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Internet addiction is defined as excessive and compulsive use or engagement with the digital world. The rapid rise of smartphones, laptops, tablets, smart watches, and computers has created a wealth of human dependencies related to online technology. And out of that rise, we’ve seen an explosion in social media use – particularly among young people – and an explosion in the need for digital detox challenges.
While it’s true that technology has revolutionized the way we live, allowed us to simplify tasks at work, and helped us keep closer tabs on our children, it’s also true that Internet use has become problematic and compulsive for a large number of people. It’s common nowadays to see families seated at a restaurant table in silence, the mother, father, and kids all completely captivated by their smartphones.
Internet use becomes compulsive when people are no longer able to control their own use, no matter the negative impact it has on their lives. For these people, the act or desire to be online or connected to a device takes precedence over the most important parts of their lives (family, friends, work, school, etc.). At this point, it can become classified as an addiction.
What is Internet Addiction?
Just last year, data from the Pew Research Center showed that 77% of Americans connect to the internet on a daily basis. What’s more, according to research, Internet addiction can cause cognitive issues, psychological disturbances, and social problems.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) does not include Internet addiction as an official disorder. However, the American Psychological Association formally recognizes Internet addiction disorder (IAD), along with other countries like Korea and China.
Internet addiction disorder has also been referred to as:
- Problematic internet use (PIU)
- Internet dependence
- Compulsive internet use
- Pathological internet use
Signs and Symptoms of Internet Addiction
According to Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge, Professor Emerita, Media Psychology, Fielding Graduate University,there are several ways that media habits can cause problems, including:
- They are feeling overly self-critical
- They have a sense of anxiety about missing out on what others are doing
- They have not done the things they had planned or needed to do, such as work or school assignments, household chores
- They have been avoiding connecting in person
Although the DSM-5 has not officially recognized in its standard textbook, certain internet addiction symptoms have been identified to characterize this condition.
The characteristics of Internet addiction are:
- Preoccupation with the internet (thinking about previous online activity or anticipating next opportunity to get online)
- Being on the Internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction
- Unsuccessful efforts to control, decrease, or stop internet use
- Staying online for longer and longer periods of time
- Feeling restless, moody, depressed, or angry when cutting down on internet use
- Willfully risking the loss of significant relationships, jobs, or educational or career opportunities due to use of the internet
- Lying to family members and loved ones to conceal the amount of time spent online
- Using the Internet as a way to escape problems or moods (guilt, anxiety, depression)
Here’s what some of those signs and symptoms might look like in real life:
- Losing track of time while online, which makes him/her two hours late when picking the kids up at school
- Feeling restless, irritable, or anxious when not online or when trying to cut down or stop Internet use
- Being online becomes more important than meeting basic needs such as sleeping, eating, or good hygiene
- Having trouble concentrating, remembering, or making decisions due to excessive Internet use
- Lying to loved ones about how much time or money they’re really spending online
- Experiencing negative consequences such as failing classes in school, losing a job or multiple jobs, financial problems, relationship issues, or health problems directly related to Internet addiction
- Feeling guilty, ashamed, depressed, or hopeless about Internet dependence
- Trying to escape from stress, boredom, loneliness, or negative emotions by going online
- Using the internet as a way to cope with other mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse
Types of Internet Addictions
There are many types of internet addiction. The internet allows people to stream videos, play video games and use social media. Each of these can be addictive. The use of internet addiction as an umbrella term is, hence, closely related to considering the internet as just the channel to online content. Various internet-mediated problematic behaviors have been described, including but not limited to problematic online pornography use, internet gaming disorder, online gambling, and excessive use of social media and communication sites.
Pornography is accessible 24/7 now more than ever because you can find it online in the privacy of your own home. The vast sexual imagery seen online can have a strong effect on the brain. According to a study on the brains of people suffering from pornography addiction, results showed their brains exhibit similar activity to those addicted to drugs. And pornography addiction can result in the same consequences as traditional sex addiction, including separation and divorce. Some online sexual addictions can be dangerous. People can end up in chat rooms with sexual predators or mentally unstable people who mean to do them physical harm.
