Internet addiction is a quickly growing global concern. Understanding the myths and facts behind internet addiction will help people better understand how the disorder affects so many.

With social media, online gaming, and online shopping becoming increasingly embedded in our day-to-day life, the internet is rightfully earning a reputation as the “digital drug.”

Internet addiction is also sometimes referred to as internet addiction disorder, compulsive internet use, or technology addiction and includes many different kinds of online activities.

Other disorders that are a part of internet addiction include:

Internet addiction involves the problematic use of non-work technology. The addiction may involve mobile or desktop devices and is characterized by:

  • Preoccupation with the internet — thinking about or anticipating online activity
  • Tolerance developing — requiring increasing amounts of time online to be satisfied
  • Lack of control — unsuccessful attempts to cut back or stop using the internet
  • Withdrawal — irritable, depressed, moody or restless when trying to cut back online time
  • Negative effects — continued excessive internet use despite adverse effects on job performance, health, relationships, academics, and important activities
  • Lying to conceal the extent of online time
  • Staying online longer than intended
  • Using the internet to “escape” from life stressors and problems
  • Using the internet to relieve a low mood or negative feelings and emotions

To properly understand Internet addiction it is necessary to distinguish between the myths and facts about this serious problem.

Myth 1: Internet Addiction Doesn’t Cause Withdrawal

Fact: Withdrawal symptoms are a core feature of internet addiction.

Compulsive internet use is a true addiction because it activates the same brain reward pathways that are involved in other addictions, including drug addiction. As with drugs, this activation produces a high. Over time, it takes more and more stimulation to get the same reward, indicating that tolerance developed.

When the individual is not using the internet, they may experience withdrawal symptoms that include feeling depressed, fatigued, bored and unhappy. In addition to the low mood, withdrawal from internet use often includes irritability and agitation, particularly if there is a barrier to getting back online, such as the inability to gain access or a concerned loved one attempting to stop internet use. Cases of internet withdrawal psychosis were reported where the withdrawing individual develops a full-blown psychotic episode while withdrawing from internet use.

Getting back online often relieves withdrawal symptoms, contributing to the vicious cycle of internet addiction.

Myth 2: Technology Addiction is Rare

Fact: Technology addiction is prevalent and becoming more common.

As with other addictions, internet addiction prevalence is likely greatly underestimated due to the secretive nature of people living with addiction. Individuals with addictions typically go to great lengths to hide their disorder.

Additionally, diagnosing internet addiction is somewhat problematic, as there is no definitive diagnostic test. Diagnosis is made by using one of a variety of self-report questionnaires, such as the Compulsive Internet Use Scale (CIUS), or Chen’s Internet Addiction Scale. The best diagnostic tool is a comprehensive assessment by a trained addictions professional.

Some of the best data on the prevalence of internet addiction comes from China because the Chinese government was among the first to recognize the problem and launch initiatives to confront it. A 2018 study showed that 26.5% of Chinese 10 to 18-year-olds were addicted to the internet.

large, multi-country study showed that the incidence of internet addiction worldwide (6.0%) is three times that of gambling addiction (up to 2.1%).

Internet addiction isn’t an accident. The internet operates on the same psychological principle that draws people into gambling addiction. This principle is known as a Variable Ratio Reinforcement Schedule (VRRS), where mood-stimulating rewards are variable and unpredictable. As the people who design online activities are well aware, the VRRS structure has long been recognized as the most addicting and compulsion-inducing brainwashing system in animals and humans.

This addictive VRRS approach is enhanced by coupling it with activities that are in themselves rewarding and stimulating, such as pornography, online dating, video games, online gambling, and anonymous social engagement. The result is a purpose-built “digital drug” designed to draw in users and keep them online.

Myth 3: Internet Addiction Isn’t a Big Problem

Fact: Internet addiction is a global problem, and it’s on the rise.

The prevalence of internet addiction in the world as a whole has been estimated at 6%. With the world population at approximately 7 billion, that means that about 420 million people worldwide are addicted to the internet.

Given that only about 39% of the world’s population has internet access, it is reasonable to conclude that as internet access rises in the world, so will the prevalence of internet addiction. This prediction is especially the case in Africa, where only 16% of the population has internet access, but internet access is rapidly increasing.

Some countries have a bigger problem with internet addiction than others do. For example, the rate of internet addiction among adolescents in Italy is estimated to be 0.8%, compared to 8.8% in China. The Chinese government recognized internet addiction as a serious problem among its youth and has set up hundreds of camps designed to treat internet addiction in its young people.

