Internet addiction sometimes referred to as Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), is not officially recognized in the United States as a disorder, even though countries like China and South Korea have designated it as a significant public threat. For the millions of people around the world who have had their lives upended by it - it’s real, it exists, and it’s not pretty.
It should be noted that internet addiction has been under study for a few decades now as a candidate for inclusion in the next update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. If and when that occurs, expect the United States government’s scrutiny of the problem to increase.
Whether or not it is given official recognition, it’s an undeniable reality, so what is internet addiction?
Internet addiction is a behavioral problem characterized by compulsive, uncontrollable internet use so invasive that it interferes with daily life. You can break down internet addiction into the following:
- Social media addiction
- Video game addiction
- Cybersex addiction
- Gambling addiction
The internet has co-opted modern life to the extent that it’s not unusual for a person to complete many of their daily tasks online. We work, play, shop, and go to school using the internet. In other words, it’s normal to be online a lot.
How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from using the internet as the incredible tool that it is into the shadowy world of addiction? Here are a few behaviors to watch out for:
- Poor sleep
- Inattention to personal hygiene
- Trouble in real-world relationships
- Deteriorating eating habits
In short, this addiction manifests itself in a similar manner to other addictions. Sufferers become so dependent on their phones or other electronic devices that they lose control of their behavior and are in a downward spiral of negative consequences.
They tend to stay online longer than they intended, exhibit multiple instances of failed attempts to limit use, and may lie about the time they spend there and what they are doing.
Whether you believe internet addiction should be categorized as a disorder or not, numbers don’t lie. Most of us use the internet. A lot. That reality should at least raise the potential of a problem. Let’s take a look at the statistics.
Internet Usage Statistics
Which demographic group uses the internet the most? You could probably guess this fairly accurately but let’s break it down. Keep in mind that internet addiction is diagnosed at a rate of about 1.5% to 8% in the general population, a level which some say represents an underdiagnosis.
While the average adult spends 6 hours online daily, for children ages 10-18, that increases to 11 hours. Does all this time staring at screens affect developing brains? The jury is still out on that, but there’s a good chance.
High internet use is almost equal between men (25%) and women (27%) but increases with education. 34% of college graduates report near-constant presence online, while that number drops to 20% with those who have completed high school or less.
Demographics of Internet Users
Who uses the internet the most? Here is the most recent breakdown by age (note that this does not include users below 18):
- Ages 18-24 (22.8%)
- Ages 25-34 (33.8%)
- Ages 35-44 (18.6%)
- Ages 45-54 (11.9%)
- Ages 55-64 (7.3%)
- Ages 65+ (5.5%)
Unsurprisingly, use is skewed towards the two younger demographic groups and tails off past the age of 55.
Distribution of Internet Users Worldwide
The chart below shows that internet use is heavily tilted towards Asia at 53.1%. Since this number includes the two most populous nations (China and India), this is no surprise.
After that comes Europe at 14.2%, Africa at 11.5%, Latin/South America and the Caribbean at 10.1%, and the little old US at 6.6%.
How Much Time Do Internet Users Spend Online?
Internet use is definitely on the rise. In 2013, the average time users aged 16 to 64 spent a little over 6 hours online. By 2021, that number had increased to almost 7 hours.
While there have been a few years along the way where use actually declined, it was never by much and was compensated for by years (especially during the first year of the pandemic) when average daily use grew considerably.
Where Do Users Spend Their Time Online?
To break it down more, here are the top ten online activities most favored by internet users by percentage. To avoid confusion regarding exactly what these statistics mean, numbers reflect the percentage of online users participating in a particular activity.
So, yes, it’s a popularity contest.
- Text/instant messaging (93.3%)
- Email (91.8%)
- Social media (74.6%)
- Financial services - bill-paying, investing, etc (74.3%)
- Shopping, travel reservations (74.1%)
- Videos (70.1%)
- Video calls/conferences (65.6%)
- Streaming/downloading music and/or podcasts (60%)
- Hiring online services (43%)
- Working remotely (27.7%)
There are, of course, other activities, but the percentage of use among internet users drops off considerably, and we have to stop somewhere because there are a lot more internet addiction statistics to cover.
The 5 Main Types of Internet Addiction
Internet addiction is a broad term that covers a range of behaviors and impulse-control problems involving the internet. Here are the identified five subcategories of specific types of computer and internet addictions.
The term “cybersex” is in reference to the massive amount of pornographic material that exists online and the ease with which it can be anonymously accessed. As with other addictions, this one is characterized by a situation in which the internet user is compelled to partake and to the extent that real relationships might be affected.
Like internet addiction in general, cybersex addiction is not formally recognized as a disorder. Still, the related statistics that we do have surrounding the existence and popularity of online pornography are staggering. Here are a few:
- The estimated number of Americans with sex addiction is estimated at 12 to 30 million, the latter number closing in on 10% of the population.
- Two-thirds (66%) of men 18-34 who use the internet view online pornography at least once a month.
- Pornographic material searches comprise 25% of all daily online searches.
- On a daily basis, 2.5 billion emails are related to pornography.
- A full 70% of pornographic traffic occurs during the workday.