Social Media Addiction
While social media can keep people connected, using these social platforms compulsively can have the opposite effect. In fact, social media addiction can isolate people from their real-world relationships. Communicating with people on social networks can become a way to escape the real world and the feelings of anxiety and self-doubt it often brings. Additionally, a wealth of social media users become addicted to the recognition that social media brings when posts go viral. People who are addicted to social media are prone to irrational and impulsive behavior with those around them in their offline life.
Online Gaming Addiction
More and more people are becoming addicted to video games, particularly online video games. Modern gamer culture celebrates the act of playing online games for extended periods. While some people finish a video game, lose interest in playing, or replace online gaming with another hobby or interest, those with online gaming addiction struggle to do so. When online gaming becomes someone’s main interest, it can cause them to ignore responsibilities in their offline life. For example, these people may stop going to school or work, stop eating, or stop bathing.
Online Gambling Addiction
According to research, pathological gambling is “being unable to resist impulses to gamble, which can lead to severe personal or social consequences.” Addicted or compulsive gamblers have betting activities that cause serious (or even dangerous) problems in their lives. Their online gambling habits tend to cause major chaos and upheaval, whether that comes in the form of draining the family bank account, forgetting to pick up the kids at school, calling into work so often that their boss lets them go, or betting money that was meant for paying bills. Once addicted to online gambling, they feel incapable of cutting back on their activities even though they realize the damage gambling is causing.
Smartphone addiction is the obsessive, compulsive use of a smartphone. It’s often known as nomophobia or the fear of being without a mobile device. There are over 3.8 billion people in the world who use smartphones. Research shows those smartphone users receive 427% more messages and send 278% more texts than they did a decade ago. The rise in smartphone use can seem like a natural part of life, but it can also cause negative consequences.
What Are Risk Factors of Internet Addiction?
Internet use triggers a sense of reward in the brain that leads to the desire for more. While many people don’t act on the urge to access the Internet more often, some people are very sensitive to this effect.
Some factors that tend to lead to Internet addiction include using the Internet too much as a child, lack of a parental figure monitoring online use, suffering a recent traumatic event, high stress levels, or presence of a substance use disorder. Many of these factors drive people to self-medicate their stress or discomfort levels.
Other risk factors include:
- Being male
- Presence of a mental health condition
- Poor moods
- Family conflicts
Effects of Internet Addiction in Real Life
Some experts believe that heavy internet use on a consistent basis can alter someone’s personality and make them more aggressive or impulsive. Research has proven that Internet addiction negatively impacts the brain, often causing people to exhibit:
- Dopamine spikes that mimic substance use
- Build up of abnormal gray and white matter in the brain
- Altered brain activity related to impulse control and coordination
One of the more concerning studies on Internet addiction targeted smartphone overuse in teens and adolescents. “The findings suggest that children who grow up habitually checking social media are becoming hypersensitive to feedback from their peers,” according to Eva Telzer, co-author and professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s psychology and neuroscience department.
The results offered some of the first official data on the negative impacts of social media overuse and how they can have lifelong consequences due to a lack of development in adolescent brains.
Grouped by impact, the most common negative effects of Internet addiction include:
- Physical problems: People with Internet addiction are more likely to remain inactive for long periods of time. The physical impacts of compulsive Internet use often include personal hygiene neglect, not meeting nutritional needs, and ignoring sleep requirements. People can also suffer from eye strain, headaches, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other health issues due to prolonged use of a computer, smartphone, or related device.
- Psychological problems: Internet addiction may cause someone to experience mood swings, anxiety, depression, loneliness, low self-esteem, guilt, shame, and boredom. They may also have difficulty concentrating, remembering things, and making decisions. And as with substance use disorder, Internet addiction may cause a person to lose interest in the activities and hobbies they used to enjoy.
