How To Identify And Navigate An Internet Addiction

Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC

Published 12/09/2020

Today, almost every aspect of our lives can be done on a computer. Although many positive effects have stemmed from increased time spent online, the risk of developing an internet addiction is growing every year. Internet addiction may sound like a nonessential, “first world problem,” but the effects are serious, and the rate at which it occurs is growing.

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Surveys in the United States and Europe have found that between 1.5 and 8.2 percent of citizens struggle with internet addiction. However, the true number may be even higher than that. Some numbers suggest close to 30% of the population deal with issues related to internet addiction. The large difference in reported numbers is related to the fact that there is no true and standard internet addiction disorder (IAD).

This internet addiction article will help shed light on what internet addiction is, the symptoms, the long-term effects, and what treatment options are available. By using internet addiction statistics, this article will help show that internet addiction is a serious problem in today’s world, but one that can be managed through smart recovery.

What Is Internet Addiction Disorder?

Internet addiction disorder is a serious disorder that can ruin lives through psychological, mental, neurological, and social ramifications. Specific internet addictions will vary greatly from individual to individual, but some broad themes remain the same across most cases.

Cyber addiction is generally accompanied by mood swings, the inability to control the amount of time spent on the internet or digital technology, internet usage creating a family or social life conflict, detrimental effects on work or school, and withdrawal symptoms when internet usage is limited. In a broad sense, online addictive symptoms are very similar to symptoms from drug addiction.

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There is no official definition of an internet addiction disorder, although that may change shortly due to increased awareness and prevalence of the disorder. In fact, countries like China and South Korea have officially recognized internet addiction disorder as a “significant public health threat.” The United States, however, has yet to formally recognize the disorder. Still, treatment in both in-patient and out-patient settings is available in the United States, indicating the disorder's growing concern.

Like many addictions and mental health problems, the causes of internet addiction disorder are varied and connected. Although motifs do exist correlated with cyber addiction, there is no single cause for the disorder. One potential avenue for this disorder is based on the biology of the human brain. It has been suggested that structural changes in the prefrontal region may hurt a person's ability to prioritize life tasks, leading to internet addiction.

Other neurological explanations have been proposed. One theory relates to dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens, a reward system linked with other addictions. The Variable Ratio Reinforcement Schedule theory posits that the internet is addictive because it provides many layers of unpredictable rewards. This engenders addictive behaviors.

Types of Cyber Addictions

Internet addictions vary greatly depending on an individual. The most common types include gaming, social networking, online shopping, and inappropriate pornography usage. Cyber addictions can be broken down into five large categories:

  1. Cybersex addiction
    1. This type of internet addictions deals with online pornography, adult websites, web-cam services, and more. It can be very harmful to one’s perception of real-world sex, relationships, and romance.
  • Net compulsions
    • . This internet addiction involves harmful online activities such as compulsive shopping, online gambling and betting, and online auctions. This type of addiction can be catastrophic financially and hurt one’s career.
  • Cyber relationship addiction
    • . Online relationships can sometimes be beneficial, but oftentimes can distort reality and cause one to lose meaningful relationships with family and real-life friends.
  • Compulsive information seeking
    • . This type of cyber addiction deals with the uncontrollable urge to seek and organize the vast amounts of available information on the internet.
  • Gaming addiction
    • . This addiction involved excessive hours spent gaming and can hurt one’s real-life relationships and career.

Most times, one’s internet addiction spans a few of these types, rather than just being classified as a single type of internet addiction.

What Are the Symptoms Of Cyber Addiction?

Internet addiction can sometimes be easy to spot. For example, if a family or friend spends 8+ hours a day on the internet doing non-work activities, that’s a clear indication of internet addiction. However, symptoms can also be subtle and difficult to notice. It’s not easy to assume one has or does not have an internet addiction.