The potential negative results of cybersex addiction can be grim and include intimacy problems, difficulty at work, the aforementioned relationship issues, and, perhaps worst of all, contributing to the business of sex trafficking.
The next type of internet addiction refers to a basket of activities that includes shopping, gambling, online auctions, and stock (or other assets) trading. We’ll delve into the numbers in short order, but all these online compulsions are fed by the ease of seeking instant gratification online. As we’ll see, following a net compulsion can just as easily, perhaps more easily, lead to instant financial disaster.
Never in the history of humanity has it been so easy to whip out a form of payment and buy something. Digital money, including credit cards, often doesn’t seem real. It’s like a game where you don’t find out whether you have won or lost until the credit card statement arrives at the end of the month.
Before diving into the downside, let’s look at the sheer scale of online shopping.
- There are around 2.14 billion unique online shoppers. That’s more than a quarter of the people on earth. Considering that only about 60% of the population goes online, the number is proportionately squeezed higher to around half of all people with online access.
- When we discuss online shopping, we’re talking about trillions of dollars, not millions or billions. 2021 saw $4.9 trillion in global e-commerce sales, and we’re expected to hit $5.5 trillion by the end of 2022.
- Traditional retail is not dead yet. Despite the upswell of popularity in online shopping, online retailers still capture only about 12.4% of overall retail sales.
Where does an online shopping compulsion come from? Experts already recognized Compulsive Buying-Shopping Disorder (CBSD) before the internet came along. We can see the potential aftermath in popular television shows like A&E’s Hoarders.
For those who already have some of the risk factors associated with BCSD, the online environment can’t help but make the problem worse when you consider the easy access, anonymity, sense of escape, and opportunity to experience instant gratification.
The bottom line is that, for compulsive online shoppers, the activity has gone from being planned and purposeful to a spur-of-the-moment action that consists of waving a credit card at the checkout process on your favorite shiny website.
There has never been a better time to abuse “retail therapy.”
The idea of online gambling incorporates a variety of activities. While poker is by far the most popular offering of online casinos, you can play all the same games Las Vegas is known for. There are also places online to bet on horse races, sports, and play the lottery. If none of these are interesting enough, try laying down a nickel on election outcomes, whether or not it will snow on Christmas, the outcome of television reality shows like Survivor, and when/if alien life will be discovered.
While gambling has never needed much help in emptying the pockets of those who indulge, there’s no denying the pandemic helped. Whether out of boredom or desperation, gross gaming revenue in the United States surged from around $29 billion to almost $53 billion from 2020 to 2021. Slots were the most popular games.
There’s no denying that online gaming has come into its own. Here are some more statistical tidbits:
- For the years 2020-2021, slots brought in $19 billion and $33 billion, respectively
- At $13 billion, Nevada leads the casino industry in gross revenue by a long shot
- When the Federal ban on sports betting was struck down in 2018, states got to work legalizing the industry - growth has been healthy year over year, with 2021 hitting $4.33 billion
- The fantasy sports market has increased in recent years to almost $9 billion
- Sports betting is most favored by the 35-44-year-old age range, with 15% saying they bet at least once weekly
There's a problem when gambling goes from a fun way to let off a little steam to an unhealthy obsession with serious negative consequences. Like other disorders, this one evolves from a lack of impulse control. At its worst, problem gamblers continue to gamble as it ruins relationships, finances, and maybe even health as drinking increases and attention to a decent diet wanes.
Even if gambling doesn’t rise to the level of a disorder, and you retain some control over it, problem gambling can still cause serious disruptions in your life.
You’ve probably been to or at least are familiar with offline auctions. An auctioneer describes an item for sale and sets a starting bid. Potential buyers raise a paddle if they are willing to pay that price. As the price rises, these buyers drop out when they decide the price is too high. Eventually, a single buyer is left standing and becomes the owner of the item for the most recent price.
Though auctions have moved online in a big way (eBay, anyone?), their continued popularity is easy to understand. From the thrill of competition to the option of finding a great deal that no one else recognizes, it’s easy to see online auctions as another form of gambling that holds just as much potential for abuse.
The National Consumers League has compiled a list of reasons people love auctions.
- Looking for bargains (43%)
- Seeking hard-to-find items (23%)
- Trying to find collectibles (21%)
The number of people who participate in online auctions might surprise you. The number is 35.6 million, which is one-third of all adults in the United States. Obviously, this high number holds the potential for a legitimate activity to descend into the same negative consequences we’ve been discussing with other compulsions.
We can’t talk about online auctions without mentioning eBay. This behemoth boasts 187 million users who log an average of 109 million monthly visits. It dominated the online auction market until 2018, when competition began to make inroads, but don’t feel sorry for the site. It’s still the largest site for online auctions on the planet.
Online auctions work like this. Let’s use eBay as an example.
- Scroll through the listings until you see something you like.
- Read the details thoroughly.
- Check the “Current Bid.” That’s the number you have to beat.
- Place your higher bid and click “Place Bid.”
Auctions run for a minimum of one day though typically stretch out for a week or longer. When the time runs out, the highest bidder wins and is obligated to pay for the item. There is one tricky part. A seller might have attached a reserve price to the item. Buyers don’t know what this number might be, but it exists as a sort of safety net below which the seller is unwilling to part with.
