up storming off to get away from the supposed interrogation, but my mother had fixed an idea in my head.

I decided to check my savings transaction history and, not so surprisingly, I had spent a lot. In fact, I had spent somewhere close to six thousand dollars in the past few months, and it wasn’t just for presents and petrol.

I continued to sift through my transactions trying to work out where it was all going. The words ‘ASOS’, ‘TOPSHOP’ and ‘eBay’ kept popping up on my screen.

I realised that this wasn’t just a love of clothes and accessories; this was a much bigger problem.

It was an obsession I couldn’t escape because the problem was inside my home, at my uni, even on my phone. My addiction could follow me, anytime, anywhere, and I was in no position to stop it.

Google ‘online shopping addictions’ and thousands of posts will come up. This is not a new epidemic, but rather an ever-evolving issue. An issue that has gathered speed particularly in Australia with the rise of the dollar, alongside a general determination from shoppers to find a bargain. And it’s now being classified as a mental condition, as real as a drug dependency or a gambling problem.

But why do we become addicted to online shopping? Is it any worse than a regular shopping addiction?

American psychologist Kimberly Young says that the major attraction to online shopping is convenience.

‘One can go online to shop 24/7 without any lines like you would see in the mall,’ says the author of Internet Addiction: A Handbook and Guide to Evaluation and Treatment.  ‘I see many men enjoying online shopping more than women because it is more convenient.’

However, not only men enjoy the convenience of the e-retailer. As a woman there is something so enticing about being able to shop in your  pyjamas away from the prying eyes of pushy sales assistants and ill-lit dressing rooms.

For me, online shopping is not only a material satisfaction but also an escape, a place where I can be adventurous in my purchases.

Dr Young explains that, like most other internet related addictions, it’s the ‘escapism’ element of shopping online that makes it so addictive as it takes your mind off problems while you’re looking for items.

She acknowledges though that there are a variety of reasons people escape inside their cyber obsessions.

‘There isn’t really a single cause,’ she says. ‘For some people, it is the escape into online fantasies through gaming or chat rooms, for others, it is online relationships through social media, for others it is online porn or gambling. It really does vary.’

Whenever I ask my peers for reasons why they shop online, it always comes down to the experience (alongside the bargains of course). Speaking as a self-confessed cyber-shop addict I would have to agree. Online shopping isn’t just handing over cash for clothes; it’s a packaged process. You see, you admire, you buy and then you wait. And while you’re waiting you fantasize about how glorious your new bag, dress, shoes or Harry Potter costume will be when it finally arrives. It’s the combination of impulse purchasing and agonizing wait-periods that make the internet-buy so special.

That being said, it doesn’t take much for things to get out of hand.

Many online shopping addicts are diagnosed with Impulse Control Disorder, or ICD – the inability to resist an impulsive action  that may be harmful to the individual or others.

One sufferer, Debbie, spent $18,000 in a year on online shopping alone. She said it was the combination of a need to ‘escape’, a bad marriage, the excitement she got from packages arriving and the idea of owning something ‘unique’ that fueled her addiction.  She tells her story online on the website, Impulse Control Disorder Therapy.

‘I found myself spending a great deal on shipping charges too,’ says Debbie. ‘At its worst, I would place 2-3 orders in a day. It had become exhausting, expensive, and totally out of control.’

In hindsight, my addiction is minor compared to that of others.

Clinical psychologist and hypnotherapist, Janet Hall says that the reason online shopping addictions are so dangerous is because they make the buyer feel somewhat free of monetary responsibility.

‘The internet has increased the ability for consumers to shop in more locations, shop for longer periods of time and purchase more items with ease,’ Dr Hall says. ‘It seems less real to charge your card online so the impact of the fact is lessened. You kid yourself that this is not serious money!’

It is a reality that online spending is on the rise. According to the Reserve Bank of Australia, purchases made to e-retailers with debit and credit cards has grown more than 15 per cent annually since 2005.

With so many of us choosing to buy online it sometimes becomes difficult to identify what is ‘normal’ shopping behavior and what isn’t. From personal experience, I didn’t realise I had a problem because so many people around me were doing the same thing, just not as excessively.

Dr Hall says that you can identify someone that has an addiction by the following behaviors:

‘They are in debt; they spend excessive amounts of time online that may even make their normal lives suffer; they may have bought items which they never even use; they collect excessively; they deny they are in trouble.’

Dr Young also offers a test on her site, netaddiction.com, to gauge whether your online activities are showing signs of irregularities. Although it sounds cliché, admitting there is a problem is the first step.

So what is Dr Hall’s advice for the online shopping addict?

‘Get rid of credit cards. Limit time on the web and never go on when you are tired, sad or angry. Identify what triggers in the real world made you likely to spend online,’ she says. ‘Get some counseling to help you cope with the pressures of the real world.’

As for my addiction? I don’t see a future with me never-again stepping a virtual foot into ASOS. However, I am planning to open a savings account that won’t let me withdraw funds.

In the meantime, I’ll be putting my credit card in the freezer.

Penny Evangelou is a final-year Bachelor of Journalism student who is passionate about food, fashion and beauty writing. She is a member of the upstart editorial team. You can follow her on Twitter: @pennylane008.