One commonly cited protocol for diagnosing an internet addiction comes from Keith Beard’s analysis. He identified five criteria that should be met for an internet addiction to be suspected:

  1. Preoccupation with the internet (i.e., thinking about previous and future online activity)
  2. Internet usage time needs to increase to satisfy an individual.
  3. Unsuccessful attempt to control or cut back on internet usage
  4. Anxiety symptoms, bipolar symptoms, or depression symptoms when trying to cut back on internet usage
  5. Spends more time on the internet than originally planned

Additionally, at least one of the following should be present:

  1. Put a relationship, job, or career opportunity in jeopardy due to internet usage.
  2. Lying to family, friends, or a therapist about the extent of their internet usage
  3. Use of the internet as a way to escape real-life problems

Identifying internet addiction is difficult for even professionals. However, some services do exist to help illuminate this confusing disorder. By taking this short quiz, one can better understand if they are at risk for internet addiction. It takes very little time but can be an important wake-up call if you think you may be at risk for developing IAD.

What Are the Effects Of An Internet Addiction?

Internet addiction disorder can create many undesirable effects, some of which are incredibly serious. There is a plethora of both emotional and physical effects that can cause harm to an individual.

Common physical symptoms:

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  • Body aches
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Insomnia
  • Vision issues
  • Weight loss/weight gain

Common emotional symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Dishonesty
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety
  • Lost sense of time
  • Mood swings
  • Loneliness
  • Procrastination

The effects can be long-lasting and serious. Individuals may unintentionally (or intentionally) isolate themselves from friends and family members, hurting meaningful relationships. Victims often get defensive and dishonest when confronted by others.

Internet addiction disorder is correlated with a higher likelihood of depression, anxiety, hostility, and psychosis. Many of the mental health conditions that affect those with cyber addiction are related. Predisposition to anxiety and depression may encourage one to turn to the internet for relief.

There is also a correlation between internet addictions and alcoholism/depression. Alcoholics Anonymous is a great organization to look to if you struggle with alcoholism and internet addiction. AA meetings are a good place to talk through your addictions. Please seek professional medical attention if you feel like you are suffering from alcoholism, depression, or internet addiction disorder.

Treatments: A Smart Recovery

Although the symptoms and effects of internet addiction disorder are scary, IAD does not have to ruin your life. There are ways to go about smart recovery and reincorporation into real life.

The first step in treatment is for an individual to recognize that the problem exists. Planning an intervention or simply talking with a family or friend that has an internet addiction problem is a crucial step.

There is a consensus among experts that total abstinence from the internet is not a good idea. It is an unrealistic goal that should not be expected from anybody. Instead, controlled and manageable internet usage should be the ultimate goal.

Some experts think that internet addiction is a “fad illness” that will naturally go away. In some cases, this can be true. However, seeking professional and planned care is often the best strategy to alleviate an internet addiction.

Research has been promising in the field of pharmaceuticals. For all guidance regarding medical treatment, please consult a licensed medical professional.

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Psychological and behavioral therapies have proven to be effective in treating internet addictions. An acceptance and commitment therapy protocol has previously been shown to reduce cybersex addictions. Cognitive-behavioral therapy was useful in helping 114 patients better manage their internet addictions. Patients improved in their ability to manage offline relationships.

In addition to seeing a licensed medical professional or therapist, there are basic steps that can be taken in one’s own home to help with internet addiction disorder symptoms. Dr. Kimberly Young suggests these treatment strategies:

  • Practice internet use at opposite times (i.e., find out when an individual normally spends time on the internet and schedule other activities during that time)
  • Use external stoppers such as in-person events or activities
  • Set realistic goals
  • Start by abstaining from one particular website or application.
  • Use reminder cards to remind the patient of the harmful nature of internet addiction.
  • Develop a personal inventory of all the beneficial activities the patient cannot engage in due to internet usage
  • Join a support group
  • Family / close friend therapy

Internet addiction is a difficult disorder to deal with. However, with proper guidance and the support of family and friends, anybody can overcome this disorder. Please seek help if you or somebody you know is struggling with internet addiction.