In the United States today, approximately 9 in 10 adults regularly use the Internet. Americans spend time online because they have to—for work, to register their kids for camp, to attend to their finances—and because they want to—to stay in touch with a long-distance love, to get ideas for DIY projects, or to binge watch multiple seasons of television shows. There is almost nothing, personal or professional, that you can’t do through the Internet.
Because of this, being online for hours at a time each day is seen as completely normal—and usually it is normal, which makes it very easy for people suffering from the harmful effects of Internet addiction to hide the severity of their problem from themselves and their loved ones.
Internet addiction is a serious behavioral addiction that is rising along with the overall increase in Internet usage across the United States. It’s important to be aware that internet addiction exists, and to know how to recognize the warning signs in case you or someone you love needs treatment.
What exactly is an Internet addiction?
The first psychologist to propose that Internet addiction should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was Dr. Kimberly Young, who proposed the diagnostic criteria by modifying the DSM-IV entry for pathological gambling, another behavioral disorder that can hide in plain sight.
Today, most addiction specialists agree that the following five criteria are required to diagnose an internet addiction:
- You spend a large amount of time thinking about online activity, both reflecting on past experiences and anticipating future activity.
- You find yourself needing to use the Internet for increasingly long amounts of time to feel satisfied, i.e. you have built up a tolerance to the activity.
- You have made unsuccessful attempts to reduce or stop your Internet use.
- You are moody, restless, irritable or depressed when you attempt to cut down on your Internet use.
- You are familiar with staying online for longer than you intend to.
Along with those five criteria, one of the following should also be present:
- You have lied to family, friends, therapists or others to hide the extent of your Internet use.
- You have risked losing a significant job, relationship, or career or educational opportunity due to the Internet.
- You use the Internet to self-medicate, such as to escape from a negative mood (anxiety, depression, guilt, etc.) or to escape from reality, such as problems or conflicts you don’t want to face.
How many people have an Internet addiction?
Recent surveys in the U.S. and in Europe show varying rates of Internet addiction. Some surveys show it as being somewhere between 1.5 and 8.2 percent. Others indicate it as between 6 and 18.5 percent. These variations are a result of different questions being asked, and different formats used to conduct the surveys.
But whether the actual rate is 1.5% or 18.5%, the prevalence of Internet addiction is startling, especially considering the fact that many lower income individuals do not have sufficient access to the Internet to even develop an addiction—which means that within segments of the population that have regular online access, the percentage of Internet addicts may be even higher.
What are the physiological causes of Internet addiction?
Internet addiction can stem from a variety of factors, from the emotional, to the psychological, to the physiological.
It turns out that the physiological, or physical, causes of Internet addiction are very similar to effects seen in addictions to substances such as stimulants or alcohol. Both substance and Internet use both activate the reward center of the brain, causing the release of opiates and neurochemicals such as dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with movement, motivation and pleasure. The brain uses dopamine to reward and reinforce life-sustaining activities such as sex and eating. Even pleasant pastimes such as reading or watching a sunset can release dopamine to some degree.
For certain people, using the Internet stimulates an especially large amount of dopamine to be released—not as much as would be released by using a drug like heroin, but nevertheless, obsessive Internet use can cause a tolerance similar to drug addiction, which leads the addict to require more and more online stimulation to feel the same “high,” and to avoid withdrawal symptoms such as depression, anxiety and irritability.
But how is it possible that simply using the Internet increases dopamine levels? One theory is that digital technology provides multiple and unpredictable rewards to the user. Receiving a DM or getting a large number of likes or reposts on your content are all rewarding and reinforcing events that happen often enough to keep you stimulated, but don’t happen in a predictable way, which keeps you from getting bored.
Content that boosts your mood and excites your interest is also a reward, as is the fact that online content is always changing and updating. As you get more involved in Internet life, someone that you’re following online will always be posting a new picture or video, or sending out a tweet, providing you with regular but erratic boosts of excitement.
In addition, the Internet offers instant access to information on whatever you are interested in (or worried about), and endless entertainment such as television and movies (often reinforced by interactive activities such as live tweeting), video games (which offer escapism, visual and auditory stimulation and often social interaction), and pornography. Chat rooms, forums, and social media provide a place to socialize with large numbers of people, giving and receiving affirmation and attention (both positive and negative), without even leaving your house. Many people, especially those who suffer from social anxiety, turn to the Internet as an instant cure for loneliness.
There is also evidence that some people have a genetic predisposition to addiction due to lower amounts of serotonin or dopamine in the brain, or an inadequate number of dopamine receptors, which would make these individuals unable to experience the same degree of pleasure that others get from everyday activities. Such individuals would be particularly drawn to stimulating activities that give them a level of reward that they do not usually experience, and in turn, that reward would reinforce the behavior and promote addiction.
