Internet addiction is a psychological disorder that pushes people to spend so much time on a computer that it affects their health, job, finances, or relationships.
It’s a relatively new condition that’s not listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
Nevertheless, mental health experts believe that Internet addiction — also called Internet addiction disorder, or IAD — can have the same troubling effects as substance abuse or gambling addiction.
A 2012 article in Current Psychiatry Reviews, for instance, noted that Internet addiction “spoils lives by causing neurological complications, psychological disturbances, and social problems.”
How Common Is Internet Addiction?
Internet addiction hasn’t been studied as much as other mental health conditions, so it’s not known exactly how many people have the disorder.
But a study in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that as many as 8.2 percent of Americans may suffer from Internet addiction.
Other studies estimate that the disorder may affect more than 18 percent of college-aged Internet users, according to Internet Addiction: A Handbook and Guide to Evaluation and Treatment.
While anyone can develop IAD, the majority of people who do so are males in their teens, twenties, and thirties.
Some reports suggest that Internet addiction is a particularly acute problem in Asian countries.
South Korea may have as many as 680,000 young people ages 10 to 19 who are addicted to the Internet, according to a 2013 report from Reuters.
And China has developed strict, military-style rehabilitation camps designed to force Internet addicts away from online activities.
China has more than 1,500 camp instructors who are licensed to treat Internet addiction, according to a 2012 report in China Daily.
Risk Factors and Complications
People who develop an Internet addiction often already feel socially isolated. They may have a difficult time creating and maintaining relationships with their peers.
And people with other addictions, such as to alcohol, drugs, sex, or gambling, have a higher risk of developing IAD.
Studies suggest that people with IAD are also at greater risk for mental health concerns, such as:
- Social isolation
- Impulse control problems
- Substance use disorders, such as alcoholism or drug abuse
Internet Addiction Symptoms
Like other addictions, Internet addiction isn’t based on just an interest or hobby that someone enjoys.
If it’s an actual addiction, it may cause one or more of the following:
- Negative effects on your school or job performance
- Reduced involvement with your family or friends
- Loss of interest in other hobbies or pursuits
- Feelings of anxiety or depression when you’re away from your computer
- When not on your computer, you spend most of your time thinking about getting back to it
- Angry or defensive reaction when someone comments on your behavior
- Taking steps to hide the extent of your computer/Internet use
People with IAD may spend excessive amounts of time engaged in the following activities online:
- Trading stocks
- Shopping for merchandise
- “Shopping” for relationships on dating sites
- Cybersex or pornography
- Social media
Many of these activities can have serious repercussions if you do them to excess, such as relationship problems or financial consequences.
Internet Addiction Withdrawal
Like all addiction behaviors, IAD can lead to excess dopamine in the brain.
This means people with IAD effectively feel a “high” when engaged on the computer — but it also means they can feel withdrawal symptoms when they aren’t online.
Symptoms of Internet addiction withdrawal include depression, irritability, anxiety, sweating or shakiness, insomnia, mood changes, and — in rare cases — a psychotic break with reality.
In one alarming case, a “25-year-old male developed a full-blown psychotic episode … after discontinuing an Internet game that he had been playing for at least eight hours a day for two years,” according to a 2014 report in Psychiatry Investigation.
RELATED: 12 Surprising Causes of Depression
Diagnosing Internet Addiction
A variety of questionnaires have tried to scientifically diagnose IAD. Currently, no single scoring system has been supported by research.
But some of the questions that may point to IAD include:
- Are you preoccupied with using the Internet?
- Are you unable to resist your desire to use the Internet?
- Do you have to use the Internet for certain amounts of time in order to feel satisfied?
- When you cannot use the Internet, do you find yourself in a bad mood, anxious, irritable, or bored?
- When you are in a bad mood or irritable, do you turn to the Internet to solve your problems?
- Do you stay online for longer periods of time than you mean to?
- Do you try to decrease your online time over and over again, only to fail?
- Do you have any physical symptoms from being online so much (backache, eyestrain)? Do you continue to use the Internet despite these symptoms?
- Do you have any problems with your school or job performance due to your Internet use? Do you continue to use the Internet despite these problems?
- Do you have any problems with relationships with family or friends due to your Internet use? Do you continue to use the Internet despite these problems?
- Does your Internet use ever violate known laws?
Internet Addiction Treatment
In some cases, IAD develops as an escape from other problems, like anxiety and depression.
Medications to treat these disorders, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs, may help treat IAD.
Examples of antidepressants used to treat IAD include:
- Celexa (citalopram) – Seroquel (quetiapine) combination therapy
- Lexapro (escitalopram)
- Vivitrol (naltrexone)
- Wellbutrin (buproprion)
Ask your doctor if you need to take medication for Internet addiction.
Studies suggest physical exercise may help with the decrease in dopamine levels those with IAD experienced during treatment, due to decreased online usage.
In addition, cognitive behavioral therapy can help with some of the symptoms of IAD, such as depression and anxiety.
Therapy that aims to change behaviors may also be used to treat IAD.
Severe IAD, or an addiction that is complicated by a gambling disorder or substance abuse, may require an intensive treatment program or even an inpatient treatment program.
If you enter treatment for IAD, the goal should not be to eliminate Internet usage, but to reduce it to normal levels that allow you to function and maintain personal relationships.