It’s that easy. The final price will be deducted from your payment method on file. If you watch an online auction from beginning to end, you’ll notice that there might not be much action until it gets close to the end. The final minutes or seconds are often a flurry of activity.
One last thing to note is that many items can be purchased at any point along the way for what is called the “Buy it Now” price. This is similar to simply grabbing an item off a shelf in the real world. The price is posted. You think it’s fair. Transaction complete.
Some might throw this ‘net compulsion in with gambling, but it’s not quite the same. For most of Wall Street’s history, the actual trading of stocks, bonds, and other assets was restricted to pre-screened professionals.
This was a select group - take a look at the movie Wall Street starring Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen for a fun Hollywood take on the inner workings of the stock market. Another is The Wolf of Wall Street with Leonardo Dicaprio.
But a funny thing happened in the mid-1990s. Online-only financial firms like Etrade, Scottrade, and others threw open the process by allowing the unwashed masses to open their own accounts and make their own trading decisions.
Here we are 30 years later, and almost the entire financial spectrum of assets is available to trade by anyone with a few dollars and an internet connection. Pick your poison: stocks, bonds, mutual funds, commodities, precious metals, currency, and cryptocurrency, to name a few.
The bottom line is that you can trade almost anything the big boys and girls trade to some extent. Whether you can be good and profitable at it - that’s another story. Some might turn a nice profit. For whatever reason, most others lose a lot of money.
Want to quit your job and become a day trader? Check out these numbers first.
- 40% of new day traders quit in the first month. They either decide they hate it or blow out their account through bad trades and poor risk management.
- At the three-year mark, only 13% remain.
- Day traders account for 12% of the daily trading volume. Their actual numbers are a much lower percentage than that, but they trade a lot.
- Millennials account for 58% of traders.
- 90% of day traders lose 90% of their capital within 90 days.
An interesting tidbit to note is that non-gamblers do better than gamblers regarding online trading. This flies in the face of the idea that day trading is nothing more than gambling. It’s easy to see why gamblers are attracted to the financial markets, but the truth is that luck only plays a small part in this game. Trading tools, a tested strategy, and the ability to control risk are more important.
After a bad streak, you don’t want to just let it ride and hope your luck turns.
Online Relationship Addiction
While singles were connecting online through sites like AOL and Craigslist in the early 1990s, the arrival of Match.com hit the dating scene like a bomb in 1995. Finding your one (second, fourth, or twelfth) true love would never be the same.
As the first player in the field, Match.com laid the groundwork for what was to follow as the online dating industry would soon become a massive social force. Site visitors could input preferences for things like gender, age, location, hobbies, lifestyle, and more. With 30 million active members, the Match.com founders seemed to have found a voracious market.
Let’s take a quick look at how many people use these apps and what their goals are.
- The current number of global users is about 324 million. Though the idea was already popular, use shot up between 2020 and 2021. Pandemic anyone?
- 19% of internet users have an active profile on at least one dating app. That’s almost one-fifth.
- Add to that 19% the 27% who have used a dating site in the past, and you have nearly one-half of those who go online have experienced the thrills, chills, and spills of online dating.
- 42% of online daters say marriage is the ultimate goal.
- 13% of dating app users either get engaged or married on one of these sites.
Younger age groups like 18-29-year-olds don’t use Match.com as much but prefer more playful and less goal-oriented sites like newcomer Tinder. The 30-64-year-old group likes Match.com, and the over 65 crowd prefers eHarmony or any of the multiple religious dating sites.
Digging more into why people are attracted to dating sites, the following provides a bit of insight drawn from American users. Here are the top six reasons:
- To find an exclusive romantic partner (49%)
- Something fun to do (39%)
- Curiosity about the app (29%)
- Casual sex partners (23%)
- To find non-exclusive romantic partners (20%)
- To improve self-esteem (19%)
Maybe or maybe not surprisingly, 7% head for a dating app in order to cheat on their significant other. The site Ashley Madison has made the headlines periodically in recent years by focusing on facilitating exactly that kind of activity.
Compulsive Information Seeking
Do you like to research stuff online? There’s a disorder for that, and it’s known as compulsive information seeking. Don’t get us wrong. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be informed. The problem is that the internet is almost incomprehensively big and growing more so every day. You can’t hope to keep up with it all.
- It’s generally accepted that the size of the internet doubles every two years
- 90% of the data online has been generated since 2016
- 300 hours of video are uploaded each minute
- There are 3.5 billion Google searches daily
- An extra 2.5 exabytes of data are created daily
These numbers only begin to scratch the surface of how much searchable information resides online. Add to that the problem of trying to separate the truth from lies, and it readily becomes apparent that the internet is a bottomless rabbit hole for any compulsive researcher who dares to enter.
What do compulsive information seekers search for? The better question is, what do they not search for? Any and every random topic that arises throughout the course of a day, interspersed with occasional deep dives into something that truly catches their fancy. It’s a neverending Herculean task that is impossible to complete.