Internet-addicted individuals also suffer a higher than average rate of co-occurring mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression, although it can be difficult to tell which came first, the addiction or the disorder.
Types of Internet Addiction
Most Internet addictions are related to online sex, online relationships, and online gaming. They are also often tied to other behavioral addictions, such as shopping or gambling. Types of Internet addiction include:
- Compulsive web surfing– taking time away from family, friends, or responsibilities at work or home to obsessively surf the web
- Internet Compulsions– compulsive gaming, gambling, stock trading, shopping, or any other compulsive Internet use that disrupts or damages relationships, work, finances or home life
- Online Relationship Addiction– when online relationships found through social networking, chat rooms and other forms of virtual communication begin to matter more than offline relationships
- Online Sex Addiction– obsessive time spent on fantasy role playing websites, adult chat rooms, or viewing online pornography
- General Computer Addiction– compulsive computer activity such as gaming or programming, which might not necessarily take place online
Signs of Internet Addiction
Not everyone who spends hours and hours each day on the Internet is exhibiting addictive behavior that requires professional treatment. Internet use can be productive and rewarding in healthy ways, whether used for entertainment, business, information, or communication.
So how can you determine what sort of Internet use is healthy, and what isn’t? For one thing, length of time spent online is not necessarily a clue. Many people need to use the Internet for work, and someone who lives in a separate country from most of their family and friends will naturally need to spend a lot of time online to stay in touch with loved ones. Some people can spend most of their day on the computer without suffering any of the harmful effects of Internet addiction, just like some people can go out and get very drunk without suffering any negative consequences and without feeling a need to repeat the behavior. Everyone is different.
Unhealthy Internet use will usually result in destructive consequences, such as damaged relationships, increased anxiety during face to face interactions, and job loss or financial problems caused by excessive time and money spent online. Other harmful effects of Internet addiction include neglecting your physical health or hygiene.
Additional signs of Internet addiction:
- Isolation from family and friends
- Losing interest in hobbies or social activities
- Spending more time on the Internet than you intend to and/or not realizing how much time you spend online, i.e. a few minutes to check in with Tumblr becomes hours of time lost to online activity
- Spending more time socializing online than in real life, especially if you have lost real-life relationships due to prioritizing time spent online
- Becoming defensive or hostile about how much time you spend on the Internet
- Lying about the extent of your Internet activity
- Neglecting responsibilities due to time spent online
- Difficulty focusing on important tasks unrelated to the Internet
- Frequently using the Internet to improve your mood, avoid problems, reduce anxiety, or find sexual gratification
- Feeling incapable of controlling how much time or energy you devote to online activities
Types of Treatment for Internet Addiction
Once you realize that you have an Internet addiction, you need to find out what you can do to manage your problem. Much like compulsive overeaters who can’t simply stop eating to conquer their addiction, quitting the Internet “cold turkey” is not an option for most Internet addicts. Therefore, you need to find ways to modify your patterns of thought and behavior when it comes to the Internet.
Some people can do this through self-help methods such as:
- Keeping a diary of how much time you spend online and your feelings surrounding it; this can give you a reality check about your addiction, as well as help you identify problem areas to work on
- Disrupting your addictive patterns by changing your usual schedule of Internet use
- Reducing time spent online by limiting Internet activity to certain hours of the day, or by setting timers to prevent “lost time”
- Finding alternate ways to relieve stress and loneliness or to boost mood, such as exercising, reading, developing new hobbies or picking old ones back up, and spending face to face time with friends and family
- Developing a support network of family, friends, and coworkers who can distract and encourage you when you’re finding it difficult to resist compulsive behaviors
- Temporarily (or permanently) abstaining from whichever website, app, or social network causes you the most difficulty
- Setting goals and making a step by step plan to help you achieve them
If self-help options aren’t enough to get your Internet addiction under control, there are many forms of professional treatment that can help, such as:
- Addiction support groups, such as Gamblers Anonymous, or Online Gamers Anonymous
- Counseling for any mental health disorders and personal issues that may be underlying your obsessive Internet use
- Counseling with addiction treatment specialists
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, to change compulsive thoughts and behaviors and learn new ways of coping with stress and negative emotions
- Reality Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, two specialized forms of CBT
- Medications such as antidepressants to treat the physiological causes of addiction
- Outpatient or inpatient treatment programs that specialize in behavioral addictions
Whether you should check into a residential treatment program, or simply apply self-help techniques to conquer your Internet addiction, depends on the severity of your problem. Thankfully, while Internet addiction can damage lives, it is not actually life-threatening, meaning it can be safe to first to try small-scale, self-treatments such as setting timers and taking up new hobbies, before considering more serious measures, such as inpatient rehab. What’s important is to remember that recovery is possible, and to take definite steps to change your life.