By Dr. Brent Conrad
Clinical Psychologist for TechAddiction
In many ways the Internet allows us to be more productive and actually saves us a lot of time as we carry out our various day-
Unfortunately, excessive use of the Internet can significantly interfere with functioning in other areas of life such as relationships, education, work, physical heath, and emotional well-
What is Internet Addiction?
Internet Addiction, although not an official DSM diagnosis, is often viewed as an impulse control problem similar to pathological gambling. While a gambling addict typically finds the thrill of winning most rewarding, those addicted to the Internet are often drawn in by social rewards. For example, even though a video game addict may enjoy the challenge, graphics, and sense of accomplishment of his favorite game, the most compelling reason to play may be the connections he makes and the responsibility he feels to fellow gamers who are a part of his online team.
In this article, TechAddiction reviews what Internet Addiction is, the types of Internet Addictions, why people become addicted to the Internet, risk factors for online addiction, warning signs that Internet use is excessive or unhealthy, and treatment options for Internet Addiction.
Physiological Addiction and Psychological Addiction
Typically, we think of addictions as pertaining to substances, chemicals, or drugs that can produce dependence and tolerance. That is, the more they are used, the larger the amount that needs to be consumed to produce the same effect or obtain the same degree of pleasure. Alcohol, nicotine, and various other drugs can produce tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms when discontinued – which are the most obvious signs of a physiological addiction.
However, any behavior or activity that produces a reward can, in theory, become addictive – or at the very least, turn into an unhealthy habit that interferes with the quality of one’s life. Eating, sex, exercise, and stock trading would just a few activities that are potentially rewarding enough to produce compulsive behaviors some may view as addictions. Often, obsessive activities that do not involve chemicals are seen as not having the potential to be addictive, as they are “only in your head”. However, research has demonstrated that psychological addiction is very real and is associated with neurochemical and biological changes in the brain.
Normal Use vs. Excessive Use
Today, it is rare to find someone under the age of 70 who doesn’t use the Internet – at least occasionally. Regardless of your age and your interests, the Internet provides an easily accessible source of information and a virtually endless supply of entertainment. Importantly, the Internet is no longer tied to a home computer and can be accessed almost anywhere via cell phones, laptops, tablets, gaming consoles. Wherever you go, the Internet is waiting for you.
The question is, when does normal use cross the line into excessive use or addiction? Because Internet Addiction is not a formal diagnosis (at least yet), there are no agreed upon standards for what defines addictive behavior. The one thing that almost all professionals agree upon is that the number of hours spent online is, by itself, not enough to indicate a problem.
For example, one person may spend 40 hours or more per week on the Internet because his or her work depends on it. Another person may spend 25 hours per week chatting with family members in another country. Is this an addiction? Is it excessive? This really depends on how the time online is (or isn’t) interfering with other important areas of life such as work, school, health, and in-
Consider two people who both spend 30 hours per week online. Person A is not working, has withdrawn from family and friends, and has few social interactions beyond meeting people online. Person B also spends 30 hours per week online but is working, finds time to meet with friends a few times per week, and generally has a fulfilling life outside of the virtual world. Clearly, Internet use is more of a problem for one of these people than the other. Of course, whether Person A’s Internet use is a cause or a symptom of other problems is a great question and is something that is covered in another section of this article.
As a general rule of thumb however, if a person repeated goes online to avoid real world responsibilities or difficulties and this avoidance creates even more problems in their life, this may suggest the presence of an addiction to the Internet.
1. Does my online use cause significant problems in my relationships, at school, at work, or how I feel about myself?
2. Do I often neglect or ignore important responsibilities in favor of going online?
3. Have I tried to cut back on my Internet use with little or no success?
4. Are other people concerned about how much I use the Internet?
5. Do I often go online because it takes my mind off problems in my life?
6. Has my Internet use steadily increased over time?
7. Has the quality of my life deteriorated as a consequence of the amount of time I spend online?
Signs of Internet Addiction
Similar to the symptoms of video game addiction, the signs of Internet Addiction can be broken down into four distinct categories – psychological, physical, behavioral, and relational.
