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Internet Addiction – Symptoms, Signs, Treatment, and FAQS

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-to-day tasks. For example, it is much more efficient to do our banking online compared to actually going to a physical bank. Catching up with old friend on the other side of the world is only a click away. Renting a movie no longer requires a trip to a video store (and late fees for an overdue return).

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-being. When going online is your number one priority (whether for gaming, chatting, shopping, gambling, pornography, etc.) and you no longer participate in life outside of the virtual world, Internet Addiction may be a problem you need to address.

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-person relationships.

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.

Are you addicted to the Internet? Answer these seven questions:

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-only friends

  • 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-person shooter (FPS), Real Time Strategy (RTS), or Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) genres. See “Why are Video Games Addictive?” for more.

  • 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-person relationships. See “Why is Facebook Addictive?” for more.    

  • 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-related difficulties under the single umbrella term “Internet Addiction”. What this means is that those with video game addiction (for example) may be included in the same group as those who spend too much time on Facebook, viewing pornography, gambling online, or browsing the web.

Internet Addiction Risk Factors

  • Among 11-year-olds, depression, ADHD, and social phobia are predictive of Internet Addiction in adolescence

Chin-Hung, 2009

  • Men and women with pre-existing depression are more at risk for developing Internet Addiction

Young, 1998

  • Males are more likely to become addicted to the Internet than females

Tasi, 2009

  • College and university student may be more likely to become addicted to the Internet

Young, 1999

  • Neuroticism is positively associated with Internet Addiction

Tsai, 2009

  • People with poor social support have a greater likelihood of Internet Addiction

Tsai, 2008

  • Obsessive compulsive symptoms are associated with an increased risk for Internet Addiction

Jang, 2008

  • Excessive Internet use is more common among only children

Zboralski, 2009

  • Alcohol consumption, general stress, and family dissatisfaction are factors associated with Internet Addiction

Lam, 2009

  • People 16-29 years old may be more at risk for developing Internet Addiction

Bakken, 2009

  • Low self-esteem is associated with an increased risk for Internet Addiction

Niemz, 2005

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-esteem may go online to connect with others in an environment that has a lower risk of rejection and a higher degree of anonymity. Many people (even those who are not addicted) use the Internet as a temporary escape from the `real world``. When online, feelings of stress, depression, loneliness are lost in the excitement and exploration of a virtual world.

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-categories of problematic or obsessive online behaviors, then it is very difficult to say why someone becomes addicted to the Internet. Rather, it is much more informative to ask why specific online activities seem to have a greater risk of excessive or unhealthy use. For example, if you read the articles “Why are Video Games Addictive?”, “Why is Facebook Addictive?” and “Why is Online Gambling Addictive?” you will see that the answers are all very different – suggesting that we are really taking about different problems which all happen to be expressed online.

Internet Addiction Treatment

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-behavioral model. This form of treatment is used for a wide variety of issues and involves challenging beliefs that maintain unhealthy behaviors, developing coping skills, and then changing the actual behaviors in a gradual, step-by-step manner. The most effective treatments will not only target the unhealthy behaviors, but also any possible underlying contributors to Internet Addiction (for example, depression, social anxiety, or relationship difficulties).

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-confidence, it would obviously be wise to select someone who specializes in these issues.
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-week, on-site interventions. They may be staffed by a multi-disciplinary team of psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, general counsellors, and other support staff. Although this option offers a very intense experience with absolutely no possibility of Internet use, the questionable treatment methods at some locations and prohibitively expensive fees (typically tens of thousands of dollars) means that this is an option for very few individuals.

Self-Help Books

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-help books for Internet and video game addiction can be an excellent and affordable alternative. However, if choosing this option check to see if the author:

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-changing tool for communication, socialization, education, business, and entertainment.

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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Internet Addiction - Symptoms, Signs, Treatment, and FAQs

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