People suffering from this malady find themselves moving from topic to topic, filing away tidbits, and potentially headed for the same life disruptions caused by the other internet addictions we’ve discussed already. Expect that you will miss a lot of life and struggle to make/maintain real relationships when you stumble through it with your nose on a screen.
Video games are fun. There’s no doubt about that if you know when to put down the controller and go outside for a breath of fresh air. Like the other internet addictions mentioned already, the mental health community does not officially recognize gaming addiction as an actual disorder though the World Health Organization (WHO) lists it as a disease in the International Classification of Diseases.
Though there are no formal diagnostic criteria, organizations like The Recovery Village have seen enough collateral damage resulting from too much time spent playing computer games or online gaming to take it seriously.
What’s the appeal of these games? Obviously, they are designed to be fun, but what about them that take an avid player over the line from a fun diversion into addiction? Research has tried to answer this question.
One reason is the design of the game itself. It’s intended to be addictive and keep participants coming back for more. Game designers are experienced in creating a virtual environment that is challenging enough not to be solved easily but not so hard that a player gets frustrated and gives up. Add to that the fact that there is no definitive overall end in sight, and you have the makings of an activity that never ends.
In fact, the goal is for a player to stay involved indefinitely.
Levels and Rewards
The most addictive games operate on levels and rewards. There is a finite goal to be reached. Once achieved, you get a reward, often in the form of skills or advantages that will help you navigate the next level, which will be harder.
Knowing that a certain reward is out there keeps a player going until it is achieved, even if this means hours, days, or weeks at the console trying repeatedly to beat the game. The following signs could mean there is a problem.
- Agitation when they aren’t playing because they feel like they need to be
- Dishonesty about how much time they have been playing
- Isolating themselves in order to play longer
- Physical symptoms like declining hygiene, headaches, carpal tunnel, and uncharacteristic tiredness
The numbers tell us that video gaming is a growing industry. It generated $7.4 billion in revenue in 1999. By 2018, that number had grown to $131 billion and is expected to hit $300 billion by 2025. It takes a lot of players to generate that kind of money.
- 64% of the United States population participate in online gaming or computer games.
- 96% of gamers are male, and 6% are female.
- Male gamers are an average of 33 years old, and female gamers are 37.
- The high-risk category age for gaming addiction is 18-24.
One troubling number that game addiction experts pay attention to is the average amount of time spent playing, which has increased over the years. One National Institutes of Health (NIH) study found the average daily time spent playing in 1999 was 26 minutes. That had increased to 32 minutes by 2004 and 1 hour and 13 minutes by 2009.
For more recent stats, the State of Online Gaming survey found that average daily use had remained constant at 1 hour and 12 minutes, but pandemic-inspired binge-gaming (defined as playing at least five hours in a row) had logged a 13% increase by 2020.
What games are we talking about in particular? Some of today’s most addictive games include:
- League of Legends
- World of Warcraft
- Call of Duty
- Assassin’s Creed
If you’ve seen advertising for any of these games or played them yourself, it’s easy to understand the appeal. The graphics are out of this world, and the storylines are always wall-to-wall nonstop action.
In other words, it’s built to satisfy the human brain.
What Causes Internet Addiction?
Diagnosing and attributing a finite set of causes to mental disease is never easy, which is certainly the case with internet addiction. There tend to be other mental health conditions that either co-occur with an internet addiction or serve as an underlying cause.
In particular, anxiety and depression disorders are found to be associated most often. Counselors also investigate the genetics and environmental conditions when assessing how to treat internet addiction. The extent to which any of these factors contribute to online susceptibility varies from person to person.
Underlying Mental Health Conditions: Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression have long been recognized as serious mental disorders. The negative effect either or both can have on a person’s quality of life is unquestioned in the mental health field.
For people already dealing with serious issues like these, the internet is a world to escape into, which might make it easier to deal with reality daily. Unfortunately, living online will likely worsen the problem when you add an internet addiction.
Let’s take a quick look at how often internet addiction manifests in people suffering from anxiety and depression disorders.
- Depressive Disorder (57%)
- Antisocial Personality Disorder (40%)
- Other addictions (27%)
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (15%)
- Social Anxiety Disorder (15%)
- ADHD (13%)
- Agoraphobia (10%)
Depressive Disorder leads the pack by a significant amount when it comes to underlying diagnoses in those with internet addiction. Antisocial Personality Disorder is also strongly linked, combined with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder.
In other words, if you have an internet addiction, there’s a good chance other factors are involved as well.
Is there a genetic component to internet addiction? It turns out there might be. It wouldn’t be the first instance of this kind of link is discovered. In fact, the latest research indicates that a mutation in the CHRNA4 gene might be to blame. This is the same issue that has been linked to nicotine addiction.
Genetics is a tricky thing. Human genome research shows that comparing DNA between any two people yields a 99.9% match. But that .1% can account for millions of differences like height, hair color, the risk level for heart attack, and the one we’re concerned with here - addiction.
Additionally, most studies support the idea that, for any random person, 50% of their risk of acquiring an addiction is based on hereditary factors. So the idea that addiction problems related to alcohol and drugs run in families is not a coincidence. The hope is that research into the genetic link will eventually provide more effective addiction treatments.