Psychological Signs of Internet Addiction
Frequent feelings of guilt after spending too much time online
Great difficulty avoiding the Internet for recreational use for more than a few days in a row
Often losing track of time when online (e.g., suddenly noticing that several hours have passed when it seems like just a few minutes)
Strong feelings of frustration or tension when unable to go online
Unreasonable justifications for unhealthy levels of use (“Other people are online even more than I am”)
Downplaying the negative effects of excessive Internet use (“At least I am not addicted to drugs or alcohol”)
Loss of interest and participation in hobbies or activities that were once enjoyed
Feeling calm, content, or happy only when online
Preoccupation with going online when engaged in other activities (e.g., school, work, or when out with friends)
Often experiencing negative mood (depression or anxiety) when not on the Internet
Physical Signs of Internet Addiction
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Significant weight gain or loss due to poor eating habits and lack of physical activity
Headaches, neck aches, back problems
Tired, dry, and/or red eyes
Irregular, unhealthy eating habits
Behavioral Signs of Internet Addiction
Occasional “marathon” Internet sessions lasting all day or all night
Frequently eating meals in front of the computer or skipping them completely
Regularly using the Internet until very late at night despite having to get up early the next morning
Multiple attempts to reduce Internet use with little or no success
Going online at virtually every opportunity
Spending more and more time online and less time interacting with others offline
Often going online while neglecting other important responsibilities (e.g., school, work, family, household tasks)
Displaying anger or resentment towards those question how much time is spent online
If a student, decreased time spent studying and poorer academic performance
Relational Signs of Internet Addiction
Decreased interest in sex
Relationship problems and frequent arguments stemming from one partner spending too much time online
Blaming one’s spouse or partner for the amount of time spent on the Internet (“If you paid more attention to me, I wouldn’t be online so much”
Losing real world friends, gaining online-
Comments by others expressing concern about one’s Internet use
Decreased time spent with family and friends
Deceiving others about the amount of time spent on the Internet
Types of Internet Addiction
Internet Addiction is in some ways, a very misleading label.
When we talk about something like alcohol addiction it is very clear what we are referring to – someone who drinks excessively, has difficulty controlling how much he drinks, suffers negative consequences as a result of his drinking habits, and is unable or unwilling to quit despite these consequences. Does it matter whether his drink or choice is beer, wine, vodka, or rum? Not really – the reasons for the unhealthy drinking behavior and the consequences are more or less the same regardless of the type of alcohol consumed.
Now consider Internet Addiction. Here we have a global label used to describe a wide variety of very different behaviors. They have different triggering causes, look very different in action, temporarily satisfy different needs or desires, and have very different consequences depending on the type of online activity engaged in. For example, is there any doubt that online gambling addiction, Facebook addiction, and online pornography addiction are potentially addictive for very different reasons, offer very different rewards (financial, social, sexual), and can have very different consequences for excessive use?
Rather than a single disorder (“Internet Addiction”), it perhaps makes more sense to view these behaviors as distinct problems with the main commonality being that that are all simply expressed online. With this is mind, what are the some of the subtypes of Internet Addiction?
Video Game Addiction – Excessive use of computer games and video games, often of the first-
Pornography Addiction – Also known as cybersex addiction. Involves compulsive viewing and collecting online pornography and / or excessive use of adult chat or video services. See “Pornography Addiction Statistics” for more.
Facebook Addiction / Social Network Addiction – An obsession with social networks such as Facebook or Twitter that may involve constantly checking one’s “wall”, posting updates, playing mini games, commenting on pictures and posts, and reading updates from others. Online social interactions may become more common and more important than in-
Online Gambling Addiction – Similar to traditional gambling in that primary thrill is in the pursuit of monetary gain. However, online gambling websites may use very different methods to encourage continued play. See “Why Online Gambling Addiction is More Dangerous than Casino Gambling”.
Online Entertainment Addiction – Defined by excessive time browsing the web, watching online videos, viewing favorite websites, etc. May often be seen as simply wasting time or procrastinating. Arguably less problematic than some of the other online addictions listed above.
