Binge-watching Netflix; getting sucked into a YouTube channel about cats or cars; scrolling through Instagram and Facebook; shopping online; engaging in a heated discussion on Reddit; playing Minecraft, World of Warcraft, Fortnite; reading the news; taking personality quizzes; gambling; googling your symptoms; swiping left and right on dating apps.

What Is Internet Addiction?

Many of us are glued to our phones, our computers, or our iPads for the majority of the day, every day. Whether we’re required to for work or doing so for personal pleasure. Consider a few internet use statistics:

  • There are more than 4.33 billion active internet users (Datareportal, 2019).
  • There are 3.9 billion unique mobile internet users (Statistica, 2019).
  • On average, internet users spend 6 hours and 30 minutes online every day. (Bond Cap, 2019).
    • 91% visit online stores
    • 2+ hours a day on social media; highest among Millennials and Generation X.
  • China has the highest amount of internet users, with over 854 million (Internetworldstats, 2019).
  • In the US, 81% of adults go online every single day (Pew Research, 2019).
  • There are over 1.7 billion websites (Internet Live Stats, 2019).

It’s safe to say that the majority of us spend much of our time online, especially now during the era of COVID-19 as we desperately try to stay connected to others and keep ourselves entertained during social distancing. But we don’t all suffer as a result of our internet use and time online—at least not to the degree of those with an addiction.

Internet addiction—sometimes called compulsive computer use, pathological internet use, and internet dependence—is yet to be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, when engagement in a certain activity negatively impacts one’s wellbeing and takes priority over important areas of life—such as work, school, and the individual’s relationships—this activity can be classified as an addiction.

In simple terms, internet addiction is compulsive or frequent activity on the internet despite harmful consequences. These people are staying up all night and sleeping through their alarms. They’re missing school or work, neglecting their relationships, and disregarding other responsibilities like taking a shower or paying their bills. As we mentioned above, internet addiction is not yet classified as a disorder in the DSM. But, that doesn’t mean other professionals don’t recognize internet addiction. Those that do acknowledge internet addiction classify it as an obsessive-compulsive disorder or impulse control disorder. And they use corresponding treatment methods to help the affected individual(s).

Internet Addiction Symptoms: Do I Have Internet Addiction?

We can all relate to watching one too many episodes on Netflix or staying up too late gaming. But this certainly doesn’t mean we’re addicted to the Internet, or the specific medium at hand—does it? As with other addictions, an activity becomes problematic when it negatively affects important areas of life. With that in mind, here are the emotional (or mental) symptoms of internet addiction, as well as the physical symptoms:

Emotional Internet Addiction Symptoms:

  • Euphoria when using the internet on one’s phone or computer
  • Inability to prioritize schedules or manage time
  • Boredom or lack of interest in routine tasks
  • No sense of time
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Mood swings or irritability
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Avoidance of work
  • Defensiveness

Physical Internet Addiction Symptoms:

  • Carpal tunnel
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia or other sleep disturbances
  • Poor nutrition and/or personal hygiene
  • Significant changes in weight
  • Neck and back pain
  • Dry eyes, or other vision issues

There isn’t a specific set of criteria one must meet to be diagnosed with internet addiction (because internet addiction isn’t technically classified as a disorder in the DSM, as we’ve mentioned), but if you are experiencing the above symptoms with excessive internet use, you might have a problem. Additionally, you can consult the following diagnostic criteria, which was proposed by KW Beard in the journal Cyberpsychology and Behavior and well-received in the community:

  1. The individual is preoccupied with the Internet, in that they are constantly thinking about using it or their past use of it
  2. The individual must increase the amount of time they spend on the internet to continue gaining satisfaction
  3. They have tried and failed to control, cut back on, or stop their internet use
  4. They become depressed, restless, moody, or irritable as a result of trying to manage their internet use
  5. The individual stays online longer than they originally intended.

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

  • The individual has jeopardized their job, relationships, schooling, or opportunities due to their internet use
  • They have lied to family members, friends, and others about their internet use
  • The individual uses the internet to escape or avoid their problems, or to cope with difficult emotions

If you’re worried about your internet habits and think that you might have internet addiction, you should talk to a medical professional. They can help you better understand whether your habits are unhealthy and what to do next.

5 Types of Internet Addiction

  1. Computer Gaming Addiction: This type of internet addiction is what most people think of right off the bat. Computer addiction, or computer gaming addiction, simply involves activities that can be performed on a computer, both on and offline.When more and more people gained access to computers, games like Solitaire and Tetris were programmed into the computer software. These games were probably meant to be played at random and help users pass the time when bored, but they quickly became a problem. Researchers found that people were developing computer or gaming addictions, wherein they were spending significant amounts of time playing these and other games, and suffering as a result. For example, office employees spent (and still do) too much time playing these games and their productivity, as well as their motivation at work, plummeted.As you probably know, these computer games as well as thousands of others are still available and widely played today. Computer or gaming addiction is the oldest of internet addiction types. Not to mention, it is still common if not more common today.
  2. Cybersex Addiction: Cybersex addiction is comprised of online pornography, adult chat rooms and websites, and web-cam services. An obsession with any of the aforementioned can prove harmful to one’s life, specifically in their relationships. An individual who is addicted to porn or another service of sexual nature often struggles to form intimate, romantic, and/or sexual relationships in real life.
  3. Online Relationship Addiction: Those with an online relationship addiction are obsessed with finding and maintaining relationships online, which often leads to their neglecting in-person relationships, such as those with family members and friends.These online relationships are typically created in chat rooms or social media platforms, but can be formed anywhere online. This isn’t just harmful to one’s mental and emotional wellbeing—it’s dangerous. Oftentimes, people who pursue relationships online do so under a fake name and persona. It’s hard to know when the person you’re chatting with online is telling the truth about their identity.
  4. Net Compulsions: Net compulsions refer to online activities like gambling, auctioning, shopping, and trading stocks. These habits can have a negative mental, emotional, and financial impact on an individual, as losing an excessive amount of money can cause significant stress in one’s life.It is easy for people to fall into the trap of net compulsions, especially those who already have a gambling, spending, or shopping addiction.
  5. Compulsive Information Seeking: Compulsive information seeking is acting on that uncontrollable urge to Google (or Bing). Some people just can’t resist gathering information on the web, from the symptoms of an illness to random facts about a celebrity, how to change a tire, etc. This form of internet addiction can negatively affect one’s performance at work and even lead to severe anxiety issues.

