Reviewed by Dawn Brown, LPC, NCC
Most people these days find themselves spending too much time using the internet occasionally. It's easy to do. With social media, gaming, and so many other things to do online, it's no wonder that it can get a little out of hand at times. However, for some people, internet use can become a severe mental health issue with serious consequences. Recognizing internet addiction disorder is the first step on the path to overcoming it.
What Is Internet Addiction Disorder?
Internet addiction is an emerging disorder that scientists are just beginning to study. It isn't listed as a mental disorder in the most recent version of the mental health diagnostic manual, the DSM-5. However, if many researchers have their way, it may be included in the next edition. So, what is this mental problem?
The definition of internet addiction disorder has three main parts. First, it's a behavioral pattern in which you use a computer online or offline. Second, you use it obsessively or excessively. Third, it causes you distress or impairs your functioning in work, relationships, or other aspects of life.
How Many People Have Internet Addiction?
Internet addiction statistics show that it's a significant problem around the globe. According to researchers' estimates, about 6% of all the world's people have an internet addiction. That's a phenomenal number, especially considering that only 39% of the world's population even has access to the internet.
Types Of Internet Addiction
In studies of internet addiction, researchers have noticed five different types of internet and computer addiction. If you have an internet addiction, you might have one or more of these types of issues.
1. Online Relationship Addiction
Many people become addicted to interacting with other people online. They might connect with people through social media, chat rooms, or dating sites. The goal for them is not to meet these people in real life but to interact with them exclusively via the internet. Some people with this form of internet addiction use fake identities to hide who they really are, a popular practice called "catfishing."
The problem here is that when you're so consumed with online relationships, it's too easy to ignore your real-world relationships. You may have trouble meeting and getting to know people in real life. And the relationships you already have might begin to suffer as you focus on the people you know exclusively online.
2. Net Compulsions
Net compulsions include activities you're addicted to doing online. Some examples include compulsively engaging in:
- Placing and following bids on auction sites like E-bay
- Online gambling
- Shopping online
- Trading stocks
Suppose you're already a compulsive shopper or gambler. In that case, the availability of online stores and casinos can shift your focus from doing those things in the real world to doing them on the internet. But they still have the same consequences – financial instability and relationship issues.
3. Cybersex Addiction
Cybersex addiction can include several forms of online sexual activity. Maybe you spend a lot of time viewing internet pornography. Or perhaps you join chat groups that focus on sexual fantasies. You may spend your days or nights on adult websites or even pay for X-rated webcam services. Over time, your ability to have healthy sexual and romantic relationships may suffer significantly. At the same time, your real-life intimate relationships may fall apart.
4. Computer Gaming Addiction
Computer gaming addiction includes both online and offline gaming. Playing games online can be fun and enjoyable at first. It can get your mind off your stresses for a while. But when you do it for hours every day, it begins to take a toll on your personal life.
5. Seeking Information Compulsively
One of the great things about the internet is that it offers so much information on nearly every topic. That can be extremely helpful whether you're writing a paper for a class or just looking up how to solve a practical problem at home. However, some people have a hard time stopping when they find the information they need. Instead, they have an uncontrollable urge to follow one search with another, often on a barely related topic.
Symptoms Of Internet Addiction
The symptoms of your internet addiction may be different than those others experience. A part of the difference is in the type of internet addiction you have. However, specific symptoms define internet addiction more broadly. Here are signs to look for if you might have internet addiction:
- Often staying online longer than you intended.
- Others often complain about how much time you spend online
- Spending a lot of time thinking about past online activity
- Always looking forward to the next time you'll be online
- Needing to use the internet more to get the same satisfaction as you used to get
- Trying to stop or cut down internet use without success
- Feeling restless or irritable when you try to stop using the internet so much
- Putting your job or relationships at risk by doing online activities
- Lying to others to hide your internet use
- Using the internet to escape from problems or lift your mood
Screening For Internet Addiction
Because internet use is so pervasive in today's society, there's often a fine line between responsibly using the internet and becoming addicted. You can watch for the above signs of internet addiction, but it isn't always easy to spot them in your own behavior.
That's why it's often helpful to take an internet addiction screening test. You can quickly read the questions and click on the answers that describe you best. You'll get an immediate response showing the significance of your symptoms. You can then take the available report with you if you decide to seek help for this disorder.
Consequences Of Internet Addiction
It's natural to think that internet addiction isn't really a problem. After all, you aren't taking a drug or drinking excessively. You aren't hurting anyone else or even yourself, or so you might assume. However, this type of addiction can have severe consequences, some you might have never even considered.
Excessive online activities can have a profound effect on your brain. First, it affects your brain the same way other addictions do. It lights up the reward system in your brain. After a while, your brain gets used to this flood of dopamine. So, you have to increase those online activities to get the same reward.
