Internet addiction, also known as problematic internet use, is becoming increasingly recognized as a mental health concern. An internet addiction is typically characterized by a level of internet use that impairs relationships; brings about family, work, or interpersonal difficulties; and impacts daily function in a negative way.
A qualified therapist or other mental health professional can often help those seeking treatment address and resolve this concern.
Internet addiction first began to be studied in the United States in the mid-1990s, and more recent studies have documented Internet addiction in numerous countries, such as Italy, Pakistan, and the Czech Republic. In China, Korea, and Taiwan, internet addiction is considered to be a growing health concern: Studies indicate that up to 30% of the population in these countries may experience problematic internet use. One in eight American adults are believed to experience internet addiction. Approximately 70% of those addicted to the internet are reported to also experience some other form of addiction.
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Types of internet addiction may include sexting or cybersex addiction, online gaming addiction, addiction to chat rooms or blog sites, and others. Some individuals may spend all of their time online surfing websites or reading blog entries. Others may use the internet to shop compulsively or participate in online gambling, though these, along with sex addiction, are recognized as separate addictions.
In some cases, gender may play a role in the type of addiction one experiences. Research has shown that men may be more likely to become addicted to online games, cybersex or porn, and gambling online, while women may be more likely to use social media, test or quiz websites, and online stores in a problematic manner.
A person who is experiencing internet addiction may:
- Exhibit a preoccupation with the internet, even when not using it
- Use the internet more and more frequently
- Be unable to stop or cut back on internet use (in spite of attempts to do so)
- Feel moody, irritable, low, or restless as a result of attempts to cut back on Internet use
- Use the internet to regulate mood or gain relief from the negative effects of problems
- Risk losing employment, romantic relationships, friendships, or academic standing in order to spend more time online
- Lose sleep, experience fatigue, feel apathetic
- Lie to family members, friends, or mental health professionals about internet use or time spent online
Though one of the characteristics of Internet addiction is the amount of time spent online, what truly factors in the condition is the way the internet is used and the affect it has on one’s life. A person may spend 40 hours a week using the internet for work and then come home and spend an additional 2-3 hours using the internet each day. This practice, however, would not be considered to be addiction unless it had a negative or harmful impact on the individual’s life. Further, in the case of problematic internet use, the amount of time spent online generally increases over time .
Problematic internet use can be harmful because it often has a significant impact on one’s daily life. A person’s employment performance or academic standing may fall, and relationships with family members, friends, and romantic partners may be impacted negatively. A person might experience health concerns such as fatigue, headaches, backaches, or carpal tunnel syndrome. Mental health concerns such as eating and food issues, depression, stress, and anxiety may also be associated with Internet addiction. Late-night log-ins are likely to disrupt sleep patterns and may lead to fatigue, and long-term sleep deprivation is likely to have a negative effect on health. Additionally, those addicted to the internet may become isolated as a result of the experienced addiction, though some may have turned to the internet in order to combat isolation in daily life.
Currently, internet addiction is not a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. However, it is believed to share similarities with impulse control disorders and gambling addiction.
Though one of the characteristics of Internet addiction is the amount of time spent online, what truly factors in the condition is the way the Internet is used and the affect it has on one’s life. Internet addiction is believed to be a largely treatable condition. When the addiction is acknowledged, a therapist or other mental health professional can help an individual take steps to address the behavior and regain the ability to use the Internet in a healthy way. Internet addiction differs from some other types of addiction in that some level of Internet use is generally necessary for function in society. Thus, the goal of treatment is usually not complete abstinence. However, when a person is addicted to online porn, for example, treatment goals may involve using the internet without attempting to seek out pornography.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, self-help treatment groups, group therapy, and family therapy have all been shown to be effective methods for the treatment of Internet addiction. Dr. Kimberly Young, who founded The Center for Internet Addiction in 1995, developed a specialized form of cognitive behavioral therapy to treat Internet addiction, CBT-IA.
Twelve-step programs and social skills training may also be treatment options for some individuals. When a mental health concern such as stress, depression, or anxiety has led a person to turn to the internet for support, a therapist may work to treat the addiction by first addressing this mental health condition. Similarly, any other underlying conditions are often exposed through work in therapy, and treating these concerns can often help facilitate recovery from the addiction.
In China, a number of “addiction boot camps” have been developed to treat internet addiction in Chinese youth. However, some young people have died while in these camps, which operate under strict rules and military-style discipline, and a number of these camps have been featured in news stories that have exposed their harmful practices. In order to help reduce the high number of individuals experiencing Internet addiction, China has developed laws regulating adolescent use of internet cafes, and the government has made attempts to regulate the number of hours that young people can use the internet. An inpatient treatment center has also recently been opened in Beijing.
- Therapy to address teen's Internet use: Momo, 16, comes to therapy with her parents, somewhat reluctantly. She at first resists the therapist's attempts to draw her out while her parents tell the therapist, "All she does is sit in front of the computer and talk to strangers." They tell the therapist Momo hardly eats, sleeps irregularly, has lost weight, and displays no interest in the outside world. They also express concern for her safety. Momo displays signs of irritation, and the therapist asks her parents to step out of the room. Though still resistant, Momo begins to open up slightly in the absence of her parents. The therapist asks her about her life: school. friends, and relationships with family members. After some time, Momo admits that she has been having a difficult time at school. Her best friend recently became friends with a group of girls who Momo does not find it easy to get along with. The rest of her classmates already belong to close-knit friend groups, and it is difficult for her to join in. She reports small instances of bullying, but tells the therapist she's "lucky" and "others have it worse." The therapist tells her that no one is "lucky" to be bullied in any amount. Momo eventually reveals to the therapist that she has a number of friends online who are experiencing a situation similar to hers, and she feels as if they are the only ones who understand her. Thus, when she is away from them, she feels lonely and isolated, and so she desires to spend more and more time online. The therapist normalizes Momo's desire to spend time, virtual or otherwise, with people who understand what she is going through, but helps Momo see it may not be healthy for her to spend quite so much time online. They attempt to work out a balance between her time online and her time engaging in activities necessary for her life: homework, regular meals, sleep, and other forms of self-care. In therapy, Momo also begins to address her feelings of isolation and loneliness, and after several weeks, her mood begins to improve, and she finds that she is able to spend time talking to her friends without her internet time affecting her life. With the help of her parents, she also begins to schedule safe meetings with some of the people she chats to, and spending time "in the real world" with these friends also has a positive effect on her mood.
Carnes, P., Delmonico, D., & Griffin, E. (2007). In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior (2nd ed.). Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden Foundation.
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Stewart, C. (2010, January 13). Obsessed With the Internet: A Tale From China. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2010/01/ff_internetaddiction/
- Young, K. S. (1998) Internet addiction: The emergence of a new clinical disorder. CyberPsychology and Behavior 1: 237-244.
Young, K. (n.d.). Center for Internet Addiction - Education and Treatment. Retrieved from http://netaddiction.com