Computers, tablets, and smartphones have become so firmly entrenched in our daily lives that most people cannot 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 in spite of the fact that we know little about how pervasive internet use will affect our mental well-being. While device use may indeed be harmless in moderation, internet addiction can lead to use that interferes with work, school, and relationships.
Defining Internet Addiction
Internet addiction is not yet a formally recognized condition. Insufficient evidence supported its inclusion 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. However, the DSM-V did include internet gaming disorder as a possible condition requiring further research.
For treatment purposes, most clinicians categorize excessive internet use as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Types of Internet Addiction
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While the DSM-V does not yet include diagnostic criteria for internet addiction, 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 may replace or significantly interfere with personal relationships in the real world, requiring psychological treatment.
For some, the ability to access information instantly becomes an uncontrollable need to gather and sort that data. Individuals who have existing obsessive tendencies are more vulnerable to developing this type of addiction, which can interfere with productivity and affect personal relationships.
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. Virtual relationship addicts are deeply invested in meeting people online. These individuals may conceal their true identity, which makes this form of interaction potentially very dangerous and psychologically unhealthy.
Online Gambling Addiction
Online casinos have turned gambling into a compulsion for individuals who can’t stop themselves from placing bets day and night, even when doing so causes financial difficulties and problems at work and home. While gambling addiction is nothing new, this instant access has dramatically increased its prevalence.
Other compulsive online behaviours include stock trading, shopping, and bidding on auction sites like eBay.
Concern about addiction to playing games on the computer has existed since the very first arcade opened. Like online gambling opportunities, digital games are more accessible than ever before, compounding this long-held problem. If you find yourself playing games instead of fulfilling other responsibilities, you may have a gaming addiction.
Recognizing an Internet Addiction
The internet is such an integral part of our lives that some use is unavoidable. As a result, it becomes difficult to determine where healthy use ends and addiction begins. Research is only beginning in this area, and scholarly opinions about digital addiction vary dramatically.
For example, some scientists recommend limiting screen time to two hours a day, which others argue is unrealistic as these devices are used for work, studying, entertainment, and essential tasks like online banking.
Despite these differences of opinion, we do have some indicators of problematic internet usage, such as:
- Continually increasing internet usage.
- Preoccupation with using the internet.
- Unsuccessful attempts to curb usage.
- Staying online longer than planned.
- Lying to therapists, friends, and family members about time spent online.
- Escaping personal problems by using the internet.
- Experiencing psychological withdrawal when attempting to discontinue use, which can manifest as restlessness, mood swings, irritability, lack of joy, boredom, and depression and anxiety.
- Developing a tolerance to time spent online (needing to spend more and more time for satisfaction).
- Trying to hide the amount of time spent online.
The Impact of Internet Addiction
Internet addiction results in the same problems with health, family, school, work, and finances that characterize other addictions. Real-life relationships and social interactions are impaired, as these individuals spend so much time in seclusion online.
Some research suggests that internet addiction may lead to or exacerbate signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This is a particular danger for teens and young adults, who may spend hours gaming, texting, streaming video, and using social media each day.
This age group lacks the awareness to understand the risks of overuse and to monitor their own use, which can be difficult even for adults. Teens who are constantly online may also fall victim to cyberbullies and encounter inappropriate content whenever they connect to the internet.
Finding a Solution
To address this serious issue, parents and schools must educate children about problematic internet use and teach them to recognize and seek help for online danger.
Adults and teens alike should start tracking their internet use to identify potential problems. This might also help pinpoint triggers for going online, such as boredom, depression, or anxiety.
Building real-world coping skills can also help address the symptoms of internet addiction. Individuals who recognize their triggers can seek alternative coping methods, such as breathing exercises or guided imagery.
Set timers to help children and adolescents manage internet use. This method can also be helpful for adults. Taking a walk or doing something else can create the distraction needed to break the internet craving.
Parents should model healthy internet use for their children by using technology responsibly. If you have children, monitor their social media use, limit the time they spend online, and allow device use only in a supervised area of the home.
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 medical professionals at treatment centers. Many addiction centers have counselors who specialize in compulsive online behaviours.
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
Differences in Functional Connectivity Between Alcohol Dependence and Internet Gaming Disorder Ji Won Han, et al., Addictive Behaviours, February, 2015
Internet Addiction: A Brief Summary of Research and Practice Hilarie Cash, et al., Current Psychiatry Reviews, November 8, 2012