Is Internet Addiction a Real Thing?
Short answer: Yes. Here's everything you should know about the symptoms, warning signs, and treatment of internet addiction disorder.
For most people, cutting back on screen time is challenging but doable. And while many people spend hours online every day–especially if their job requires it–that's not necessarily a major cause for concern. But a solid amount of research suggests that, for some people, internet dependence is a true addiction.
If you're mentally calculating your screen time RN, know that internet addiction entails more than just heavy internet use. "This condition does really share a lot of characteristics with more traditional addictions," says Neeraj Gandotra, M.D., psychiatrist and chief medical officer at Delphi Behavioral Health Group. For starters, someone with an internet addiction can experience withdrawal symptoms like distress, or even mood symptoms like anxiety or depression if they're not able to go online. It also interferes with daily life, so people who are affected ignore work, social engagements, taking care of family, or other responsibilities, to go online.
And as with addiction to substances, internet addiction impacts the brain. When someone with an internet addiction goes online, their brain gets a release of dopamine. When they're offline, they miss out on that chemical reinforcement and can experience anxiety, depression, and hopelessness, according to research published in Current Psychiatry Reviews. They can develop a tolerance to going online, and have to sign on more and more to achieve that neurochemical boost. (Related: I Tried the New Apple Screen Time Tools to Cut Back On Social Media)
Internet addiction is often referred to as internet addiction disorder, but it's not officially recognized as a mental disorder in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the APA's guide which serves to standardize mental disorders. But, to be clear, that doesn't mean that internet addiction isn't "real," just that there's not a consensus among how exactly to define it. Plus, internet addiction wasn't brought to light until 1995, so research is still pretty new, and health experts are still divided on how it should be classified.
If you're wondering what kind of activities online attribute to internet addiction the most, online gaming and social media are two very common subtypes of the condition. (Related: Social Media Use Is Screwing Up Your Sleep Patterns)
In addition, many people become addicted to using the internet to live out fake identities, says Dr. Gandotra. "They can create online personas and pretend to be someone else." Oftentimes, these people are using this as a means to self-medicate for conditions such as anxiety or depression, the same way an alcoholic might drink to numb feelings, he says.
So, how do you treat internet addiction? Cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of talk therapy, is a popular internet addiction treatment. And medical interventions can treat resultant symptoms that come with excessive internet use, like dry eye or irregular eating patterns, says Dr. Gandotra. (Related: Cell Phone Addiction Is So Real People Are Going to Rehab for It)
Since everyone is online *so* much–some people are even "sleep texting"–it can be hard to realize if you or someone you know has an addiction, but there are a few warning signs to look for. Reducing sleep to spend time online, getting defensive about internet use when questioned, and ignoring responsibilities are all signs of internet addiction and that someone needs help.