Internet addiction is a behavioral addiction in which a person becomes dependent on use of the internet, or other online devices, as a maladaptive way of coping with life's stresses. At least three subtypes of internet addiction have been identified: video game addiction, cybersex or online sex addiction, and online gambling addiction.
Increasingly, addiction to mobile devices, such as cellphones and smartphones, and addiction to social networking sites, such as Facebook, are being investigated. There may be overlaps between each of these sub-types -- for example, online gambling involves online games, and online games may have elements of pornography.
Internet addiction is becoming widely recognized and acknowledged, particularly in countries where it is affecting large numbers of people, such as South Korea, where it has been declared a national health problem. Much of the current research on the subject of internet addiction has been carried out in Asia. It is also a growing concern in developed nations in North America and Europe.
However, internet addiction is not yet an officially recognized mental disorder. This is mainly due to the fact that the internet is very different now than back in 1994 when the Fourth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) was published, or even when the text was revised in 2000.
Researchers have scrambled to formulate diagnostic criteria for internet addiction for the upcoming fifth edition of the DSM, but we do not yet have adequate knowledge for its inclusion. Nevertheless, clinicians are urged to take internet addiction seriously, and to treat clients troubled by their internet use as best they can without formalized criteria.
Several leading experts in the field of behavioral addiction have contributed to the current knowledge of symptoms of internet addiction. All types of internet addiction contain the following four components:
1. Excessive Use of the Internet
Despite the agreement that excessive internet use is a key symptom, no one seems able to define exactly how much computer time counts as excessive. While guidelines suggest no more than two hours of screen time per day, this is unrealistic for people who use computers for work or study. Some authors add the caveat “for non-essential use,” but for an internet addict, all computer use can feel essential.
Here are some questions from internet addiction assessment instruments that will help you to evaluate how much is too much.
How often do you:
- Stay online longer than you intended?
- Hear other people in your life complain about how much time you spend online?
- Say or think, “Just a few more minutes” when online?
- Try and fail to cut down on how much time you spend online?
- Hide how long you’ve been online?
If any of these situations are coming up on a daily basis, you may be addicted to the internet.
Although originally understood to be the basis of physical dependence on alcohol or drugs, withdrawal symptoms are now being recognized in behavioral addictions, including internet addiction. Common internet withdrawal symptoms include anger, tension, and depression when internet access in not available. These symptoms may be perceived as boredom, joylessness, moodiness, nervousness and irritability when you can’t go on the computer.
Tolerance is another hallmark of alcohol and drug addiction, and seems to be applicable to internet addiction as well. This can be understood as wanting –- and from the user's point of view, needing –- more and more computer-related stimulation. It can take several forms.
You might just want more time on the computer, so it gradually takes over everything you do. Or you might want more technology -– bigger, better or the latest software, hardware or gadgets. Either way, the quest for more is a predominant theme in your thought processes and planning.
4. Negative Repercussions
If internet addiction caused no harm, there would be no problem. But when excessive computer use becomes addictive, something starts to suffer. You may not have any real personal relationships, or the ones you do have may be neglected or suffer arguments over your internet use. You may see your grades and other achievements suffer from so much of your attention being devoted to internet use. You may also have little energy for anything other than computer use –- internet addicts are often exhausted from staying up too late on the computer and becoming sleep deprived.
Finances can also suffer, particularly if your weakness is for online gambling or cybersex.
What To Do Next
If you recognize the symptoms of internet addiction in yourself, talk to your doctor about getting help. As well as being able to provide referrals to internet addiction clinics, psychologists, and other therapists, your doctor can prescribe medications or therapy to treat an underlying problem if you have one, such as depression or social anxiety disorder.
Block, J. Issues for DSM-V: Internet Addiction. Am J Psychiatry 165:306-307. 2008.
Pies, R. Should DSM-V Designate “Internet Addiction” a Mental Disorder? Psychiatry 6:31–37. 2009.
Young, K. "Clinical Assessment of Internet Addicted Clients." In Young, K. and Nabuco de Abreu, C. (Editors) Internet Addiction: A Handbook and Guide to Evaluation and Treatment. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. p. 19-34. 2011.