Key takeaways:

  • Internet addiction, also referred to as Compulsive Internet Use (CIU), Problematic Internet Use (PIU), and flippantly “iDisorder”, is generally agreed to fall under the larger diagnosis of technology addiction and is a subsect much like social media or gaming addiction
  • As there are varying areas of the internet that provide pleasurable reactions in the brain (shopping, gaming, pornography) it is incredibly easy to develop a dependency on it. This multilayered reinforcement effect is outlined in the Variable Ratio Reinforcement Schedule (VRRS) theory
  • Experts suggest that it is not advisable to attempt to abstain from internet use entirely as it not only doesn’t address the underlying issue but also makes day-to-day life harder to live and can lead to harmful symptoms such as isolation, anxiety, and depression

Most everyone today is never without their cell phone or Internet access. The issue lies with those who are not only connected but are substituting normal everyday activities for unhealthy ones. Shopping, social media, video gaming, and work are all parts of the larger issue of internet addiction, and isolating any one area of concern can be challenging. Understanding internet addiction can help to break down what the warning signs of a problem look like and how they can be addressed. 

Understanding internet addiction

Like many forms of behavioral use disorders, internet addiction lacks some validity in the realm of clinical diagnosis. This is due to it not appearing in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders volume five (DSM-5) as a viable addiction disorder, gambling addiction being the only recognized behavioral addiction. Gambling has the distinctive characteristic of variable reinforcement, meaning the rewards are random and therefore propel the person to gamble more and more. The same holds true for Internet addiction since the person may not know when something is going to be rewarding and that in itself can be motivating.

As the rise in internet use has increased dramatically in the past two decades, many medical professionals have lobbied for internet addiction to be included within the next version of the DSM. The rough estimates of internet addiction among the general population of America and Europe vary wildly between 8.2% and 38%. [1] This wide variance in statistical information is owed in part to there being no standardized criteria for measuring internet addiction, with researchers and medical professionals using different methods to conduct research. 

Internet addiction, also referred to as Compulsive Internet Use (CIU), Problematic Internet Use (PIU), and flippantly “iDisorder”, is generally agreed to fall under the larger diagnosis of technology addiction and is a subsect much like social media or gaming addiction. The difference with internet addiction is that it is incredibly hard to spot, owing to the prevalence of our online lives in modern society.

It also incorporates other addictions such as social media, online pornography, and video gaming, making it hard to sift through and pinpoint where the acute addiction lies. It also makes it difficult to treat as not using the internet can be debilitating in day-to-day life and removing oneself from temptation is near impossible. Unfortunately, because of the person’s desire to look for more, boundaries can be crossed which can lead to not only unpleasant results but breaking the law. Lives and families have been ruined because of Internet addiction.

Get help during covid-19

Get help during Covid-19

At Recovered, we recognize the impact COVID-19 has had and the continued challenges it poses to getting advice and treatment for substance use disorders. SAMHSA has a wealth of information and resources to assist providers, individuals, communities, and states during this difficult time and is ready to help in any way possible.

Speak to SAMSHA

What causes internet addiction?

Like all substance and behavioral addictions, there is no one discernible cause for internet addiction. It is often a combination of factors such as genetics, environment, and socioeconomic status that makes someone more susceptible to addiction. However, developing a dependency is the most common factor in forming an addiction, and the same can be said of internet addiction. 

Physical dependency occurs when brain chemical levels such as dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin are produced in unnatural amounts by substances or behaviors. The higher levels of chemicals being produced build a tolerance to them over time, meaning the user will require more and more of the substance in order to feel the effect or in some cases to feel normal. This is what is known as physical dependency and when the negative impacts of dependency on a person’s life builds, an addiction can form. 