- Social problems: Internet addiction often causes people to isolate themselves from family, friends, and society as a whole. They may prefer online interactions over real-life interactions. They tend to have conflicts and arguments with loved ones over their troublesome Internet habits.
- Academic or occupational problems: Internet addiction can quickly consume hours upon hours of a person’s time, causing them to neglect schoolwork or job responsibilities. They may have poor academic or work performance, low grades, or low productivity. They commonly miss deadlines, skip classes, or call into work sick. Students and employees who used to excel are no longer dependable or trustworthy.
What Are Internet Addiction Withdrawal Symptoms?
While Internet addictions don’t cause the same withdrawals that drugs and alcohol do, these conditions definitely produce withdrawal symptoms. According to research, internet addictions cause withdrawal symptoms like precursory delusions, disorganized behaviors, agitation, and irritability. One case report revealed the emergence of psychotic symptoms during withdrawal from compulsive Internet use.
Internet addiction withdrawal symptoms include:
- Depressed mood
- High heart rate
- Erratic sleep patterns
- Body aches
- Skin rashes
What is a Digital Detox?
A digital detox is a period of time where you intentionally take a break from all digital devices and services like smartphones, laptops, or social media.
Plenty of studies show that taking a break from the Internet and enjoying restorative offline time can improve your mental and physical health. One study specifically determined that taking a one-week digital detox from social media improves wellbeing, depression, and anxiety.
Other digital detox benefits include:
- Reduces symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression
- Improves sleep and cognitive function
- Fosters sharp focus and increased productivity
- Strengthens human connection
Signs You Might Need a Digital Detox
If you’re overdoing it with technology, whether it be your smartphone, social media, online gaming, or any other tech product, your body will ultimately show signs. I any of the following resonate with you, it might be time for you to consider a digital detox.
- Constantly worrying you’re missing something important on social media: Social makes people feel connected with others, but it can quickly get out of hand and make you think that these online relationships are just like real life relationships. The fear of missing something online is a common symptom of Internet addiction.
- A lack of productivity due to being online or using online technology: Lack of productivity is a common reasons for a digital detox. People already spend hours per day on their phones, and that doesn’t even count time spent on other things like laptops and gaming.
- Poor sleep or lack of sleep due to being online: Low quality sleep or the overall lack of sleep is one of the most common symptoms of Internet addiction. When you sleep poorly, you wake up feeling slow and fatigued, which negatively affects your memory, mood, and concentration. In a short matter of time, sleep disturbances can have a huge impact on your social life, your employment, and your mental health.
- Constant distractions caused by digital notifications: If you’re consistently distracted by notifications, social media alerts, emails, or text alerts, it’s probably time to take a look at your digital habits. The average person checks their phone 150 times a day, so if you’re compulsively checking your phone or device, it’s obvious why you’d be struggling to finish tasks or feeling forgetful.
Ready to Start Your Digital Detox?
Mindful media use is just making digital choices intentionally rather than reactively. As with any behavior, when we pay attention to what we’re doing, we are cultivating mindfulness. This increases our self-awareness and helps us make better choices. This is true of all things.
According to Dr. Rutledge, it is important to identify negative media patterns so you can change them. She suggests keeping a “media” diary (log or journal) for a few days or a week, noting the following:
- Time of day
- Duration of use
- Why or purpose in using
- What media you choose to use
- How you feel while or after use
This allows you to identify unproductive patterns and make changes. Some media use is necessary for work, allows you to stay in touch with friends, is relaxing or entertaining. However, you want to identify the point at which the impact is no longer positive.
Logging your behaviors will automatically increase the awareness of your choices. This helps you cultivate the habit of noticing and acting with intention rather than reacting. A detox can help you reset, but it will not help you understand which behaviors to change without cultivating a little self-knowledge and identifying your goals – whether it’s to “feel better” or get your work done.
If you’re ready to unplug and start your own digital detox, we invite you to take the one-week Addictions.com digital detox. You’ll find instructions in the infographic below – feel free to download and share them with your loved ones before the official kickoff date.
Digital Detox Challenge Addictions.com by Nikki Seay