Process Addictions

What Is Internet Addiction Disorder?

Internet addiction disorder or IAD is a broad term that describes an impulse control disorder characterized by spending excessive amounts of time on the internet in chat rooms, on dating sites, scrolling through social media, playing online games, watching YouTube videos, etc. Also called Problematic Internet Use (PIU), internet addiction is characterized by hard to control, excessive use of, preoccupation with, or difficult to withstand urges to use one's computer, smartphone, and internet. It is also characterized by the experience of withdrawal symptoms when the user loses access to online activities. The behavior continues despite impairment and negative consequences.

Problematic use of the internet comes in many forms, from excessive internet gaming to computer use that facilitates pathological gambling. Regardless of what addictive behavior is being sought out and performed online—shopping, gambling, gaming, etc.—all internet addictions involve excessive internet use that interferes with a person's well-being.

There are currently many debates in psychiatry about internet addiction disorder and what addictive behaviors constitute actual addiction. That being said, gaming disorder (i.e. online gaming addiction or video game addiction) was included in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as an addictive diagnosis. Behavioral addictions like IAD share many similarities with substance use disorders, because they can impact dopamine levels and other hormones. Excessive and problematic internet usage can also negatively impact one's family life, work responsibilities, and health just as alcohol abuse and other substance abuse disorders can.

Why Do People Become Internet Dependent?

The internet is a valuable and ubiquitous tool, and with smartphones in nearly every hand or pocket in the U.S., there is an increasing prevalence of internet addiction — something that researchers, psychiatrists, and centers like Caron have been working to understand and treat since Kimberly Young first founded the Center for Internet Addiction in 1995. While risk factors for IAD are not entirely understood, social anxiety and/or ADHD in adolescents and young adults may increase the likelihood of internet dependence.

Types of Internet Addictions

There are different types of IAD and Problematic Internet Use:

  • Cybersex addiction involves an obsessive use of adult chat rooms, online pornography and adult role-play sites. This obsession interferes with real-life intimacy.
  • Cyber-relationship addiction is characterized by an addiction to social networking, chat rooms, dating sites, and social messaging. Like a cybersex addiction, it can eventually get in the way of real-life relationships with partners and family members.
  • Net compulsions occur when an individual becomes addicted to online gambling, online gaming, stock trading or online auction sites. Net compulsions very often lead to financial problems.
  • Information overload includes compulsively surfing the web, browsing, and researching to the point that doing so interferes with daily activities.
  • Computer addiction is an obsession with playing off-line computer games or obsessive computer programming.
  • Online shopping addiction can manifest due to the illusion that the shopper isn’t really spending money and can result in financial distress.

How Does Internet Addiction Affect The Body and Brain?

As with other types of addictions, IAD impacts the areas of the brain associated with rewards and pleasure. When these parts of the brain are activated, dopamine—one of the ‘feel good’ chemicals in the brain—is released. Along with other pleasurable neurochemicals.

When the addictive behavior, in this case internet use, continues over time, these pleasure and reward centers in the brain can build up a tolerance. Once tolerance has developed, the individual must engage in the behavior more and more to experience that same initial sense of pleasure. In addition, once the brain has become dependent on these activities to stimulate the reward circuit, the person can experience withdrawal symptoms when not engaging in the behavior.

The Variable Ratio Reinforcement Schedule

Why does using the internet lead some people to develop a dependency? Use of the internet acts on what is called the variable ratio reinforcement schedule (VRRS), and it does so in a way that is very similar to gambling. In VRRS, there are unpredictable and variable rewards. This coupled with the mood-elevating and stimulating content found on the internet increases and intensifies the reward experience when it happens.

Additionally, research has shown that people with IAD and people with a substance use disorder share brain similarities and that with excessive internet use, changes in white and gray brain matter occur. These changes are seen mostly in the prefrontal lobe, which is the part of the brain responsible for remembering details, attention, and planning.

Not everyone who excessively uses the internet has an addiction or will become dependent, but the problem is real and extensive, nevertheless. Data shows that as many as 8.2% of the United States population has IAD. To put that in perspective, because the U.S. population is around 330 million, that translates into roughly 27 million people with IAD.