As there are varying areas of the internet that provide pleasurable reactions in the brain (shopping, gaming, pornography) it is incredibly easy to develop a dependency on it. This multilayered reinforcement effect is outlined in the Variable Ratio Reinforcement Schedule (VRRS) theory. [2] 

VRRS theory suggests that when we scroll through the internet we have multiple and unpredictable sources for reward that build on top of each other. Posting on social media may lead to unpredictable rewards from likes and comments, or playing video games online can lead to intangible trophies and in-game accolades that can be gratifying to the user. These unpredictable reinforcements mean that every time we log on to the internet there is a chance that we will experience some form of pleasurable reward from multiple sources, which can become addictive in and of itself. 

There may also be links between internet addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety. The internet can provide many distractions from the effects of mental illness and may feel like a helpful resource to quell negative feelings. In fact, the internet can not only mask negative thoughts and feelings without dealing with them, it can also exacerbate them.  

Self-esteem being damaged by trolls on social media and video game servers, body dysmorphia being compounded by unrealistic images of models on Instagram, and feelings of financial inadequacy from online vendors are all possible negative psychological impacts of internet addiction and dependency.

What are the warning signs of internet addiction?

If you feel that someone you know may have an internet use disorder or that you may have a problem with your internet usage, then there are some signs and symptoms to be mindful of. Indicators of internet addiction can present themselves both psychologically or physically but it is important to note that these symptoms may be part of a different issue or related to a co-occurring disorder.

Psychological warning signs of internet addiction

  • Depression
  • Dishonesty
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety
  • Isolation
  • Unable to prioritize
  • Becoming defensive
  • Ignoring responsibilities such as work
  • Agitation
  • Mood Swings

Physical warning signs of internet addiction

  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Poor Nutrition
  • Poor Personal Hygiene 
  • Problems with eyesight
  • Weight Gain or Loss

Diagnosing internet disorder

While there may be no clinical diagnosis for internet addiction available, a doctor or psychiatrist will be able to determine whether you display the hallmarks of addiction or if your internet use is at a safe level. 

Addiction is measured from mild to severe using 11 criteria of addiction outlined in the DSM-5. [3] Those who meet two or fewer criteria would be classified as mild (not addicted) and those meeting six or more criteria would be classed as addicts. 

Some criteria that may be used to measure internet addiction include:

  • negative effects to your job or school work due to internet use (e.g., scrolling through your apps at work or instead of studying)
  • increased use during other activities and daily life, such as hanging out with friends and family, or while eating
  • Excessive internet use as a way to cope with disorders such as depression
  • restlessness and irritability whenever you’re not using the internet
  • anger whenever internet usage is reduced
  • thinking about being online whenever you aren’t, so much so that it’s the first thing you turn to whenever you have the opportunity

Internet addiction treatment

As with all forms of addiction, the first step to getting treatment for internet addiction is to admit that there is a problem. Identifying an internet use disorder may be difficult to do alone as the prevalence of online activity in a regular person's life may seem excessive without there being any actual addiction present.

The most important factor is if there is even a hint of suspicion of internet addiction, it is best to talk to someone and seek help. Dealing with something minor, out in the open, can save that person from falling into much worse situations.

For this reason, it is advised to speak to an addiction or medical professional to help identify if any patterns of addiction are present in your internet usage. If they feel that the amount of time you display any of the negative criteria for internet use disorder or addiction, they may recommend a course of treatment options that will mainly revolve around behavioral therapies, such as:

Therapies such as CBT can help modify behaviors towards internet use and identify any negative automatic thoughts that can lead to compulsive internet use (such as past trauma or a co-occurring mental disorder).

These therapies and support groups can help a person with an internet addiction to control their behavior and attitude towards online activity and develop coping mechanisms to control use. Most of these treatments can be found at an outpatient treatment center or via independent psychiatrists, counselors, or therapists. 

Experts suggest that it is not advisable to attempt to abstain from internet use entirely as it not only doesn’t address the underlying issue but also makes day-to-day life harder to live and can lead to harmful symptoms such as isolation, anxiety, and depression. Contact a treatment provider or therapist today to see what help is available and begin the journey to a healthier relationship with the internet.