What makes up your environment? We’re not talking about the weather. Each of us was born into and raised within unique surroundings, the effect of which has a lot to do with our personality and life choices. Your personal environment includes family beliefs, peer group - everything that goes into your cultural or social environment.
Here are some interesting tidbits:
- Planned after-school activities reduce a child’s chances of developing a drug addiction.
- Access to exercise outlets tends to result in less risk of drug-seeking behavior, especially in males.
Exposure to drugs and/or chaotic home life can set a person up for a lifelong struggle with addiction. The worst part is that no one has control over it since you are born into it.
For a sense of the scope of the addiction problem, consider the following:
- 19 million or 7.7% of American adults have a Substance Use Disorder (SUD)
- 38% have a drug-related problem
- 73% have an alcohol-related problem
- 12% have a drug and alcohol issue
There aren’t many statistics specifically related to the environmental effects of internet addiction, but studies are underway. The NIH is in the process of standardizing the collection of data sets in order to integrate the data for study by experts. Eventually, this should yield more targeted, effective treatments.
Symptoms of Internet Addiction
While it’s easy to recognize the symptom of spending an inordinate amount of time online that is unrelated to work and goes far beyond what is considered typical for other use, some signs that there might be an internet addiction at play are less obvious.
If you notice a friend or loved one has developed one or more of the following symptoms, it might be time to consider whether or not they need help.
In many ways, the signs that an addiction is present are similar regardless of the actual addiction, though an internet addiction offers some differences due to its sedentary nature.
A drug addict or alcohol abuser often must keep moving to find their fix. An internet addict, on the other hand, sits in front of a screen for hours at a time. While the underlying compulsion is the same, the consequences may differ. Here are the most common physical symptoms.
- Aches and pains from lack of movement
- Digestive problems
- Deteriorating hygiene and the resulting physical appearance change
- Unintended weight loss or gain
The bottom line is that physical symptoms like these don’t occur in a vacuum. There’s a reason. If they can’t be explained away by typical illness or disease, it might be time to delve into the possibility of internet addiction.
Mental or Behavioral Symptoms
Compulsive behavior like that associated with internet addiction can be tricky. It sneaks up on you, and its grip is tight. Like other compulsive behavior, especially gambling, the activity creates a dopamine rush in the brain. This “pleasure” chemical induces a high much like drugs.
The near-constant search for this high is what propels addicts to log longer sessions on the computer, phone, or other electronic devices. Unless the addict can figure out how to interrupt the spiraling behavior, it's a neverending cycle. We’ve discussed the physical symptoms associated with internet addiction. Now let’s take a look at the mental/behavioral side of things.
- No longer engaging in formerly pleasurable activities
- Most waking hours are spent online
- Expressing anger/irritation when intruded upon
- Lying/concealing internet use
- Poor concentration
- Worsening memory
- Difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality
While nothing related to internet addiction is cut and dried, and symptoms like these could be related to something else, if the person seems to be spending a lot of time online outside the demands of a job and exhibits some or all of these symptoms, pay attention.
Not everyone who binge-watches a Netflix series or stays up until midnight gaming is an internet addict. When this kind of behavior arises infrequently, no harm and no foul. Most of us overindulge in our screens from time to time.
How do you know when it’s a problem? Generally, you’ll be so groggy the next morning that you won’t do it again for a while. When this behavior becomes the daily normal, look for the emotional symptoms that characterize internet addiction.
- Frequent feelings of guilt, anxiety, or depression
- Euphoria when online
- Lack of interest in other daily activities
- Mood swings
- Loss of ability to manage time
- Avoiding work
The presence of any or all of the above symptoms affects a person’s life (and those around them) in a negative way. It might start with a single feature, say, an intense type of euphoria when online. Remember the dopamine connection? This is another manifestation. Poor emotional health is a bad thing. You need to get to the bottom of it. Fast.
There is some overlap among the mental, behavioral, emotional, and social internet addiction symptoms. The difference when we’re looking at the social aspect is that it shows an adverse effect on how the person suffering is able (or not) to interact effectively and positively with others.
The social symptoms of this addiction typically emerge as one or more of the following issues. Once again, this presence is not proof of internet addiction, but it’s not normal healthy behavior. Observed in combination with a high level of daily screen time could mean it's time to seek help of some type for the afflicted.
- Irritable mood
- Social isolation
- Employment problems
- Difficulty with interpersonal relationships
- Academic trouble in school or college
Most people don’t exhibit social symptoms because they want to, or it’s a fun way to get through the day. There’s a good chance they’re miserable but can’t figure out how to get out of the cycle. Any of these issues is a big deal.
While not herd animals per se, humans are gregarious and typically like to interact with friends and family daily to some extent. When the ability to keep these relationships going breaks down, it’s hard to enjoy life.
Negative Effects of Internet Addictions
Despite an ambivalent reaction from the general public and even experts, internet addiction can be as destructive as one of the more heralded substances like drugs or alcohol.
