Top Internet Addiction Articles, Research & Resources
Erin L. George, MFT
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What Is Internet Addiction?
The term "internet addiction" refers to a person's inability to control their impulses when it comes to using social media, playing online games, spending time in chat rooms, or accessing other online resources. (1) This type of impulsive behavior is also referred to as internet addiction disorder (IAD) or problematic internet use. IAD is a behavioral addiction, which means the affected individual is addicted to the feelings associated with their impulsive behavior. (2)
Internet addiction takes several forms, such as computer or gaming addiction, cybersex addiction, cyber-relationship addiction, and net compulsions. People with a dependence on gaming become completely preoccupied with the thought of playing online games. (3) This preoccupation causes significant distress or impairs an individual's ability to participate in other activities.
When IAD involves cybersex, the affected individual develops an unhealthy dependence on having sexual encounters online. Cybersex dependence has a major impact on romantic relationships, as significant others often feel hurt, betrayed, abandoned, or rejected when they find out what their partners have been doing. (4)
Cyber-relationship addiction is characterized by a preoccupation with online relationships. Over time, virtual acquaintances become more important than real-life friends and family members (5). Net compulsions are harmful online behaviors that can have severe personal and financial consequences. Gambling, online auction purchases, and stock trading are common examples of net compulsions.
What Causes Internet Addiction?
Researchers believe that some people develop IAD due to structural differences in the reward center of the brain. (6) When this part of the brain is activated, it releases opiates, dopamine, and other chemicals, allowing an individual to experience pleasure. In some people, the receptors in the brain's reward center become less sensitive over time. As a result, they need more stimulation than usual to experience the same pleasurable feelings.
A history of childhood trauma may increase an individual's risk of developing IAD, as negative childhood experiences have been shown to affect brain development. (7) The structural changes associated with trauma make it more difficult for some children to control their impulses. When these children grow into adults, they may develop IAD as a result of poor impulse control.
Family dynamics also play a role in the development of IAD and other behavioral addictions. For example, children and teens are less likely to develop this type of dependence if they have strong relationships with their parents. (8) In contrast, high levels of conflict between minors and their parents are associated with an increased risk of developing IAD. (9)
What Are the Symptoms of Internet Addiction? Signs to Know.
One of the main symptoms of internet addiction is a preoccupation with online activities. An individual with IAD may spend a significant amount of time thinking about previous online interactions or looking forward to their next opportunity to use the internet. (10) Family members and friends may notice that an individual with IAD is moody, irritable or not as interested in other activities as usual.
Internet dependence may also cause the following:
Difficulty cutting back on internet use or avoiding internet use completely
The need to spend more and more time online as the dependence worsens
Loss of friendships or romantic relationships due to a preoccupation with internet usage
Lying to friends, family members, medical professionals, and others about the type or extent of online activity
The need to go online to escape feelings of loneliness or sadness
Am I an Internet Addict? How Is Internet Addiction Diagnosed?
Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use several instruments to determine if an individual meets the criteria for a diagnosis of IAD. These instruments include the Compulsive Internet Use Scale, the Problematic Internet Use Questionnaire, and Young's Internet Addiction Test. (10)
Cyberpsychology expert Keith W. Beard has proposed using these five criteria to diagnose someone with IAD:
Preoccupation with the internet
Unsuccessful attempts to stop or minimize internet use
Need to use the internet for longer periods to achieve the same level of satisfaction
History of staying online for longer than intended
Becomes irritable, moody, depressed, or restless when cutting back on internet use
What Is the Best Treatment for Internet Addiction?
The most common internet addiction treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of therapy based on the belief that many psychological problems develop due to harmful ways of thinking and behaving. (11) When used specifically for IAD, CBT aims to control compulsive internet use, change negative thought patterns, and address anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues that may be contributing to the addiction. (12)
People with IAD may also participate in group therapy or family therapy. (13) Medications, including antipsychotics and antidepressants, may be helpful for treating IAD in people who have other mental health conditions.
How to Cope With an Internet Addiction Diagnosis
To cope with an IAD diagnosis, it's important to attend scheduled therapy sessions and take any medications as prescribed. Family members and friends can provide valuable support and encouragement, so it's also helpful to share the diagnosis with a few trusted loved ones and let them know how they can help. For individuals who lack family support, peer support is another option. Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous follows the 12-step model, giving internet addicts a place to share their stories and receive encouragement from individuals who are further along in their recovery. (14)
How to Help Someone With Internet Addiction
Family members and friends play an important role in supporting an individual with an internet addiction. The first step is to recognize that IAD is a mental health condition that requires professional treatment. Loved ones should refrain from passing judgment or telling people with IAD to "just stop" going online.
If the person doesn't drive, offering transportation to therapy appointments shows a strong commitment to their success. Encouraging an individual with internet addiction disorder to help with household chores or run errands can also give them more time to focus on their recovery. During every interaction, loved ones should use supportive language to show they care.