Risk Factors for Internet Addiction
Before talking about the risk factors for Internet addiction, please keep two things in mind:
1. Internet Addiction is not an official mental health diagnosis and therefore, there is no recognized set of symptoms that defines the problem. This means that individual researchers are free to define “addiction” in any manner they wish (more or less). Obviously, this is not an ideal setup for research as different studies will have different definitions of what is and isn’t Internet Addiction. This will most certainly produce inconsistent findings.
2. As mentioned above, although it has been used to describe a single issue, it is much more likely that “Internet Addiction” is comprised of many different subtypes of online problems. Unfortunately, the research generally does not break the findings down by subtype and collapses all online-
Internet Addiction Risk Factors
Men and women with pre-
Males are more likely to become addicted to the Internet than females
College and university student may be more likely to become addicted to the Internet
Neuroticism is positively associated with Internet Addiction
People with poor social support have a greater likelihood of Internet Addiction
Obsessive compulsive symptoms are associated with an increased risk for Internet Addiction
Excessive Internet use is more common among only children
Alcohol consumption, general stress, and family dissatisfaction are factors associated with Internet Addiction
For more, see Internet Addiction Statistics.
Why Do People Become Addicted to the Internet?
A common explanation for Internet Addiction is that people turn to the online world in order to reduce negative emotions, stress, depression, or anxiety.
It is also argued that those who are lonely or who have low self-
In moderation, using the Internet to manage emotions or relax is unlikely to cause much harm. The problem is when turning to the Internet becomes one`s primary method of stress management, dealing with negative thoughts or emotions, or reacting to real world challenges.
If we agree that Internet Addiction is really just an umbrella term for many sub-
Because Internet Addiction is a very new psychological problem (at least compared to issues like depression and anxiety which have been extensively studied for over a century), specialized Internet Addiction treatment options are limited. Although some psychologists and counsellors are taking an interest in working with online obsessions, finding a specialist can be almost impossible unless you are lucky enough to live in a city with one of these select few therapists.
Therapy for Internet Addiction
Although working with a specialist is obviously preferred, a skilled therapist who is open to the problem of online obsessions (not all therapists believe that Internet Addiction is a “real” issue) can still be very helpful.
Most therapy for Internet Addiction follows a cognitive-
If a therapist who specializes in treating Internet Addiction is not available (which is very possible), potential clients may wish to choose someone who works with other addictions such as Pathological Gambling Disorder.
Of course, depending on the nature of the online obsession, it may also make sense to choose a therapist who has experience treating the issue offline (for example, pornography addiction). If excessive Internet use is partially fueled by another issue such as depression, anxiety, or a lack of self-
Inpatient Treatment Programs
Popular in parts of Asia and starting to appear in North America and Europe, inpatient treatment programs for Internet Addiction offer multi-
For those unable to find an Internet Addiction specialist in their area or unable to afford the high fees of an inpatient treatment program, self-
1. Is a qualified professional such as a registered psychologist, psychiatrist, or counsellor (unfortunately there are many “lay” authors looking to make a quick buck…make sure to check their credentials and qualifications)
2. Actually has expertise in treating Internet Addiction (not simply studying or researching the problem)
3. Has written the book with the last two years (the Internet changes so quickly that anything written more than a few years ago may be very outdated)
Stopping Internet Addiction
The Internet is, without question, a game-
When used responsibly and in moderation it can provide us with an unimaginable amount of information and can certainly contribute to the quality of our lives. However, when used to excess and when the digital world becomes more important than the physical world – this can be a serious problem.
Facebook friends cannot take the place of real friends.
Chatting online cannot replace connecting with others in person.
Video game accomplishments cannot be a substitute for achieving personal goals in the real world.
If you are worried that you are addicted to the Internet, ask yourself these questions:
Is my Internet use taking away from the quality of my life when I am not online?
What I am missing out on because of my Internet habits?
Am I satisfied and even proud of the way I am living my life right now?
Am I capable of doing more with my life?
What goals do I have for myself and is my Internet use bringing me closer to achieving these goals?
Change is never easy, but it is an absolute requirement for personal growth and development. As difficult as changing your Internet habits may be, it is not nearly as difficult as living with the regret of lost relationships, missed opportunities, and unrealized potential.
With the proper treatment approach, support from others, and most importantly, a genuine commitment to change, it is definitely possible to overcome Internet Addiction and live a happier and more fulfilling life.
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