We’ve reviewed the common symptoms. They might occur singularly and last a short time or in combination and last a long time. Or reverse the order. Or throw it up in the air and let it hit the ground. Weeks, years, a lifetime. However you want to match it up, internet addiction symptoms can appear out of nowhere and tear your life apart as surely as if you were popping opioids by the handful.
Effect of Internet Addiction on Personal Habits and Daily Life
Since we’re about to talk about the negative effects of internet addiction on finances, it makes sense to note that Pew Research says that one of the gateway features is income. Higher incomes increase the chance of addiction. For instance, those with an income over $75,000 stand a 34% chance of developing an internet addiction. Compare that to a 23% chance of developing the same addiction with an income of below $30,000.
And though you may have more income when you first find yourself addicted, it might not be that way for long because addiction of any kind can negatively impact your employment and finances.
Finances and Employment
Do you find yourself sneaking onto your phone while you’re supposed to be working or illicitly using a work computer to answer personal emails, check social media, or track the latest news? You’re not alone. Internet addiction causes 50% of employees to experience a severely impaired work life. Why?
Studies show that having an internet addiction results in structural changes to your brain’s prefrontal lobe. We use this area to organize our life activities and prioritize what’s important and what isn’t.
In the moment, it’s easy for an addict to decide it is more important to jump into the middle of the latest Twitter political maelstrom than finish the TPS report that the boss asked to be done yesterday. So you put off the TPS report play on social media.
It’s simple to see how a person’s life can go south in a hurry with this kind of decision-making in place. Put off the TPS report too often, and you don’t have a job. No job means no money. No money is a big problem, and with active addiction in place, things won’t be improving any time soon.
This is how internet addiction can snowball quickly.
Chronic Pain and Health Disorders
Anything that causes chronic pain is a health stressor affecting the quality of life and the length of life itself. That’s about as negative a consequence as you can imagine and is exactly what an internet addiction can create either over the long term or even within a surprisingly short interval.
The question then becomes, can internet addiction result in chronic pain and/or health disorders? The answer is, yes, it certainly can. It can impact both your mental and physical health. Here’s how.
There are a couple of ways that using the internet too much can harm your mental health. The first is in relation to negative news. It’s never been easier to find and linger on the daily terrible things happening worldwide. With the 24-hour news cycle seemingly permanently in place, you can saturate your brain with neverending images, videos, and commentary on natural disasters, war, terrorism, political bickering, stock market plunges, and more. Much, much more.
Does this seem like a healthy place to linger? While the internet is unquestionably the most amazing tool in human history, too much time spent on it, especially the constant flow of negative news and information, can increase your anxiety. Looking at anxiety in general, it affects 40 million US adults annually and 31.2 % at some point during their life. These are not insignificant numbers.
Dr. Saju Mathew points out what he considers to be a second severe problem associated with the internet - people researching their own symptoms. With all the knowledge in human history at our fingertips, who among us finds it easy to resist a bit of poking around online after noticing troubling health symptoms?
Are we sick? Are we two steps from death? What’s wrong? Can it be fixed?
Mathews thinks that researching your illness is liable to make you sicker and has a novel idea - see a doctor. Outside of a few acknowledged real-world medical sources like the Mayo Clinic or a few vetted sites like WebMD, you have no idea of the qualifications of the stuff you read online. There’s a good chance it will flood your mind with all the negative results of any perceived malady, and that’s not good for your health.
And Americans are turning to the online world to research their health more than ever. A robust 59% say they have done just that in the past year. Pew research brings us these numbers:
- 77% of these online health researchers started with a search engine like Google or Bing
- 35% of adults have gone online specifically to diagnose themselves or someone they know
Considering the results of a 2019 study that found 75% of people don’t trust the internet and compare it to the number of people that use it to better understand their health - it’s a head-scratcher.
Poor or deteriorating physical health can sap your quality of life. Why? How? It is an established reality that physical activity is good for your health. Using the internet is the antithesis of activity. In fact, it more resembles being frozen in carbonite like poor Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.
What is your posture after a couple of hours in front of a screen? There’s a good chance it involves:
- Squinty eyes when you’re (probably), not Clint Eastwood
- Hunched posture
- Skipping meals and slamming down soda beverages instead
- Hearing loss
- Neck and back pain
- High blood pressure
Heart disease, obesity, and various other physical problems are inextricably linked to a sedentary lifestyle, and nothing is much more sedentary than using the internet too much. Walking to the refrigerator or outside to get the mail doesn’t let you off the hook. That’s not enough movement.
The bottom line is that frequent and extensive internet use strongly predicts physical health issues, including chronic pain. One study reported the following issues in a group of 3,000+:
- Headache (73%)
- Back pain (70%)
- Finger numbness (65%)
- Neck pain (53%)
These are not insignificant percentages. Overuse the internet, and the numbers say the chances are good you will experience some of them.
Perhaps nowhere are the negative consequences of internet addiction more destructive than when it comes to relationships. After all, when you’re spending time online, you automatically aren’t using that time to engage with family, friends, or a significant other. Typically, those who overuse the internet replace their real-world relationships - to a greater or lesser extent depending on the person - with online relationships.
The replacement tends to be gradual. It’s driven by the online world's inherent intrigue and “limitless” possibilities. It doesn’t appear to have any of the stress that accompanies living in the real world, working a job, paying bills, and interacting face-to-face.
