As internet-enabled smartphone use becomes more prevalent, distinguishing between what is internet addiction and what is normal use becomes more difficult. Using the internet is now a regular part of many daily activities. The internet can help people navigate to a new location, answer questions and access special products or services. People with shared interests can make connections over the internet that turn into lifelong friendships or romantic relationships.

However, there is a darker side to the ease of internet access. Instead of using the internet to enhance their lives, some people use it to escape or avoid coping with their problems. Others use it to connect with dangerous people and engage in self-destructive activities. Even people who don’t engage with any particularly risky parts of the internet may suffer when their internet use becomes compulsive and uncontrollable.

The growing global phenomenon of internet overuse has led mental health researchers to propose adding internet addiction disorder to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). A growing body of research shows that compulsive internet use resembles drug addiction and benefits from treatment modeled on substance abuse treatment.

Types of Internet Addictions

There are many different types of internet addiction. Early internet browsers and service providers were only capable of connecting people to text-based websites and chat rooms, while modern high-speed internet allows people to stream videos, play online games and engage with other types of interactive media. Each of these internet-enabled technologies can be addictive. The following are some of the common types of internet addiction.

Cybersexual

Jokes about the ubiquity of internet pornography are common. However, for people who develop a pornography addiction or other cybersexual disorders, the implications are serious. Pornography is much more accessible than ever before. In the internet age, people can use it more frequently and connect with more psychologically destructive kinds of pornography.

The endless stream of new sexual imagery available on the internet can have a powerfully stimulating effect on the brain. Mental health researchers coined the term “supranormal stimulus” to describe artificial products like porn that elicit exaggerated versions of natural psychological responses. Watching internet-based porn can have the same effect on the brain as using substances, depleting and dysregulating levels of dopamine and other chemicals.  

Other cybersexual addictions can be even more dangerous than addiction to internet pornography. People can engage in sexual encounters in chat rooms or through voice or video streaming that virtually connect them to sexual predators or underage partners. Other people may use internet message boards or services to make in-person sexual connections that are even more dangerous.

Net Compulsions

Internet (net) compulsions are online behaviors that resemble compulsive behaviors in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They frequently take the form of checking, or monitoring, behaviors. People with OCD might compulsively check to see if a door is locked, if the oven is turned on or if they made a mistake while filling out a form. People with internet-based compulsions might check certain sites excessively to see if the information has been updated. One of the most common internet compulsions is monitoring social media.

In addition to checking social media to see if people have interacted with a piece of content (or posted their own content), people with internet-based compulsions may repeatedly check news sites, weather apps or financial blogs. These behaviors are purposeful but can become excessive and end up taking time and attention away from other activities. Internet compulsions can cause financial problems when they focus on shopping or auction websites.

Cyber Relationships

Social media drives a significant amount of internet use centered on real-life and cyber relationships. In small amounts, it can keep people connected to loved ones. However, overuse of social media can have the opposite effect, isolating people from real-world interaction and healthy relationships.

Online interactions can blossom into healthy relationships but can also be unhealthy. People may be aware of the imaginative aspect of online relationships or have a hard time telling fantasy apart from reality. Either way, chatting and messaging can become a portal to escape anxiety and self-doubt and can quickly become addictive.

In addition to neglecting other important activities, people who are addicted to cyber relationships are vulnerable to irrational and impulsive behavior. For example, people engaged in cyber relationships sometimes get into real-world confrontations with people they perceive as romantic rivals.

Gaming

People can become addicted to online video games and offline ones. Online video gaming has become more popular in the 21st century and is the primary cause of gaming addiction.

Critics often praise video games for being “addictive.” There is a difference between the using the term to describe a compelling game and to identify a gaming addiction, however. Many gamers binge, playing a game for hours at a time and sometimes days in a row. However, they usually either finish the game, lose interest or get interrupted by real-world responsibilities.

For others, nothing breaks their immersion in a virtual world. As gaming becomes their primary concern, people with internet gaming addictions may stop going to school or work or stop eating or sleeping regularly. Some people may urinate in bottles so that they don’t have to leave their computers to go to the bathroom. In one case, a couple became so absorbed in an online game world that their baby died of neglect.

Information Seeking

Information-seeking is perhaps the most deceptive internet addiction of all. Curiosity is a trait that people encourage in children and hope to retain in adulthood. Research shows that life-long learning promotes health and longevity.

However, as with many other behavioral addictions, it is not the nature of internet information-seeking that is the issue, but rather the consequences of seeking information. Compulsive information-seeking can amplify anxious over-thinking and can become self-destructive.

Even the most straightforward decisions can become complicated research projects that take hours to complete. Tapping into a constant stream of new facts can replace interactions with loved ones or other important tasks.

Signs and Symptoms of Internet Addiction

The early signs of internet addiction can be subtle. Addiction is not indicated by isolated events, but by an escalating pattern of excessive internet use. Like other addictive disorders, internet addiction is defined in part by its persistence over time.

Most clinicians assess problematic internet use with criteria similar to those for substance addictions or gambling disorder. Addiction researcher Mark Griffiths developed a list of six symptoms that indicate a behavioral addiction:

  1. Salience: letting a particular activity eclipse the importance of all other activities
  2. Mood modification: using an activity to change or avoid negative mood states
  3. Tolerance: having to do more of an activity to experience the same effect
  4. Withdrawal: experiencing unpleasant mental effects after refraining from an activity
  5. Conflict: going through periods of inner and outer conflict as a result of the activity
  6. Relapse: tending to revert to earlier patterns of activity after periods of abstinence

Internet addiction has become a particular concern in China and other Asian countries. Chinese researchers have studied internet addiction extensively and developed a list of eight internet addiction symptoms based on Griffiths’ model. In addition to the first four symptoms listed above, they have added:

  • Lack of control: making unsuccessful attempts to control or reduce internet use
  • Loss of interest in other activities: abandoning other important activities in favor of internet use
  • Continuing despite consequences: not changing internet habits despite persistent psychological or functional problems caused by internet use
  • Denial or minimization: hiding or lying about the amount of time spent on the internet or about the costs of internet use

In general, internet addiction disorder is indicated when a person experiences repeated and escalating negative consequences of internet use and spends more time on the Internet despite those consequences.

