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Internet Addiction

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Last updated: 11/8/2021
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Reading Time: 8 minutes

Internet addiction is a growing worldwide phenomenon.1 Rapidly increasing use of smartphones, tablets, and computers has created a dependence on online technology. And with this technology has come the birth and explosion of social media, which is particularly popular among young people. About 70% of Twitter users are 19 years of age or younger, and Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat continue to be extremely popular among teens.2,3 While internet access and social media have revolutionized how we share and access knowledge, internet use becomes problematic and compulsive when people are unable to control their use, regardless of how it negatively affects their life. Internet addiction can cause cognitive issues, psychological disturbances, and social problems.1

Table of Contents

Signs and Symptoms of Internet Addiction

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) has not listed internet addiction as an official disorder. However, it has been formally recognized by the American Psychological Association. Countries like China and South Korea have also recognized internet addiction as a problematic health issue.1 Internet addiction disorder (IAD) has also been referred to as:1

  • Problematic internet use (PIU)
  • Computer addiction
  • Internet dependence
  • Compulsive internet use
  • Pathological internet use

Just because you use the internet a lot, like watching YouTube videos, shopping online frequently, or often checking social media, does not mean you have an internet addiction. The trouble comes when these activities start to interfere with your daily life. Although the DSM-5 has not officially recognized IAD in its standard textbook, certain internet addiction symptoms have been identified to characterize this condition. These signs include the following:1

  • Is preoccupied with the internet (thinks about previous online activity or anticipates next online session)
  • Needs to use the internet for increased amounts of time to achieve satisfaction
  • Has made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop internet use
  • Is restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop internet use
  • Has stayed online longer than originally intended

Additionally, at least one of the following internet addiction symptoms must be present:

  1. Has jeopardized or risked the loss of a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of the internet
  2. Has lied to family members, a therapist, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the internet
  3. Uses the internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)

Risks Associated with Internet Addiction

As with any technology, there are associated benefits and risks. Social media allows teens to connect with resources and causes, and it’s a form of socializing and communicating with peers.3 Most teens do not know life without social media; it has been a primary mode of interacting with others. The downside to social media use is that it exposes teens to:3,4

  • Cyberbullying
  • Predators
  • Sexting
  • Inappropriate content

According to a recent survey, 22% of teenagers log on to their favorite social media site more than 10 times a day.4 The amount of time teens spend online increases the probability of developing mental health complications. Parents and other adult figures play a key role in monitoring adolescent social media use to avert them from engaging in risky behavior.

The causes of internet addiction are not well researched, but some factors coincide with those of substance use disorders.5 Research suggests that people with internet addiction have brain changes similar to those with drug and alcohol addiction.5 IAD, in addition to other dependency disorders, seems to affect the reward center of the brain. The internet use triggers a release of dopamine, which causes the person to experience pleasure and feelings of well-being associated with the behavior. Over time, more and more of the activity is needed to induce the same pleasurable response, leading to tolerance and subsequent dependence, meaning they need to engage in internet use to avoid withdrawal like moodiness or depression.1,5

Long-Term and Short-Term Effects of Internet Addiction

Spending increased amounts of time online poses serious mental health risks, such as higher rates of anxiety and depression. Researchers recently discovered a phenomenon called “Facebook depression,” which occurs when teens spend a lot of time on social media then start displaying signs of depression.3 One reason social networking sites may cause depression is that people tend to compare themselves to others on social media. Often, what is depicted on social media is not reality.5 Similar to regular (offline) depression, adolescents who struggle with Facebook depression are at risk for social isolation and often turn to the internet and sites that endorse substance abuse, unsafe sex, and aggression.3

Among social media users:3

  • 43% strongly or somewhat agree that they sometimes feel left out or excluded after seeing pictures of other people together online
  • 35% say they worry about people tagging them in unattractive photos
  • 27% say they get stressed about how they look when they post pictures
  • 22% say they feel bad about themselves if nobody comments on or “likes” the photos they post
  • 17% claimed to have edited photos to make themselves look better before posting them online, which can lead to poor body image, self-harm, and eating disorder issues, especially among young women

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) states that 13 years is the minimum age to create a profile on most social media sites. However, many pre-teens lie about their age to create a profile, a practice which can be potentially dangerous given all of the harmful content they may interact with and internalize.