The reality is that real-world relationships can end due to internet addiction. Almost 6% of internet addicts report losing a (formerly) valued relationship from being online too much. Here are the specific negative effects shown to occur with family, friends, and romantic liaisons.
Perhaps surprisingly, the internet’s negative effect on family relationships is not a slam dunk when studied in general. While the initial assumption might have been that spending time online would automatically degrade family relationships, it turns out that, in some cases, the internet provides new forms of communication that actually keeps family members plugged into one another more often throughout the day than in pre-internet days.
Of course, this is in the general population. When it comes to those who are addicted to internet use, we can expect a different story. Science Daily published an article analyzing the issue regarding conflict resolution.
Face-to-face conflict resolution is an essential skill for healthy human psychological development. Online it’s easy to turn off, tune out, or otherwise refuse to engage when someone gets angry. It’s easy to decide not to deal with the issue. But resolving conflict is a critical skill.
Interestingly, research shows that 8.2% of those classified as internet addicts are aware of the problem and do their best to hide non-essential internet use from family - otherwise known as lying. This doesn’t help family relations either.
Some of the same issues we just discussed relating to internet addiction and family also apply to how well an addict can maintain friendships. But there’s a twist. A study identified three types of friendship relationships:
- Exclusively offline
- Face-to-face oriented
The study found that a person’s communication preference was a strong indicator of their chance of having an internet addiction. In other words, those who preferred exclusively offline friendships had a much lower chance of developing this kind of addiction. Those who preferred online communication were at a higher risk of online addiction. This is not surprising but interesting to note.
It is a long-observed reality that addicts tend to cut ties with friends as they spiral deeper into an addiction. Internet addiction is no different. Real-world friendships are given less priority since the addict prefers to spend time online interacting with their cyber-friends, or worse, interacting with no one at all.
An aspect of this whole thing we haven’t touched on yet is that socially awkward, inept, shy people can be whomever they want online. It’s the ultimate place to create a new reality in the form of a persona who is everything the addict is not, right down to fake pictures and backgrounds.
It’s no surprise to learn that online porn has gone mainstream in the western world. When we talk about the problems internet addiction causes in relationships, it’s the effect of porn on a real-world romantic relationship that often comes to mind. The automatic assumption is that porn damages intimacy.
Not so fast.
Recent studies have found that the correlation isn’t quite so simple and have pointed out that previous studies proceeded from an initial bias that pornography is harmful. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t, but we shouldn’t choose one side or the other until all the facts are in.
A University of Western Ontario study found that single men who aren’t in relationships might not be the stereotypical porn consumer he has been made out to be. In fact, 65% of men and 70% of women reported using porn with their partner in the confines of a monogamous, committed relationship. Of 430 respondents, there were no reports of negative effects, and only 34 listed a lack of positive effects.
The glaring omission here is that we don’t know if the people in the study were internet addicts or not. The presence of this sort of addiction could certainly upend the results. So, what is the effect on families and marriages?
- 47% of US families say porn is a problem in their home
- Porn increases the fidelity rate by 300%
- 40% of sex addicts lose their spouses
- 68% of divorces involve one party meeting someone else online
Looking at the negative effects of porn in the context of how it interacts with marriage, the numbers indicate the results to be pretty grim.
How to Treat Internet Addiction
The good news is that there are ways to treat and cure an internet addiction. The bad news is that the first method tried might not work the first time. The results could be the same for the second and subsequent methods. The reality is that no single treatment works for everyone, and it might take several different attempts before seeing progress.
Here are the most popular options counselors turn to in order to break the dependence.
As we’ve referred to a few times over the course of this article, internet addiction is not easily diagnosed or even recognized as existing. As you might expect, this also makes reaching a consensus regarding treatment difficult. Still, some approaches have been shown to help.
Even without a cut-and-dried definition, some therapists treat it as an obsessive-compulsive disorder, while others say it is an impulse-control disorder. Regardless of the approach, internet addiction is generally viewed as a treatable condition.
Therapy for these kinds of issues focuses on developing the motivation to make changes and identifying how the addiction is harmful. The focus is on finding triggers and high-risk situations and learning how to avoid them.
A CNN report says that 69% of men identified as internet addicts entered remission after short-term Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), sometimes called Talk Therapy. Compare this to 24% of men who experienced remission while waiting to receive CBT.
CBT is shorter than some types of treatment. Usually, 10-20 sessions are required. A therapist typically guides the conversation that includes:
- Identifying the things that upset you
- Develop awareness of your thoughts about them
- Recognizing what is negative and not accurate
- Frame those thoughts positively
It is called talk therapy because there is a lot of what appears to be a simple conversation going on that masquerades a very specific set of goals when used by a skilled therapist.
Internet Addiction Treatment
Other types of treatment which may be used are group therapy, motivational interviewing, exercise, content control software, and even experimenting with leaving your phone at home for increasingly longer periods of time.
As mentioned, it’s not as easy as picking out a method and knowing it will work. Different strokes for different folks are the key here.