Causes of Internet Addiction

Using the internet activates reward pathways in the brain that reinforce the behavior. Some people are more sensitive to these brain changes than others. This reason is why many people who use the internet on a regular basis for work or school don’t ever develop symptoms of addiction.

The causes of internet addiction can include sensitivity to changes in levels of dopamine and serotonin, early exposure to electronic media and absent or emotionally distant parents. Having a more emotionally sensitive temperament, recent trauma, elevated stress levels or substance use all increase the risk of internet addiction. Other risk factors include:

  • Male gender
  • Other mental health conditions
  • Neuroticism (proneness to negative moods)
  • Lack of a strong social support network

Another study adds family conflict as a risk factor. Most of these factors point to the deeper cause of behavioral addictions like compulsive internet use: an attempt to manage or self-medicate stress or psychological discomfort.

Effects of Internet Addiction

Research shows that the impact of internet addiction on the brain is significant and measurable. People who spend long periods of time playing online games may exhibit any of the following effects:

  • Surges of dopamine that resemble those caused by substance use
  • Abnormal amounts of gray and white matter in central regions of the brain
  • Altered brain activity in areas responsible for impulse control and motor coordination

Some mental health researchers believe that chronic, heavy internet use can alter personality, making people more aggressive, narcissistic and impulsive.

Even people who are not addicted to the internet can be changed by regular use. Many people have expressed concern that internet use has affected their attention span, making it harder for them to remember and process certain kinds of information. Others find they are less able to read deeply and scan and skim for key points instead.

The harmful effects of internet addiction can be physical as well as psychological. Spending more time on the internet generally means spending more time sitting still and typing or moving a mouse. Physical impacts of internet addiction include:

  • Weight gain
  • Stiff or numb limbs
  • Back and shoulder pain
  • Blurry or strained vision
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome

In general, people who are addicted to the internet are more likely to remain sedentary for long periods of time. People can avoid the negative health impacts of internet use by taking regular breaks from use and participating in physical activity.

Internet Addiction Withdrawal

Originally, the term withdrawal referred to direct physical and chemical changes caused by substance use. Process addictions do not produce medical withdrawal syndromes like drugs and alcohol but can cause psychological withdrawal symptoms.

Internet addiction withdrawal primarily affects mood and cognition. People who use the internet regularly may feel bored and uncomfortable when they are not online. Other internet addiction withdrawal symptoms include:

In one extreme example, a person who had spent eight hours playing the same online game for over two years experienced symptoms of internet withdrawal psychosis after quitting.

Internet Addiction Statistics

Internet addiction statistics indicate that internet dependence is a growing problem around the world. Important facts about internet addiction include differences in national prevalence rates. Surveys done in the United States and Europe show that 1.5 to 8.2 percent of people have an internet addiction. One study suggests that 10 percent of Chinese adolescents have an internet addiction, while another study shows that as many as 27 percent do. A wide-ranging global survey indicated that 6 percent of people around the world have an internet addiction.

Internet Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

Other internet addiction disorder facts include how much more common it is among people who have another behavioral health condition. Internet addiction and depression are common co-occurring conditions, as are internet addiction and anxiety. A Korean study shows that people with internet addiction are twice as likely to have an alcohol use disorder, five times more likely to have an anxiety disorder and six times more likely to be depressed or have post-traumatic stress disorder than people who use the internet moderately.

Each condition can potentially cause the other. People with depression or anxiety are more likely to become socially withdrawn and isolated at home, making the internet their only social outlet. This isolation increases their chances of becoming addicted to the internet. Conversely, people who use the internet excessively can experience symptoms of anxiety and depression in response to changes in brain chemistry or real-life stressors caused by internet overuse.

Internet addiction and substance abuse share causes and effects. Research suggests that substance use disorders frequently precede internet addiction, especially in adolescents, but the reverse can also be true. People who use the internet excessively may start using one or more substances to enhance their internet use and remain awake and engaged with other people or online content.

Alcohol use disorders are particularly common for people with internet addiction. The social facilitation of alcohol can enhance online interactions, and both alcohol and internet use can temporarily soothe feelings of loneliness and anxiety.

Treatment for Internet Addiction Disorder

Fortunately, internet addiction recovery is possible with the right treatment and support. Like people with substance use disorders, people with behavioral addictions can benefit from 12-step and other peer support groups that provide fellowship and social learning opportunities while alleviating social isolation and feelings of shame or alienation. Internet addiction support groups include Online Gamers Anonymous, Computer Gaming Addicts Anonymous, reSTART and local groups run by treatment centers.

Internet addiction treatment can consist of outpatient interventions like individual and group therapy or inpatient treatment at a facility that provides specialized services for people with behavioral addictions. Research on how to treat internet addiction disorder shows that the same interventions that are effective for substance addiction also work for behavioral addictions. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy can help people significantly decrease their internet use and maintain this change over time. In an integrated treatment program, people who have co-occurring internet and substance addiction can address both at the same time.

If you need treatment for a substance use disorder and are concerned that your internet use has become an addiction, please contact The Recovery Village. A representative can connect you with treatment options at one of several facilities across the United States.

    

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Internet Addiction
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