The region with the highest prevalence of internet addiction in the world appears to be the Middle East, where the prevalence is even higher than that of China, with 10.9% of the population addicted to internet use. The lowest prevalence of internet addiction is in Northern and Western Europe, at 2.6%.

The United States has been slow to recognize internet addiction as a disorder, and even slower to fund research into addressing the disorder even though surveys estimate that up to 8.2% of Americans and Europeans are addicted to the internet. Recent data from the Pew Research Center suggest that in certain populations in the United States, the prevalence of “almost constant internet use” (not necessarily internet addiction) is about 26% of all adults. Other research puts the overall rate in the United States between 6 and 18.5%.

Myth 4: Internet Addiction Only Affects Teens

Fact: About a quarter of adults in the United States admit that they are almost constantly online.

That statistic grows when looking at young adults’ internet usage, as 39% of 18- to 29-year-olds report being online almost constantly. However, even middle-aged adults are catching up, with 36% of 30- to 49-year-olds being online almost always, up from 24% in 2015.

Also, adults with a college education are especially likely to be on the internet almost constantly: about 34% of all United States adults with a college education, versus 20% of those with high school or less.

Mobile devices appear to increase online time, as 31% of people in the United States who use mobile devices are online almost always, versus only 5% of those who use the internet by computer.

While internet addiction statistics by age group do not seem to have been tabulated by any large studies, a South Korean government study using 10,000 participants showed that adults are not far behind teenagers in internet addiction with prevalence rates by age group as follows:

  • Ages 5 to 9: 7.9% 
  • Ages 10 to 19: 10.4%
  • Ages 20 to 49: 6.8%  

Myth 5: Internet Addiction is Harmless

Fact: Internet addiction is associated with a serious reduction in quality of life, developmental concerns, functional impairments, and other mental health disorders.

Internet addiction was widely confirmed to be associated with reduced quality of life and impaired global functioning compared to healthy internet users. People with internet addictions are more likely to suffer from social and emotional impairment and poor interpersonal relationships. Even in the absence of addiction, excessive internet use can have widespread adverse effects on children and adolescents.

The functional impairments that are related to compulsive internet use can result in serious long-term harm to youth’s mental, social, academic and vocational development as they transition into adulthood.

The reduced sleep that is typical of compulsive internet users, who often pull all-nighters, can cause motor vehicle accidents, academic and work problems, as well as health problems when internet use becomes chronic.

Internet addiction is highly associated with other mental health disorders including:

Of particular concern is the 26.7% co-occurrence of other addictions with internet addiction:

Internet addiction is a symptom of underlying problems, such as poor impulse control, poor life coping skills, avoidance behavior and other addictions or mental health disorders. 

Myth 6: Most People Could Function Without the Internet

Fact: Only about 10% of Americans live without using the internet. Abstaining from internet use may not be feasible for most people

Data suggests that it is difficult to live and work without using the internet. Recently published data from the Pew Research Center found that only 10% of American adults don’t use the internet. In 2000, that figure was 48%.

The Americans who don’t use the internet are predominantly the elderly, those with low income, those who live in rural areas and those with less than a high school education. Some reasons for not using the internet may include:

  • No interest, not relevant to life (34%)
  • Too difficult to use (32%)
  • Can’t afford internet access (19%)

The US Department of Labor maintains a website that correlates requirements to use the internet or computers with various jobs. A review of the database shows that occupational requirements alone may compel most working people to use the internet.

Living without the internet may not be possible for many people. That underscores the importance of treating the underlying causes of internet addiction rather than trying to coerce people with internet addictions into trying to avoid the internet.

Comprehensive internet addiction treatment programs are designed to treat the person as a whole and address the underlying causes of addiction as well as any co-occurring mental health disorders. These are by far the most effective way to overcome internet addiction and return to good health and function. 

If you have concerns about substance addiction and internet usage in yourself or a loved one, contact The Recovery Village to speak with a representative about how treatment could help. You or your loved one deserve a healthier future, call today.

Thomas Christiansen
Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
Andrew Proulx
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Andrew Proulx, MD
Andrew Proulx holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, an MD from Queen's University, and has completed post-graduate studies in medicine. He practiced as a primary care physician from 2001 to 2016 in general practice and in the ER. Read more

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