Internet addiction can also affect the functioning of your brain. One internet addiction article described a study suggesting that the prefrontal cortex and the brain's temporal and subcortical regions work differently after prolonged cyber addiction. What's more, parts of the prefrontal cortex might change in structure, atrophying after long-term internet addiction. It can affect your working memory, too.
Other Physical Problems
In addition to brain changes, online addictive behavior can cause other physical issues. Insomnia is one of the most common physical problems associated with this addiction. You may also develop vision problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, or gain or lose weight when you spend too much time using your computer.
Real-life relationships can suffer due to internet addiction. You may spend so much time online that you don't have time or energy to interact with your loved ones. Your activities online may bring hardship to your family. And, your loved ones may be hurt by the things you choose to do online, such as going to sex fantasy chat rooms. Even if they point out their dissatisfaction with the relationship, it's all too easy to go online and escape the problem rather than dealing with it.
Online gambling, buying, and stock trading come with at least the possibility of financial losses. Suppose these are the activities you're addicted to. In that case, you may lose or spend so much money that you have trouble paying your bills or meeting your family's basic needs.
Effects On School And Work
Whether you use the internet excessively at work or at home can affect your productivity and work success. If someone discovers that you're misusing the internet at work, you might get fired. If you spend too much time online at home, you'll likely be too physically and mentally exhausted at times to do your work or studies well.
Internet Addiction And Other Mental Disorders
Internet addiction often goes along with other mental disorders. It's not known whether these other disorders contribute to the development of internet addiction or vice versa. It may be that it could work either way. Some of the diseases that have been associated with cyber addiction include:
- Mood disorders, like depression or bipolar disorder
- Alcohol misuse or drug addiction
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
Suppose you're wondering if any of these other disorders is behind your addiction to the internet. In that case, you can take the screening tests to find out. You can take a bipolar, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, or depression test to discover if you have significant symptoms of those.
Treatments For Cyber Addiction
Treatment for internet addiction is still in its infancy. While therapists have found certain therapy types to be helpful, there's not much research yet to determine which is the most effective. Here are some of the ways mental health professionals approach cyber addiction treatment.
Dealing With Related Disorders
If you have bipolar symptoms, it's important to notice whether your addictive internet use happens only or mostly during a manic or hypomanic phase. If so, treating bipolar disorder may be the most effective way to start dealing with cyber addiction.
The same is true of depression symptoms. If your addiction seems worse when you're depressed, antidepressants and therapy for depression may be the way to begin. Many people have anxiety symptoms when they're trying to stop using the internet. The best way to determine if anxiety is your primary problem is to talk to a mental health counselor.
For some people, alcohol can play a part in internet addiction, too. If so, Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery may be a good source of help. At AA meetings, you can talk about addiction to internet use with people who understand addiction from the insider's perspective.
Counselors have used several different psychological techniques to help people with internet addiction. Here is a list of some types of psychotherapy that have had some success.
- Motivational interviewing – a client-centered method in which the counselor directs the session to increase the motivation to change.
- Family therapy – getting the family involved helping the person understand the effects of their addiction on the family and receive support and motivation.
- Reality therapy – learning that addiction is a choice, what that choice entails, and how to commit to change
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – recognizing and accepting uncomfortable feelings and learning the best ways to respond to those emotions.
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy – learning to examine the thoughts behind addictive behaviors and choose more helpful ideas and actions.
What You Can Do To Help Yourself
Finding out if your internet use is a problem comes first. Start by taking a screening test and looking over the symptoms of internet addiction. If your problem is significant, seek help, preferably from a therapist experienced in helping people with cyber addiction.
Don't Stop Altogether
There are a few things you can do on your own, too. It's important to understand that you will probably still need to use the internet. So, it's best if you don't try to stop using it altogether. Eventually, you will need to use it again, and you won't have practiced using it responsibly. But if you learn to use it less, you can develop the skills you need to avoid addictive behaviors.
Set Limits For Yourself
If you can set up your smartphone to block access to you after using it for a certain amount of time per day, do that. Obviously, if you set it up, you can always change the settings. But the value in using this setting is that it lets you know when you've been online too long. It can remind you when you're too caught up in online activities to realize how long you've been doing them.
Interact With Others
Spend time with people where you live. Do things with your partner, your family, and your friends. Engage in community activities and events or volunteer to help others. Go where you can meet people face to face and practice your social skills.
Take Care Of Your Health
You can also help yourself by practicing good self-care. Make sure you get enough sleep at night. Eat a healthy diet and get enough exercise. Learn relaxation techniques, practice meditation, or download a guided imagery recording. The better you feel physically and emotionally, the easier it will be to avoid addictive behaviors.
Although it can seem harmless at first, internet addiction can be a significant problem. It can lead to severe consequences to your relationships and your physical and mental wellbeing. If you think you might have cyber addiction, take a test to check your symptoms. Then, get the help you need to get back to using the internet only in healthy and productive ways.