While an internet addict might not seem to be the obvious candidate for medication, your doctor or therapist can discuss why it may or may not work for you. Obviously, as with all medications, there can be side effects that might outweigh the benefits.
Specific medical intervention for internet addiction is limited. Some doctors choose to treat what they consider to be the underlying condition, such as depression or anxiety. In these cases, medications typical for those disorders might be used.
Depression, in particular, is a disorder that is experiencing an upswing in medication treatment. Antidepressants are used by 18% of US women and 8% of men. Taken together, that’s more than a quarter of the population, which is significant.
Do these medications work? It depends.
Positive Reactions to Medication
One study mentioned by the NIH mentioned the following as evidence that antidepressants can definitely be effective.
- 30 out of 100 people in a placebo control group noted improved symptoms
- 50 out of 100 people who took antidepressants noted improved symptoms
Antidepressant medication is often combined with psychotherapy and other holistic treatments to create a meaningful difference in the quality of life of a sufferer. It might take several weeks for the full effect to occur, but once it does, there can be a leveling out of the distressing symptoms.
In an internet addict’s case, they can feel less overwhelmed by life and less liable to be triggered into the behavior. In the best cases, expect a more positive outlook on life. The things that once caused so much grief become manageable and less of a big deal.
Negative Reactions to Medicine
A drug that can make such a remarkable difference in your brain chemistry could also result in side effects. Sometimes severe and unexpected side effects. For one off-the-wall example, the use of antidepressants by older people can increase the risk of hip fracture. About 5% of Norwegian senior citizen hip fractures have been attributed to taking antidepressants.
Other short-term negative effects from this class of medications include weight gain and diabetes. The longer you take the drug, the greater the chances that a variety of side effects can accumulate beyond gaining weight.
- Sexual problems (72%)
- Feeling emotionally numb (65%)
- Not feeling like yourself (54%)
- Increased negative feelings (46%)
- Feeling addicted (43%)
- Caring less about other people (36%)
- Suicidal thoughts (36%)
More than two-thirds of those who take antidepressants say the overall effect is more good than bad. Around 20% say they never would have started taking it if they had been more informed about the side effects and withdrawal symptoms when they tried to quit.
There is a possibility you might experience what is called treatment-resistant depression. Anywhere from 10% to 30% of those who try antidepressants don’t respond at all.
Taking antidepressants is a serious step and shouldn’t be taken without deep consideration. It might be worth trying for those who find themselves mired in internet addiction and with an identified underlying condition such as depression. Just go in with your eyes wide open and stay alert to any developing side effects.
More than one study has shown that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression. A Harvard study found that 15 minutes of daily walking or running reduced the risk of major depression by 26%
The Mayo Clinic offers a list of reasons that exercise should be a part of any treatment for depression and anxiety.
- Releases feel-good endorphins
- Clears your mind at least temporarily
- Gain confidence
- Increase social interaction
How much exercise do you need? For best results, 30 minutes of moderate daily exercise for three to five days a week is the prescription, but you can still reap significant benefits from 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
A long-term study that was published in 2018 concluded that one hour of exercise a week could prevent 12% of depression cases that arose. Another study, this one from Cambridge, decided that exercise might even be as effective as CBT at treating depression.
Exercise could be a critical component of returning to normalcy for those suffering from internet addiction.
The Bottom Line
Whether internet addiction is ever classified as an official disorder, a growing body of research continues to conclude that spending too much time staring into screens can have a negative effect on mental health. Sufferers report loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
A common factor among those with internet addictions is a tendency to use the online environment to isolate themselves from the uncomfortable feelings associated with negative feelings.
If you think you or someone you care about suffers from internet addiction, a good first step is to talk to your doctor about it. They will be able to refer you to any of a variety of professionals qualified to help. Among them could be internet addiction clinics, psychologists or other therapists, or even medications to treat an underlying disorder.
The bottom line is you don’t have to continue the downward spiral. The sooner you get help, the better.
What percentage of teens are addicted to technology?
Perhaps the most telling statistic regarding teens and their technology addictions is the fact that 50% of them self-report as being addicted to smartphones and, by extension, the internet they find there. In the same study, 59% of parents agreed with them.
Why do people become addicted to the internet?
There’s no single cause for internet addiction. It stimulates some of the same areas of the brain that other addictions do. Other factors include underlying mental health issues related to anxiety and depression, genetics, and the environment.
How does internet addiction affect students?
Internet addiction creates a number of problems for students but most of them boil down to a single issue - concentration or lack thereof. Poor concentration is an obvious challenge to academic success. To put a number on it, studies have shown that attention span has shrunk from 12 to 5 minutes since the internet became available for widespread use.
When did internet addiction start?
Internet addiction first began to be discussed as a possible disorder in the mid-1990s. This coincides with the time that the internet moved from primarily military and academic uses and was made available to the public.
How does social media affect your brain?
One of the main effects social media has on the brain is that it rewires the reward center. Every time you receive a notification or post to a platform a squirt of dopamine (the feel-good hormone) is released. Social media is a shallow but constant reward that keeps a user coming back for more in hopes of achieving a deeper reward. This leads to social media addiction. Heavy social media users show similar brain scans to drug or gambling addicts.