8 Common Questions About Internet Addiction

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You’ve likely joked about spending too much time online. You may even cringe when you get your weekly screen time report. Who doesn’t? But there is a difference between spending more time than you think you should online and internet addiction. When you have an internet addiction, you can’t balance your time online with your life offline.

This post addresses eight commonly asked questions and answers about internet addiction.

1. What is Internet Addiction?

Internet addiction is a psychological disorder that causes people to spend so much time online that it negatively affects their health, job, finances, or relationships.

Because the internet is still relatively new, there aren’t many studies on internet addiction. So, mental health experts can’t say with certainty how common internet addiction is. But experts estimate about 10% of the population has an internet addiction. They also think the disorder is more prominent in young people, with about 20% of college students experiencing internet addiction.

2. What Do People with Internet Addiction Do?

Mental health experts classify internet addiction based on the types of activities you perform online.

Types of internet addiction activities are:

  • Gaming – Gaming may include playing games online by yourself or with others.
  • Net Compulsions. This type of internet addiction includes online gambling, shopping, or stock trading.
  • Cyber-Sexual – These activities consist of cybersex and internet pornography viewing.
  • Cyber-Relationships – These online relationships include those developed via social media, online dating, or any other type of virtual communication (i.e., instant messaging apps).
  • Information Seeking – Spending your time surfing online or excessively searching for information.

None of these activities in themselves suggest an internet addiction. Everyone uses the internet for at least some of them. The concern comes from spending an excessive amount of time on these activities, to the point that it impairs other parts of your life.

3. What are the Symptoms of Internet Addiction?

Internet addiction is more than being online too much. It’s an actual addiction. Internet addiction has some of the same troubling symptoms as substance use disorders and gambling addictions.

People with addictions get a dopamine hit in their brain from performing certain activities. Dopamine is known as the brain’s “feel-good” chemical. When you have an internet addiction, performing your preferred activity online releases the chemical, making you want to do that activity more often and for longer periods.

After a while, your brain adjusts to the dopamine release, and you have to increase the amount of time you spend on the activity to get the same positive feeling.

Symptoms of internet addiction include:

  • Decline in school or job performance
  • Lack of involvement with family and friends
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Feeling anxious or depressed when you aren’t online
  • Spending time away from the internet thinking about when you can reconnect
  • Losing track of time online
  • Lying about how much time you spend online or what you do while you’re online
  • Needing to be online for increasingly longer periods before you feel satisfied
  • Getting angry or defensive when someone comments on the amount of time you spend online
  • Hiding how much you’re online
  • Using the internet to help you forget about your problems or to make yourself feel better
  • Trying unsuccessfully to control or reduce the amount of time you spend online

4. What are the Physical Effects of Internet Addiction?

In addition to the emotional effects of internet addiction, there are also physical effects that result from spending so much time online.

Physical effects of internet addiction include:

  • Backaches
  • Headaches
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Sleep disturbances or insomnia
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Blurred or strained vision

5. Who is Most Likely to Develop an Internet Addiction?

Anyone can develop an internet addiction. But some people may be more prone to this type of addiction than others.

People who develop an internet addiction may already feel socially isolated. They may have a difficult time relating to their peers. Also, people with other types of addictions (alcohol, drugs, sex, or gambling) are more likely to experience an internet addiction because they use the internet as a tool to fulfill the needs of their other addictions.

Reasons people develop internet addictions include:

  • Accessibility – Most people can get online easily whenever they want. The internet is literally at your fingertips.
  • Control – You can go online whenever you want without others knowing. This ability gives you a sense of control.
  • Excitement – Going online and performing your preferred activity there provides you with a jolt of dopamine.

People with internet addictions also are more likely to develop:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Hostility and anger
  • Social isolation
  • Impulse control issues
  • Substance use disorders

6. How is Internet Addiction Diagnosed?

Because internet addiction is such a new concern, there isn’t one tool professionals use to diagnose it. 

Clinicians may ask the following questions in an attempt to diagnose internet addiction:

  • Are you preoccupied with using the internet?
  • Are you unable to control your desire to use the internet?
  • Do you have to use the internet to feel satisfied?
  • How do you feel when you can’t use the internet? Does it make you anxious, irritable, or in a bad mood?
  • Do you turn to the internet to solve your problems?
  • Do you stay online for longer than you intend to?
  • Have you tried to decrease the amount of time you spend online and failed?
  • Do you have physical symptoms from spending so much time online? For example, do you have backaches from sitting for too long?
  • Do you continue to use the internet despite these physical concerns?
  • Is your internet usage causing problems at school or with your job? If so, what have you done to resolve these problems?
  • Is your internet usage causing problems in your relationships with family and friends? If so, what have you done to resolve these problems?
  • Have you ever broken the law through your internet use?

7. Can You Stop Internet Addiction on Your Own?

You can attempt to stop or control your internet addiction. But, if you try, you want to be aware of withdrawal symptoms and how to know if you need professional help.

To control your internet usage:

  • Schedule Breaks – If you have to be online, limit the amount of time you spend. Consider scheduling a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes you’re online.
  • Move Your Body – Don’t automatically fill your free time online. Instead, use the scheduled break to stand up, walk around, and stretch. These activities will help your brain and body feel good, all while discouraging you from going online.
  • Limit Accessibility – Leave your phone or laptop in another room. Being physically separated from your devices will help you avoid mindlessly spending time online.
  • List Activities – Keep a list of internet-related activities you want or need to do. Allow yourself to do only those things online. Also, keep a list of things you enjoy doing that aren’t online. Make yourself complete a certain number of those “fun” offline activities before you allow yourself to get online.

You may experience withdrawal symptoms when you try to put healthy boundaries around internet use.

Internet withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Excessive sweating
  • Body shakes
  • Insomnia
  • Mood changes

You may need to seek help if your symptoms worsen or fail to decrease.

8. What are Treatment Options for Internet Addiction?

Internet addiction sometimes develops as a way to mitigate or manage other mental health issues like depression or anxiety. Internet addiction may manifest in these or other mental health concerns. Therefore, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs are sometimes prescribed to help those with internet addiction.

Other treatments for internet addiction include:

  • Physical exercise
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Inpatient treatment programs when intensive treatment is needed

We offer a directory of internet addiction therapists and counselors that you can use to find professional help.

The goal of internet addiction treatment isn’t to eliminate online use. Instead, the goal is to minimize the negative impact of internet addiction and to reestablish normal levels and allow you to function effectively and maintain personal relationships.

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Personal Assistant Service — Duke. 2021. Internet Addiction | Personal Assistance Service | Duke. [online] Available at: https://pas.duke.edu/concerns/addictions/internet [Accessed 10 May 2021].