Causes of Internet Addiction; Risk Factors

As with most disorders, there isn’t always a clear cause of internet addiction. However, there are likely multiple factors that contribute to the development of this disorder, some of which are rooted in nature and others that are rooted in nurture. Let’s explore a few of these potential factors:

  1. Dopamine chase: Many addictive drugs, like alcohol and cocaine, are linked to this elusive “dopamine chase.” For example, when an individual uses their drug of choice, they experience pleasure and release dopamine, which causes them to experience euphoria. The drug user starts to chase this euphoric feeling, which reinforces their behavior. And over time, more of the drug is needed for the individual to achieve the feelings they seek.A similar cycle is seen in internet addiction: If you like to play video games or shop online, and you struggle with an internet addiction or obsession, you’ll have to spend more and more time engaging in the behavior to achieve the same level of pleasure.
  2. Multiple layers of rewards: Another theory, the Variable Ratio Reinforcement Schedule (VRRS) theory, says that internet addiction can stem from multiple levels of rewards. For example, your scrolling through social media might reward you many times, as you receive likes and comments on the photo you just posted, accept a friend request from your crush, and read exciting updates about your friends getting engaged or pregnant. Every time you sign on to Facebook, Instagram, or another social platform, you never know what you’re going to get—but there is always potential for multiple levels of rewards, which keeps you coming back for more.
  3. Chemical makeup and structural brain changes: Additionally, some research suggests that those with internet addiction have brain makeup similar to individuals with drug or alcohol dependence. Additionally, some research shows that internet addiction physically changes the structure of the brain, in that it affects gray and white matter in the prefrontal regions, which help with remembering details, planning, prioritizing, and paying attention. Therefore, when this area of the brain is altered, we aren’t able to prioritize the right tasks—we prioritize the internet, instead.
  4. Genetics: Your genetics might also play a role in the development of internet addiction. If you struggle with this form of addiction (or another type of addiction), your dopamine or serotonin levels might be lower than most, requiring you to engage in more behaviors to achieve the same level of pleasure. This biological predisposition can increase your risk for addiction.
  5. Depression and Anxiety: Finally, if you have depression or anxiety, you are more likely to turn to the internet for relief. For example, if you suffer from social anxiety, it’s much easier to meet people in a virtual world than it is to meet people face to face. These individuals find pleasure in these interactions and relationships just the same, only they must engage in them online. This can put someone on the fast road to internet addiction.

Effects of Internet Addiction: Short-Term and Long-Term

When it comes to internet addiction (and other types of addiction), there are both short-term and long-term effects, of which can prove harmful to the individual. Short-term effects include:

  • Incomplete tasks
  • Neglected responsibilities
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Backache
  • Neck pain

An individual with internet addiction might experience the above symptoms after only several sessions on the internet. Long-term side effects include:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Vision problems
  • Damaged relationships
  • Loss of a job
  • Financial strain

When one is farther into their addiction, they are more likely to experience the above side effects. As they spend more and more time on the internet, they are at a greater risk of experiencing carpal tunnel, hurting their vision, damaging their relationships, losing their job, and entering financial distress as a result of their job loss or spending money on shopping, gambling, or gambling online.

How to Stop Internet Addiction: Internet Addiction Treatment Options

The first step in seeking treatment for internet addiction is recognizing that you have a problem. Hopefully, you have a better understanding of what this addiction entails after reading the symptoms listed above, and you can distinguish healthy internet habits from unhealthy internet habits.

Now, if you’ve identified that you might have a problem, you have multiple treatment options. Common treatments include:

  1. Therapy: Different types of therapy can help with internet addiction but cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common approach. CBT focuses on helping individuals to acknowledge and change unhelpful thinking patterns as well as unhelpful behavioral patterns.
  2. Medication: Some professionals insist that medications can help treat internet addiction—at least in instances where the individual is suffering with an underlying illness like depression or anxiety. These professionals believe that if the depression, anxiety, or other illness is dealt with, the internet addiction will resolve as well. In addition, research has shown that antidepressants as well as anti-anxiety medication do lead to decreased internet use.
  3. Self-corrective behavior: Many people argue that internet addiction isn’t a “real” illness and can be easily resolved by the effected individual. Research shows that self-corrective behavior, such as limiting your internet access, can prove successful. However, cutting cold turkey is not typically an effective treatment.

If you’re worried about your internet usage, or you’re exhibiting signs of internet addiction, talk to a medical professional. They can help you better understand your problem, recommend best treatment options for your specific case, and help you with addiction recovery.