Can I Really Be Addicted to the Internet?

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The internet is an important tool today, but is there such a thing as too much internet consumption? Is that just something people say because they’re afraid of new things, or is there some truth to the idea that you can have too much time online? Internet addiction is a controversial matter among medical professionals. Let’s take a look at what studies show.

What Internet Addiction Is and Isn’t

There is a lot of debate about internet addiction. There’s disagreement about whether or not a person can be addicted to the internet; however, research has shown that between 1.5 and 8.2% of people meet diagnostic criteria for Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD). One important difference between substance use disorder and internet addiction is that one is a physiological dependence on a substance while the other is more a psychological dependence. Unlike with substances, a person doesn’t build physical tolerance to the internet over time. However, there are enough similarities between substance use and compulsive internet use for both to be classified as addictions.

Internet addiction is not listed in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but researchers are advocating for it to be added in the next update. In other countries like China or South Korea, internet addiction is seen as a serious problem. In the US, there hasn’t been a formal government response. Some of that is due to a lack of consensus on what types of behaviors would be considered internet addiction.

How Internet Addiction Affects a Person’s Life

The main criteria for many mental health disorders and addictions often come down to how unhealthy behaviors impact your daily life. If the time you spend on the internet causes strained relationships with family or friends — if it affects your health, work, or personal well-being — then there is a chance you might have an internet addiction. There are many subcategories of internet addiction, which tend to overlap with other types of addiction. This includes:

  • Sex addiction, where a person might compulsively use the internet for pornography or cybersex
  • Relationship addiction, where the person compulsively uses chatrooms to form online relationships at the expense of real connection, for example, engaging in cyber adultery
  • Gaming addiction, where a person might spend an enormous amount of time playing games, shopping, trading, or gambling. This type of addiction can severely affect a person’s finances
  • Social media addiction, where a person spends a majority of their time compulsively monitoring sites like Twitter or Facebook

Many brands on the internet use sophisticated techniques to keep their audience engaged. The longer a person spends on their site, the more ad revenue these companies acquire. The internet functions on what is called a “variable ratio reinforcement schedule” (VRRS), which is a type of operant conditioning used in gambling, especially slot machines. Major websites on the internet are designed to be engaging. The reward is intensified when combined with stimulating content. This can become more of a problem when it feeds into interests that exploit romantic fantasy, finances, and special interest chat rooms that give a person a sense of belonging.

Symptoms of Internet Addiction

If you’re wondering if you might have an internet addiction, pay attention to how you feel without internet access. For example, a person with internet addiction might experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, moodiness, and fantasizing about the internet. They might use the internet to cope with negative feelings like anxiety, depression, or guilt. A person might neglect areas of their life, such as work, school, or a hobby, in favor of spending time online. A person might even be prepared to lose things that should be important to them in favor of internet activity.

There are many reasons why a person might develop an internet addiction. There is some research that suggests those who are likely to become dependent on things, like cigarettes or gambling, could develop internet addiction as a co-addiction. This is highly prevalent in mental health disorders like ADHD and bipolar disorder. A person might become reliant on internet activity because they are socially anxious and feel more comfortable being themselves online. The internet can also be used as a form of escapism from difficult problems and emotions because the web can feel like another place entirely. Whatever the reason, it’s important to consider how your internet usage might be affecting your life.

Things to Consider

There is still plenty of research that needs to be done for Internet Addiction Disorder. There’s still debate about whether or not it exists in its own right and whether or not it should be classified as a behavioral addiction or an impulse-control disorder. Some researchers argue that excessive internet usage might be a symptom of another disorder like anxiety or depression. However, there seems to be a growing consensus that the symptoms fit the criteria for addiction. Regardless, many healthcare professionals agree that the answer to internet addiction isn’t total abstinence, like that of substance use disorder, but rather learning how to maintain controlled and balanced usage of the internet.

If you think that you might have an internet addiction, then it’s recommended that you talk to a mental healthcare professional. Treatment for internet addiction tends to come in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy. In the meantime, take note of your symptoms by keeping track of your thoughts, behaviors, and feelings associated with internet activity. Think about what makes you use the internet. Brainstorm ways you can cope without internet usage. Use mindfulness techniques like deep breathing or meditation to manage symptoms. Become aware of areas of your life that might be neglected from internet addiction, like real-life relationships or activities. Jaywalker Lodge offers treatment for a variety of different addictions, including internet addiction. We also provide treatment for sex and gambling addiction which can be enabled by internet activity. If you feel that your internet usage is negatively affecting the quality of your life, get help today. Call us at (866) 529-9255 to learn more.

author avatar
Stefan Bate, MA, LAC, CCTP Chief Clinical Officer
Stefan Bate, BA, MA, LAC holds a Master's Degree in Applied Psychology from Regis University and is a Licensed Addiction Counselor in the state of Colorado. Stefan has wide-ranging experience in the field of addiction recovery including: working as a recovery coach, therapist, and program director.

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