It may seem normal to be attached to your phone, but when mindless scrolling crosses into compulsive, it might be time to address internet addiction disorder.
We’ve all heard that spending too much time in front of a screen isn‘t all that great for our well-being.
Whether spending hours scrolling through social media or online shopping, excessive and compulsive internet use can cause significant psychological stress over time. This can contribute to symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
In addition, obsessive internet use may cause sleep disruptions and could also negatively affect your relationships and career.
If you‘re overly dependent on the internet or other online services, you may have internet addiction disorder (IAD).
Internet addiction is a behavioral addiction. Also known as “cyber addiction,“ internet addiction refers to excessive and compulsive engagement with the online world.
People who may have a loss of control when it comes to time spent online tend to prioritize the internet above important commitments, like parenting, work, or fun social activities. A person’s obsession with the internet can negatively interfere with their daily activities and responsibilities, relationships, and mood.
In the scientific community, internet addiction disorder (IAD) is sometimes called:
- compulsive internet use (CIU)
- problematic internet use (PIU)
Despite many research studies that have looked at the effects of IAD, it is not yet recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) as a mental health condition.
IAD also shares similar characteristics to cell phone addiction or “nomophobia“ — the fear of being without your mobile device. Similarly, nomophobia can also affect an individual’s day-to-day life, since many people with this compulsion find it difficult to change the way they behave with technology.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have gotten more attached to our phones than ever. Research from 2021 found that non-academic screen time for adolescents in the United States increased to
Could this qualify as IAD? Not necessarily.
But if someone is experiencing negative consequences or feels unable to pull themselves away from the internet — even for responsibilities like going to work — then they might have an obsessive relationship with the internet.
It’s not fully understood why people become addicted to the internet, but it’s safe to assume the rise of advanced technology, dopamine-inducing social media platforms, and smartphones have led to increasing dependency.
Social media networks have dopamine-boosting features, such as likes or reactions. Our brains love the feeling of getting a hit of dopamine and seek it out more and more as we build up a tolerance.
People also use the internet and online games to escape difficult emotions. A few other things may play a role, including:
- existing mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety
Regular vs. problematic internet use
There’s an important distinction between regular and problematic internet use. Regular use might include long hours spent online for work or school, in addition to a few hours per day of browsing in your free time.
Problematic internet use is a compulsive and overwhelming use of screens that interferes with your personal, professional, and social life.
Since internet addiction is not officially recognized as a mental health condition, there’s no clear consensus on symptoms. Research has identified a few key traits, however:
- Excessive use. Experts say that more than 2 hours per day for children under 18 is considered problematic. There’s no official designation for adults, since many adults work or learn online.
- Withdrawal. Common symptoms of withdrawal (stress, anger, depression) are recognized among behavioral addiction disorders.
- Increased tolerance. Similar to other forms of behavioral addiction, a person may be overly dependent on the internet if they find themselves continuing to increase their consumption.
- Negative effects on livelihood. When excessive internet use starts to get in the way of everyday tasks, responsibilities, and activities, it’s likely an indicator you’re spending too much time online.
In addition, 2016 research shows that certain co-occurring conditions may exist with internet use disorder. These include:
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- hypomania and bipolar disorder
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- substance use disorder
- suicide risk
- dissociative symptoms
- alexithymia (trouble feeling or identifying emotions)
- low self-esteem
The connection and inspiration many of us find on the internet is vital to our health. But there’s a flip side to those positives.
According to research, obsessively scrolling on social media has been linked to:
In addition to these mental health symptoms associated with excessive internet use, other possible dangers of internet addiction may include an impact on physical health.
For instance, a
Teodora Pavkovic, Master of Science in clinical psychology, psychologist, parenting coach, and digital wellness expert at Linewize, explains that the effects of IAD on children and adults may depend on the type of online media being consumed.
According to Pavkovic, examples of excessive problematic internet use may include engaging with:
- excessive violent or hypersexualized content
- heated or offensive debates on social media platforms
- immersive gaming worlds
- augmented or unrealistic beauty images
- online shopping and gambling
Despite the fact that internet addiction is not a formal diagnosis, at least three different types have been defined. But many clinicians and researchers argue that these are addictions to things found on the internet — not to the internet itself.
Internet gaming disorder
Research estimates that upwards of 160 million American adults play online video games, but experts are still debating whether these games may be addictive.
The DSM-5 states that while internet gaming disorder can be seen as a repetitive behavior or “behavioral addiction,” there’s not enough evidence to fully establish the diagnostic criteria that could establish gaming disorder as a mental health condition.
Internet gambling addiction
According to the DSM-5, gambling behaviors activate similar reward systems to those activated by substance use.
Internet gambling addiction, sometimes referred to as “net compulsions,” isn‘t formally recognized but is an area of interest among researchers.
The DSM-5 states that an individual may have gambling disorder if they experience “persistent and recurrent problematic gambling behavior leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.”
Cybersex addiction, or online relationship addiction, often occurs in chat rooms and social networking sites.
As with other forms of internet addiction, cybersex can be an issue when it becomes excessive. Research from 2017 describes problematic cybersex as “an excessive and uncontrolled use of online sexual activities associated with tangible negative outcomes and functional impairment.“
Compulsive information-seeking addiction
As the name suggests, compulsive information-seeking addiction occurs when there’s a compulsion to continually seek information online. Research from 2012 characterizes this type of internet addiction as a loss of control.
Since there’s no formal diagnosis for internet addiction, there’s no established clinical method of treatment. But there are a few things you can do to learn how to unplug and turn your attention back to your life in the physical world.
While no one is expected to abandon their digital devices entirely, you can change the way you engage with smart technology.
Pavkovic says you can start by identifying specific moments when you feel like your time online has been excessive, and explore why you think so and what you would like to do instead. For example, you might connect with your kids, a family member, or a close friend.
Once you’ve identified your excessive internet use patterns, you might designate blocks of screen-free time, device-free days, and breaks from social media platforms.
If you find that you’re having trouble committing to staying disconnected, you might consult a mental health professional and ask them about cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
First and foremost, it’s important to inform yourself about age-appropriate content for your child.
According to Pavkovic, one of the most important conversations you can ever have with your child about digital devices and social media is to discuss how different types of online communication, platforms, and content make them feel.
“Make it fun and interesting by creating a scoring system, and then problem-solve with your child to figure out how best to cut back on time spent engaged with negative, inappropriate or hurtful people, content or platforms,” she says.
“Ultimately, you want to remember that helping your child identify problematic internet use is the most important step because without understanding why something is a problem, they will be very reluctant to change it.”
Some ways to practice digital wellness include:
- Intermittent digital fasting. Try spending a set amount of time offline (aim for 12 hours) before plugging back in.
- Dive into analog activities. Try journaling, reading, cooking, or other creative pursuits.
- Start and end your day screen free. Make space for daily screen-free time every day. Many proponents make their bedroom a no-screen zone.
- Use an old-fashioned alarm clock. Plug your phone in another room at night so you’re not scrolling right before bed or first thing in the morning.
If you’re not aware of the number of hours you spend online each week, it’s not a bad idea to keep track. It’s one thing to use the internet all day for school or work, but quite another if you’re aimlessly scrolling and searching.
If you’re concerned you may be spending excessive time on the internet, there are ways you can cut back and prioritize your basic needs like sleep, creativity, and human connection.
If you need additional support to help you or your child disconnect, you can try the following resources: