The world is beginning to see problems with an overreliance on the internet. Texting, emailing, social media, and search engines are becoming more important in the daily lives of all American citizens. And while most people can easily unplug themselves from the internet and spend quality time with friends and family members in person, some people experience tremendous anxiety when they are forced to be without their phones, computers, or tablets.
Behavioral health disorders are illnesses that affect a person’s ability to resist performing harmful behaviors, even when they experience negative consequences.
Internet addiction is not an official diagnosis, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5);1 however, the condition shares many characteristics with other, more traditional addictions. According to researchers from the University of Iowa’s College of Medicine, “Internet addiction is characterized by excessive or poorly controlled preoccupations, urges or behaviors regarding computer use and internet access that lead to impairment or distress.”2
Internet addiction has been described as an impulse-control disorder by behavioral health experts2 and functions as an escape from real life—internet addicts often use the internet as a fantasy world to connect with people online as a substitute for connecting with people face to face. Many of those with an addiction to the internet are unable to achieve these relationship connections normally.
What Is Internet Addiction?
Internet addiction signs and symptoms vary from one person to the next, so researchers cannot give an exact number of hours per day or a total number of messages sent or games played that would indicate a person is addicted to the internet. However, there are certain warning signs that may indicate your internet use has become problematic, such as:3
- Sacrificing doing work or chores to spend more time online.
- Losing track of your online time.
- Staying on the internet longer than you had intended.
- Feeling angry or irritable if your internet time is interrupted.
- Feeling defensive about your internet use.
- Hiding your internet use or lying to your family, friends, or supervisor about how much time you spend on the internet and what you do while you are online.
- Feeling a sense of euphoria from using the internet.
- Using the internet as an outlet for feelings of depression, stress, or sexual excitement.
- Making attempts to limit your internet use several times and failing.
- Isolating yourself from family and friends in favor of the internet.
- Feeling that your online friends are the only people who truly understand you.
Internet addiction can also cause a number of physical symptoms, including insomnia, tension headaches, dry eyes, and carpal tunnel syndrome.4 Secondary physical symptoms—such as vision problems, weight gain, neck aches, backaches, and circulation problems—may stem from a lack of exercise or repetitive stress injuries.
According to recent surveys, anywhere from 0.3% to 8.2% of the population suffers from internet addiction.2, 3 The condition mostly affects males between the ages of 20 and 39 years who live in developed countries with consistent and reliable internet access.2 There is often a gap of about 10 years between when a person first begins using the internet and when their internet use becomes excessive and problematic.2
There are three subtypes of internet addiction: 4
- Excessive gaming.
- Sexual preoccupations.
- Email or text messaging.
Each of these subtypes focuses on a specific preoccupation. For example, someone who suffers from the excessive gaming subtype of internet addiction will spend the vast majority of their time online playing games. These could be role playing games (e.g., MMORPG), gambling, or virtual card games. It is possible for someone to suffer from a gambling addiction and an internet addiction (excessive gambling subtype) simultaneously. In such cases, the gambling disorder may contribute to the internet addiction.
People who have the sexual preoccupations subtype of internet addiction engage in online affairs, sexting, cybersex, or use excessive online pornography. Often, those suffering from this subtype of internet addiction experience problems maintaining real-world relationships and may benefit from couples counseling. The email or text messaging subtype of internet addiction is usually characterized by an apparent obsession with talking to people and constantly checking their phone. People with this internet addiction subtype may feel extreme anxiety or depression if they are unable to check their messages or they receive no new messages for a certain length of time.
Resources for Counseling and Therapy
Currently there are no medications approved to specifically treat internet addiction, so many people turn to individual counseling for help in overcoming the disorder. The goal of counseling for internet addiction is to:
- Help the person identify the problems internet addiction has caused.
- Remedy as many of these problems as possible.
- Find new, healthy ways of coping with stress and daily life.
An addiction to the internet can have major life consequences. Much like the problems that people addicted to drugs or alcohol experience, those who are addicted to the internet may suffer from serious financial, academic, occupational, and family problems. Real-life relationships are often negatively affected because of excessive internet use since people with an addiction tend to isolate themselves and often feel awkward, uncomfortable, anxious, or distressed in in-person social situations.2 They may also get into repeated arguments regarding their online use, which can tear down any stable relationships they have been able to establish.
People who suffer from internet addiction are also more likely to suffer from other mental health problems—such as depression, anxiety, mood disorders, impulse control disorders, and substance abuse disorders—which may need to be simultaneously addressed during counseling.2
The most common co-occurring disorder that presents with internet addiction is anxiety.4 Because of the noted frequency with which people who suffer from internet addiction also struggle with a comorbid psychiatric condition, some hypothesize that excessive internet use may be more of a manifestation of these conditions rather than a distinct pathology itself.4
Cognitive behavioral therapy helps guide the client through a process of identifying and recognizing the specific thoughts that lead them to turn to the internet for comfort or satisfaction. Therapy can help someone who is addicted to the internet control their use. One of the primary methods used to treat internet addiction is having the person gradually reduce the amount of time they spend on the internet.2 Because internet addiction is characterized by an inability to control internet use, this treatment option helps teach people self-control and impulse control. By employing this treatment option, withdrawal symptoms can be kept to a minimum so that the person can safely and slowly stop using the internet. However, this requires a great deal of personal accountability and trust between the client and the counselor.