Parents and pediatricians play a key role in influencing teen social media use and behaviors. Specific ways in which pediatricians can assist parents include:3

  • Supporting parents to talk to their children and adolescents about their online use and the specific issues that today’s kids face
  • Advising parents to become better educated about the technologies and devices their children are using
  • Encouraging parents to openly discuss boundaries with their children and/or the need for a family online-use plan that promotes healthy online behavior

Children can often be the target of online ads and predators. They are very impressionable at this critical age and may not have strong enough self-direction to choose wisely. Legal restrictions are in place to protect youth from engaging in unhealthy behaviors potentially caused by social media exposure, such as substance abuse.

How to Treat Internet Addiction

Behavioral addictions and substance use disorders often respond positively to the same psychosocial and pharmacological treatments.6 Common interventions that have been used to treat behavioral addictions like internet addiction include:6

  • 12-step approaches
  • Self-help support groups
  • Motivational enhancement
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy

Although no medications have been approved to treat internet addiction, naltrexone, a medication used to treat alcoholism and opioid addiction, has shown promise for the treatment of pathological gambling.6

If the internet addiction is severe, formal treatment programs are available, with inpatient rehab being the most intensive and structured option. A stay at an inpatient treatment center can last from 30 days to several months. For more flexibility, individuals can receive internet addiction treatment on an outpatient basis, which involves living at home and attending treatment sessions during the day.

Both inpatient and outpatient treatment for internet addiction may include:7

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: Helps patients recognize, avoid, and cope with the situations in which they are most likely to use the internet or social media
  • Family group therapy: Developed for adolescents and their families, this type of therapy addresses a range of influences on internet use patterns and is designed to improve overall family interaction
  • Motivational interviewing: Works with people’s readiness to change their behavior and enter treatment
  • Holistic treatment methods: Yoga, meditation, and creative arts therapies can be highly beneficial natural interventions that can aid in internet abstinence.

Can Internet Use Cause Substance Addiction in Adolescents?

Social media use can lead to drug and alcohol misuse in the adolescent population.8,9,10 According to a survey conducted by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, teens ages 12 to 17 who, in a typical day, spent any time on social networking sites were at increased risk of smoking, drinking, and drug use.8,9,10 The United Nations International Narcotics Control Board also warns that illicit internet pharmacies have started using social media to target younger populations.8

Compared to teens that spent no time on social networking sites in a typical day, teens that did were:9,10,11

  • Five times likelier to have used tobacco
  • Three times likelier to have used alcohol
  • Twice as likely to have used marijuana

Teens who have been cyberbullied are more than twice as likely to smoke, drink, and use marijuana compared to teens who have not been cyberbullied.9,10 Among analyzed Adderall-related tweets, 8.9% mentioned another substance (including illicit drugs), promoting poly-substance misuse via social media.10,11 Additionally, the highest volume of Twitter content (roughly seven out of 10) originated from illicit online pharmacies advertising the sale of medications with no prescription required.11

Although these statistics are quite telling, they don’t reveal causation so much as a correlation. It’s clear that during the past 10 years social media has caused major changes in the way people communicate and interact, but it’s unknown whether these changes can directly cause substance addiction.1,3,5

If you suspect your teen or someone you know is struggling with substance use, call our helpline at 800-926-9037 (Who Answers?) to find a rehab program near you.

Resources

  1. Cash, H., Rae, C. D., Steel, A. H., & Winkler, A. (2012). Internet Addiction: A Brief Summary of Research and Practice. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8(4), 292–298.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Social media can influence teens with pro-drug messages.
  3. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2016). Teens’ social media use: How they connect and what it means for health. 
  4. O’Keefe, G., Clark-Pearson, K. (2011). The impact of social media on children, adolescents, and families. The American Academy of Pediatrics, 127(4).
  5. Chou, C., Condron, L. & Belland, J.C. (2005). A Review of the Research on Internet Addiction. Educ Psychol Rev 17, 363–388.
  6. Grant, J. E., Potenza, M. N., Weinstein, A., & Gorelick, D. A. (2010). Introduction to behavioral addictions. The American journal of drug and alcohol abuse, 36(5), 233–241.
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Treatment approaches for drug addiction.
  8. Common Sense Media. (2012). Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives.
  9. Pantic, I. (2014). Online social networking and mental health. Cyberpsychology, Behavioral and Social Networking, 17(10): 652-657.
  10. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2011). National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVI: Teens and parents. 
  11. Eysenbach, G. (2013). Digital social media, youth, and non-medical use of prescription drugs: The need for reform. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 15(7): e143.
  12. Laudet, A. B., Savage, R., & Mahmood, D. (2002). Pathways to long-term recovery: a preliminary investigation. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 34(3), 305–311.

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