Signs and Symptoms of Internet Addiction Disorder

There are certain signs and symptoms of IAD to look for if you are concerned about someone’s internet use. While currently not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), five criteria of internet addiction disorder have been identified. A person may have IAD if:

  1. They have made unsuccessful attempts to cut down on or stop using the internet

  2. They are consumed with ongoing thoughts about the internet (last use, when they’ll use it again, etc.)

  3. They find themselves using the internet for longer and longer periods of time to gain satisfaction

  4. They become restless, irritable, and generally moody when trying to cut down or stop internet use

  5. They routinely remain online longer than planned

In addition to these five criteria, there must be at least one of these other conditions present:

  • Family, school, or work has been jeopardized by internet use

  • Lies have been told to family, friends, or therapists about how much they are using the internet

  • Internet use is propelled at times by the desire to escape uncomfortable feelings such as guilt, anxiety, depression, etc.

There are also some physical symptoms that often accompany internet addiction. These are:

  • Sleep changes

  • Weakened immune system

  • Overall decline in physical health from lack of exercise

  • Eye strain or issues

  • Back strain or problems

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome

These signs and symptoms of internet addiction disorder can be determined by both observing the behaviors of the individual as well as by using assessment tools specific to internet addiction.

Signs and Symptoms of Internet Addiction Withdrawal

Some of the withdrawal symptoms of IAD are similar to withdrawal symptoms for substances. These can include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Tense neck and shoulders
  • Shortness of breath

Since process addictions, like IAD, don’t always manifest in the same ways as a substance use or alcohol use disorder, it can be harder to determine if there is truly an addiction present. After all, we use and rely on the internet for many things. Sometimes, especially at the beginning stages of addiction, it is hard to tell when the person has crossed the line into addiction.

Consequences of Internet Addiction Disorder

Addiction, whether to a substance or behavior, brings detrimental consequences to the person with the problem and to their loved ones. When it comes to IAD, the consequences involve both mental health and social issues.

Studies have shown that a significant number of people with internet addiction also have a co-occurring mental health disorder, such as depression or anxiety. There is debate over which—the internet dependency or the mental health disorder—occurred first.

In addition IAD can result in serious social consequences, mostly due to the time disruptions caused by excessive and compulsive internet use. Academic performance, work performance, and social activity can be compromised and damaged by IAD. Daily routines, like keeping up with personal hygiene, nutrition, exercise, and time spent with family and friends, can be interrupted and hurt as well.

While these social disruptions may appear harmless on the surface, they are not. When left untreated, IAD can wreak havoc on a person’s life.

Treatment for Internet Addiction Disorder

Luckily, there are effective interventions and treatment options for IAD. Behavioral therapy is extremely effective both in identifying underlying causes of addiction and in teaching reliable coping mechanisms for cutting down on or ceasing destructive behavioral patterns. Most therapies focus on providing the addict with healthier ways to cope with triggers (stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, etc.) that induce internet addiction.

In addition to behavioral therapy, content-control software and time-limiting software is available to help addicts control their time online, set realistic expectations, and provide accountability. Some software has proven successful in restricting usage, but it is most effective when used in conjunction with behavioral therapy.

Since online addictions are relatively new, support groups that exclusively address them are limited. Nevertheless, groups such as Sex Addicts Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous may be useful in providing help and comfort for those dealing with similar addictions that occur online. The recently established Online-Gamers Anonymous is another useful resource for those suffering from online addiction. Online support groups also exist, but people with IAD are cautioned against pursuing online-only forms of treatment, as they may exacerbate the problem.

Caron is proud to treat process addictions like internet addiction disorders. Our expert team of compassionate professionals completes a thorough assessment to determine if there are addiction interaction disorders or co-occurring mental health disorders present. co-morbidities present, which allows us to tailor a mental health treatment plan to the individual. Following a comprehensive evaluation, an individualized and comprehensive addiction treatment plan is made so that the specific needs of each individual are addressed. An addiction treatment plan may involve cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, support groups, and/or some other combination of therapies and support.

If you or someone you love has an internet addiction disorder Caron’s team is here for you. At Caron, we believe everyone can recover with the right treatment plan. Learn more about Caron online or call us today at 1-800-854-6023.

Continue Learning About Internet addiction disorder

Addiction Treatment Advice
Co-occurring Disorders Treatment
A man and a woman leaning on each other

Take the next step:

Start a conversation

Start with an online form

Contact us