Another popular therapy treatment option for internet addiction is cognitive behavioral therapy, which offers step-by-step methods to halt compulsive internet use and attempts to help the person alter their perceptions about internet use.2 Cognitive behavioral therapy helps guide the client through a process of identifying and recognizing the specific thoughts that lead them to turn to the internet for comfort or satisfaction. By recognizing these powerful and controlling thoughts, the person can then begin to use different methods of coping with these thoughts and emotions instead of turning to the internet. Therapy can also teach a patient healthier methods of coping with unpleasant emotions, such as depression and anxiety, that often surface when giving up an addiction.
If your addiction to the internet is affecting your loved ones (which may be the case if your internet use involves excessive cybersex or online affairs), family or couples counseling can help you work through any issues that may be affecting your relationship.2 Marriage counseling can help you reestablish a loving relationship with your spouse if you have been relying on the internet to meet your social and intimacy needs.2
Is Inpatient Treatment Right for You?
Inpatient treatment for internet addiction is often the treatment of choice for those who want time to recover from their addiction to the internet without the interference of outside distractions. Further, an internet rehab center has the capability to limit the patient’s access to the internet, thereby reducing temptation to log on. Typically, inpatient centers require a patient to check into the facility for a set length of time, from 30 days to as long as 18 months.
During this time, as someone is forced to reduce their time online, they may experience withdrawal symptoms, including:4
- Mood swings.
Some research has shown that after coming off an internet binge (spending several hours online without rest or breaks), individuals may experience withdrawal symptoms similar to those that arise throughout substance abuse withdrawal, including nausea, tremors, sweating, and shakiness.3 However, more research is needed to understand the specific neurological and physiological processes associated with these responses.
Throughout the program, a patient will work with a team of behavioral health specialists who will plan treatments, group therapy, and possibly even outings that are designed to help the patient recover from internet addiction. Some inpatient programs allow family members to visit and join in on treatment sessions, such as in a family therapy exercise. However, other programs do not allow visitors and instead focus on helping the individual grow strong as an independent person before reintroducing the patient to social situations and outside stimuli.
Not everyone has a lifestyle that allows them to take advantage of inpatient treatment; sometimes outside commitments just won’t allow them to take the time away from everyday life. In these cases, outpatient treatment may be more conducive to their lifestyle and needs.
If you decide to pursue outpatient treatment for your internet addiction, you are typically expected to go to an internet addiction treatment center 2 to 5 days a week to attend therapy groups and meet with an addiction counselor for individual therapy. Outpatient treatment typically costs far less than inpatient treatment and provides you the flexibility your life demands for you to maintain your relationships, job, and school obligations.
The major drawback to an internet addiction outpatient treatment program is that you still live in the environment that may have caused you to develop an addiction to the internet in the first place, which could increase your odds of relapsing. So it is crucial that you have a strong support system and options for coping with urges to return to excessive internet use.
Many therapists and rehabilitation centers have begun to treat internet addicts using the same approaches that are used to treat alcohol and drug addictions, including taking patients through a 12-step program. Outpatient programs that use the 12-step treatment method ask participants to share their experiences, struggles, and emotions with a group of people who are also going through the same problems with internet addiction. Participants progress through a series of steps, one at a time, which helps them rebuild their lives without excessive internet use. Twelve-step programs often address all areas of life functioning, including work, school, physical health, and interpersonal relationships.
Aftercare Treatment for Compulsive Internet Use
Aftercare is an important part of any treatment plan and involves choosing specific activities or resources that you will turn to for support when you feel the urge to relapse into your internet addiction. Most people who struggle with internet addiction choose multiple aftercare options, including:
- Ongoing individual counseling.
- Family therapy and couples counseling.
- Attending 12-step groups.
- Attending non–12-step support groups.
- Using self-help tools such as books and audio recordings.
- Joining a sports team or recreational group.
- Adopting an exercise routine.
- Doing yoga.
- Beginning a new hobby such as building models, fishing, horseback riding, or arts and crafts.
Though today’s modern society makes it difficult to imagine a life with little to no internet access, there are many ways that you can change your lifestyle and routine to accommodate a life without an over-reliance on the internet. It is possible to recover from internet addiction and lead a healthy, happy life.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
- Shaw, M. & Black, D. W. (2008). Internet addiction: Definition, assessment, epidemiology and clinical management.CNS Drugs, 22(5), 353–365.
- Cash, H., Rae, C. D., Steel, A. H. & Winkler, A. (2012). Internet Addiction: A Brief Summary of Research and Practice.Current Psychiatry Review, 9(4), 292–298.
- Pies, R. (2009). Should DSM-V Designate “Internet Addiction” a Mental Disorder?Psychiatry (Edgmont), 6(2), 31–37.