Internet Addiction: Causes, Effects, And Treatments

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on July 5, 2021

Internet addiction disorder (IAD) is a type of behavioral addiction that involves compulsive Internet use. People with an Internet addiction may have underlying mental health or substance use issues that may require specialized addiction treatment.

Internet Addiction

According to the Pew Research Center, 93 percent of adults in the United States use the Internet. Among teenagers, Internet use is likely even higher.

Internet use has become what some might call a necessity in daily life. For some people, however, Internet use—including social media and online gaming—can become a compulsive and even addictive habit.

While not officially recognized as a disorder in the United States, compulsive Internet use is believed to be fairly common, affecting an estimated 1.5 to 8.2 percent of people in North America.

Read more about the causes and treatment of behavioral addictions

What Is An Internet Addiction?

Internet addiction, also known as Internet addiction disorder (IAD), is a behavioral addiction characterized by compulsive, uncontrollable Internet use that interferes with daily life.

Types of Internet addiction include:

  • online gambling addiction
  • cybersex addiction
  • video game addiction
  • social media addiction

Regular use of the Internet is common and even necessary for many occupations and academic pursuits. In addition, the Internet is also used to form or maintain social connections.

When a person feels unable to control their Internet use, however, and continues to do so despite negative effects on their life, this may be a sign of a problem.

Signs Of Internet Addiction Disorder

Using the Internet very often, or enjoying being online, are not signs of an addiction by themselves.

An addiction is generally characterized by repetitive behaviors that interfere with a person’s daily life, and that the person feels unable to control.

If you’re concerned about your Internet use, or that of someone else, there are several common signs and behaviors researchers have identified among people with Internet addiction.

Signs and symptoms of Internet addiction might include:

  • excessive Internet use (i.e. spending a majority of time online)
  • staying online for longer than intended
  • lying about the extent of one’s Internet use
  • unsuccessful attempts to limit Internet use
  • neglecting relationships with others due to Internet use
  • experiencing disruptions in work or academic pursuits as a result of Internet use
  • experiencing guilt, shame, or frustration about one’s Internet use
  • continuing to spend the majority of time online despite negative effects on physical or mental health

Psychological withdrawal symptoms have also been reported by people with compulsive Internet use. For example, feeling very on-edge, hostile, or anxious when unable to access a computer.

Causes Of Internet Addiction Disorder

Increased use of mobile technologies and the Internet for everyday activities is not by itself a cause for Internet addiction.

Although this is an ongoing subject of research, researchers currently believe Internet addiction could be influenced by genetic, biological, and interpersonal factors.

For instance:

  • abnormalities in neurochemical processes
  • history of mental illness or a personality disorder
  • personal or family history of addiction
  • Internet access and availability

One theory underlying Internet addiction, the quality of real life theory, suggests that people who experience difficulties in their offline lives may turn to the Internet to escape or avoid reality.

Therefore, people who have stressful lives, or are unhappy with their lives, may be more likely to turn to the Internet to cope.

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Risk Factors For Internet Addiction

Certain types of people are believed to be potentially more vulnerable to developing an Internet addiction compared to the general population, based on proposed risk factors.

Risk factors for Internet addiction include:

  • history of mental health disorder
  • history of substance misuse
  • young age (e.g. child, teenager, young adults)
  • genetic predisposition

Effects And Consequences Of Internet Addiction

Living with an addiction to the Internet can be isolating. While many people use the Internet and social media to connect online, some research shows this can actually increase loneliness.

People who become addicted to the Internet may experience distress over time, as their use becomes more compulsive and they become more disconnected from their offline reality.

In addition, other consequences of an Internet addiction might include:

  • disrupted sleep patterns
  • neglect of personal hygiene
  • poor eating habits
  • relationship troubles
  • decreased work or academic performance
  • headaches
  • vision problems
  • psychological withdrawal symptoms

Behavioral addictions such as compulsive Internet use can be progressive. This means the effects and consequences of internet addiction may grow more severe with time.

Internet Addiction And Co-Occurring Disorders

It’s not uncommon for a person who compulsively uses the Internet to also have another type of mental health disorder.

Co-occurring disorders might include:

  • alcohol use disorder
  • drug abuse and addiction
  • anxiety disorders
  • major depression
  • technological addictions (e.g. addiction to smartphones or television)

Internet Addiction And Substance Abuse

Most people who hear the term ‘addiction’ typically think of drug or alcohol addiction. According to some research, substance abuse and behavioral addictions can be connected.

Alcohol use disorder, in particular, is believed to be associated with compulsive Internet use, particularly among college students.

Drugs, alcohol, and the Internet can for some share a similar function: to numb, escape, or manage feelings or realities they’d prefer to avoid.

Is An Internet Addiction Real?

The existence of ‘Internet addiction’ is somewhat controversial. An increasing number of health professionals recognize that Internet addiction is a legitimate problem.

In South Korea, for instance, Internet addiction has been recognized by authorities as a national health problem. In the Middle East, Internet addiction is also believed to be fairly widespread.

Researchers in the United States have advocated for the inclusion of Internet addiction disorder within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is used to diagnose mental health and related conditions.

While it’s not currently recognized as an independent disorder, Internet addiction is a growing specialist area among mental health treatment providers who recognize its detrimental impact.

Treatment For Internet Addiction

Seeking treatment for Internet addiction may be necessary for people who feel unable to reduce their Internet use on their own.

The types of treatments recommended for Internet addiction can vary according to a person’s medical history, mental health history, and other personal factors.

Treatment options for Internet addiction might include:

  • behavioral therapy
  • mental health counseling
  • group therapy
  • family therapy
  • digital detoxification (detox)
  • medication
  • self-help groups

Treatment may focus on helping a person overcome their compulsive Internet use by addressing its connection to emotions, thought patterns, and other behavioral tendencies.

For people with co-occurring substance use issues, a dual diagnosis treatment program through a substance abuse treatment center may also be recommended.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment For Internet Addiction And Substance Abuse

Dual diagnosis treatment is a type of treatment that aims to address all co-occurring mental health issues a person experiences, such as substance misuse and compulsive Internet use.

Dual diagnosis treatment can be effective for addictions, as well as mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or a history of trauma.

Finding Treatment For Internet Addiction

If you or a loved one is struggling with compulsive Internet use, one of our addiction resource specialists may be able to help.

By calling our helpline, we can:

  • identify appropriate treatment options
  • verify your insurance
  • find a treatment program that meets your needs

Call us today to find treatment for internet addiction, including dual diagnosis rehab and mental health treatment options.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on July 5, 2021
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