Understanding Internet Addiction
Computers, tablets and smartphones have become so firmly entrenched into daily living that most people cannot recall a time when they didn’t exist, or imagine life without them. Like no other medium before, they have changed the way virtually everyone manages every aspect of their lives. This use goes largely unchecked, and is even encouraged in most circumstances, in spite of the fact that little is known about the effects of this on mental health and general well-being.
Devices are used for seeing old friends, doing daily chores like banking, and even for working. In the past, these tasks could only be accomplished through face-to-face contact, but not anymore. With the introduction of the internet, human interaction has become largely unnecessary. While most people do not interact with others exclusively through the use of technology, daily internet access is a reality for the vast majority of adults. Use among children and adolescents is even greater.
Many would argue that this is harmless, and some device usage probably is. Devices, like other enjoyments, are okay when used in moderation. However, if this begins to interfere with employment, school or relationships, and it becomes more important than those, the individual may have developed addictive behaviour, and this can be a serious cause for concern.
Internet addiction is not yet a formally recognized condition. In the most recent issue of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5 or DSM-V), which is used to diagnose mental health conditions, there was insufficient evidence to support its inclusion. Internet gaming disorder was included as a condition requiring further research.
In terms of treatment, excessive internet use has largely been classified as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or an impulse control disorder. It is also known as compulsive internet use, pathological internet use (PUI), and internet addiction disorder (IAD). Research is ongoing, and understanding is continuing to evolve.
Types of Internet Addiction
Smartphones and tablets are tools that can be highly productive if used appropriately and in moderation. Not being able to stop checking emails, spending more time on social media or playing video games than interacting with real people, and being unaware or unconcerned about the negative consequences, are all indicators of an addiction.
While there are still no diagnostic criteria for internet addiction in the DSM-5, researchers have identified a number of subcategories of compulsive behaviours related to problematic internet use.
Individuals who compulsively sext, access online pornography and adult websites, participate in sexual fantasy chat rooms, and employ explicit webcam services may have a cybersex addiction. These activities often replace or significantly interfere with personal relationships in the real world. When this happens, it is important to seek help from a medical professional such as a counsellor or psychologist.
Internet users have endless sources of information at their fingertips, which can add so much value to their lives. For some, the ability to access information so easily turns into an uncontrollable need to gather and sort that data. If there are pre-existing obsessive-compulsive tendencies, these individuals are more vulnerable to developing this type of addiction.
Obsessive use of the internet in this manner often impacts academic performance and/or work productivity, leading to school failure or job loss. Like other compulsive behaviours, it can affect personal relationships and many other aspects of daily life. Depending on the severity of the addiction and any underlying conditions, treatment may involve therapy, and possibly medication.
Addiction to Cyber Relationships
While the internet can be a great place to meet new people and connect with old friends, or even to start a new relationship, it should not replace face-to-face interactions. Compulsive use of social networks, dating apps, and texting can result in online friends becoming more important than in-person ones.
Virtual relationship addicts are deeply invested in meeting people online, often in chat rooms or other social media websites. These individuals may conceal their true identity, which makes this form of interaction potentially very dangerous and psychologically unhealthy.
Excessive participation in online relationships may lead to impaired social skills and unrealistic expectations regarding in-person interactions. Often, this leads to an inability to make real world connections, increasing the dependence on virtual friendships. Counselling or psychotherapy are indicated to address these very serious issues.
Activities such as gaming, gambling, online shopping, stock trading, and bidding on auction sites like eBay are all ways that technology has positively impacted daily living. However, internet addicts use these services compulsively, and are unable to stop. This leads to access at any time of the day, for an excessive number of hours, and anywhere – including at work.
Financial problems are one negative consequence of this addiction, as are issues with job and/or school performance. Social isolation and loneliness, as well as difficulties with personal relationships, are also challenges faced by individuals participating in excessive internet use.
While gambling addiction has been a well-documented problem for years, the internet has made the opportunities to gamble far more accessible. Online casinos, social media and a countless number of websites dedicated to this pastime significantly increase the likelihood of pathological gambling. A treatment plan, including therapy and/or medication, should be developed in consultation with a mental health care provider.
Computer games, both on and off-line, are one of the earlier uses of technology, and they have been problematic for decades. Virtually every device is pre-programmed with gaming software. Research findings indicate that obsessive computer gaming quickly can quickly become an issue in workplaces, at school, and in virtually any social gathering.
Internet gaming has continued to improve as thousands of new games have been developed. This addiction is still very prevalent today, and potentially very harmful. Internet gaming disorder was identified in the DSM-5 as a condition requiring further study, and may be the result of an underlying metal illness like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), that requires treatment with a medical professional such as psychiatrist or psychologist.
Recognizing an Addiction
The internet is such an integral part of our lives that some use is unavoidable. The difficulty then becomes the determination of how much use is healthy, and of knowing when it has become an addiction. Research is only beginning in this area, and it varies widely.
Many studies offer guidelines on how much use is excessive. For example, some recommend no more than two hours a day of screen time. Many argue that this is unrealistic, as tablets and smartphones are used for work and to study. In a world driven by technology, it may be difficult diagnose an addiction, and it is easy for internet addicts to explain away their behaviour.
There are indicators of problematic internet use. These may include a preoccupation with the internet, continuing to increase the amount of usage, repeated unsuccessful attempts to cut back use, staying online longer than intended, lying to family members or therapists about the amount of use, and using the internet to escape problems.
Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to moderate use is also a cause for concern. Internet addicts can develop a dependence that is comparable to having a drug addiction. Symptoms can include anger, tension and depression, which may be perceived as boredom, joylessness, irritability, moodiness, and restlessness.
Tolerance, which is generally associated with substance abuse, can occur with internet addiction as well. The more frequent the access, the more computer-related stimulation that is needed. Cravings develop, and they worsen with increased use. At first, individuals may just want more time on their computer or tablet, but soon that will become a compulsion to always have the newest smartphones and software, regardless of the consequences.
The Impact of Internet Addiction
Internet addiction results in the same problems with health, family, school, work, and finances that are characteristic of other addictions. Real life relationships and social interactions are impaired, as these individuals spend so much time in seclusion.
Attempting to conceal the amount of time spent online is very common. Some people suffering from internet addiction even create a false online profile in order to conceal their true identity, and hide their use. Those most at risk for this behaviour are individuals with low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy, which can then lead to anxiety and depression.
In addition to the effects associated with withdrawal, this type of addiction may also cause new or worsening symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), particularly in adolescents and young adults.
Internet Addiction in Children and Adolescents
Devices and access to the internet are even more prevalent with young people than with adults. A typical adolescent spends endless hours a day texting, gaming, posting on social media and watching videos. They own their own smartphones, which they take everywhere. Schools are where a lot of this is happening, and educators are justifiably concerned about addiction among their students.
Youth lack the awareness to monitor their own use, or the ability to understand the potential risks, and they do not put any restrictions on themselves. No amount of time on the computer is unreasonable to them, and any site is safe. This makes young people particularly vulnerable to online peer pressure and cyberbullying, resulting in them becoming victims of crime.
It is essential for parents and schools to educate adolescents about problematic internet use, and to teach them to recognize and seek help for online danger.
Technology in the Classroom – Is it a Good Idea?
Addiction among children and adolescents is complicated by the push to integrate more technology into the education system. This seems like a natural fit, and is supported by research as a highly effective tool, particularly with students who struggle academically.
Often, children with a substance abuse disorder and/or mental illness have significant challenges accessing the curriculum in a traditional format, but these problems are greatly reduced with the use of technology.
Multitasking, like texting while doing homework, can impact focus, memory and the ability to process information. One study found that students who were using a device during a lesson performed more poorly on a test. Because they were distracted, their brains were unable to mentally encode what the teacher had said, resulting in poorer retention.
This certainly supports the legislation against texting while driving, but does it justify a ban of technology in classrooms? When used appropriately, it can open up an entire world and allow students to access the curriculum in a way that truly will let them be successful.
Rather than simply prohibiting use of the internet, young people need to be taught the dangers associated with internet addiction, starting when they are still children, before it is too late. Self-control is difficult at this age, so it is imperative to begin to develop those skills as well.
Teachers can educate their students about digital balance, set guidelines for when devices may be used in order to minimize distractions, make technology integration in the classroom deep and meaningful, and provide strategies for parents to use at home.
Managing Use in Daily Life
Keeping a log can help to identify patterns and problem areas. Analyzing access, and the reasons for it, may make it possible to recognize triggers, like emotional upset or feeling lonely or bored. This can help the individual develop healthier responses to those feelings. It may also aid in identifying the underlying causes, like problems with drug and alcohol use, or an undiagnosed mental disorder.
Build coping skills. If accessing social media or texting is a means of dealing with stress or anger, then it is important to learn new strategies, like meditation or breathing exercises. Setting time aside every week to spend time with family and friends in the real world can help break reliance on the internet for maintaining relationships.
It may be helpful to set goals for when devices will be used, to turn them off at certain times during the day, refrain from taking them to bed, remove social media apps, and replace internet access with healthier activities. Instead of going online when feeling restless or bored, taking a walk can retrain the brain to have a better response to those emotions.
For parents, it is critical to be a good role model. Children need to be taught the dangers of internet use, and to develop the skills to manage it on their own. Family members can do this by using technology responsibly themselves.
As young people learn, parents can support them by installing apps to monitor use of social media, limit use to certain times of the day, and to areas of the home where they can be supervised, encourage other activities, and talk to them about underlying issues or problems.
Internet addiction is potentially a very serious condition, and it can be difficult to treat without assistance. It is very easy to slip back into old patterns, especially with the source of the addiction so easily within reach. It is important to look for outside support like a family member, friend and/or or a medical professional.
Addictions and Problematic Internet Use Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) – Ontario, Copyright 2019
Public Health Implications of Excessive Use of the Internet and Other Communication and Gaming Platforms World Health Association (WHO), September, 2018
Internet Gaming American Psychiatric Association, Last Reviewed: June, 2018
Internet Gaming Disorder in Children and Adolescents | American Academy of Pediatrics Douglas A. Gentle, et al., Pediatrics, November, 2017
Internet Gaming Disorder vs. Internet Addiction Disorder Psychology Today, July 27, 2016
Internet Addiction Disorder Francesca Saliceti, Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences, June, 2015
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Internet Addiction: A Brief Summary of Research and Practice Hilarie Cash, et al., Current Psychiatry Reviews, November 8, 2012Picture Credit: BBC – South Korean Internet Addiction Camp: What is Life Like There?