Is Internet Addiction Real?

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Look, we’re all “addicted” to the Internet. Between your smartphone, iPad, email, and Netflix, there’s barely a minute of the day that passes without at least some connectivity. But aside from having to Instagram everything on your plate or sending links to the GREATEST THING YOU’VE EVER SEEN on YouTube, is internet addiction a real phenomenon? And if so, how do you break the habit? We reached out to two internet addiction specialists to find out.

So is this a real disease, or what?

There is an actual condition known as Internet addiction. “It is real, and the published literature supports that is has been around for over two decades,” says Dr. Kimberly Young, the founder of the Center for Internet Addiction & Recovery

Internet addiction made its way into the medical literature sometime in the mid-90s, though it wasn’t well defined until the early 2000s. Dr. Young reports that about 5% to 10% of the population is impacted. “That depends on the country,” she says. “For instance, in China that number could be as high as 30%.”

The Center for Internet Addiction has defined eight signs that can point to someone suffering from Internet addiction, determined through a series of yes-or-no questions. They are:

1. Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet (think about previous online activity or anticipate the next online session)?
2. Do you feel the need to use the Internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?
3. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop Internet use?
4. Do you feel restless, moody, depressed or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use?
5. Do you stay online longer than originally intended?
6. Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of significant relationships, job, educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?
7. Have you lied to family members, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet?
8. Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (eg. feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)?

I bet more than a few of you tensed up with numbers 1 through 5, because they sound like literally every time you see the battery on your phone go into the red zone, and you start to scramble for any surface with an outlet so you can load those unviewed snaps. But the real defining line of Internet addiction can be found from number 6 onward. That’s when Internet use begins to shift from “really want it” to “have to have it.”

It’s not just about being on your phone all the time

“To meet the criteria for Internet Use Disorder, you have to have significant impairment of function,” says Dr. Sean X. Luo, M.D., PhD and a member of Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry. “We also require that there’s an impairment of social or occupational functioning.”

Internet addiction can come in many flavors, but some of the most common ones revolve around hooking up and/or compulsions. These include sexting and online sex addiction; Internet infidelity and online affairs; video games and gaming; and compulsive behavior like gambling, shopping, or eBay. It’s also often the case that Internet addiction doesn’t just appear on its own, but is a manifestation of, or an outlet for, another problem.

“There are several patterns with patients who suffer from Internet addiction, but the main one is that it is combined with other problems,” Dr. Luo adds. “Someone who meets the criteria for Internet Use Disorder also has other mental health conditions that require clinical attention. It’s often [the case that] they have other problems like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders.” 

But it’s not just that the Internet offers an outlet for other issues. It can also provide something that’s increasingly elusive: anonymity. Which is kind of ironic, since constant connectivity is one of the ways people become less anonymous.

“It is the anonymous nature of electronic communication where users can use games, social media or online porn to escape problems in their lives,” Dr. Young points out. “It is worse among those with depression, social anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.” 

Is there any cure for Internet addiction?

Fortunately, it’s very possible to treat Internet addiction. If you feel you might be a problematic Internet user, or know someone who’s suffering, consider seeking a full psychiatric evaluation to see if there’s something else at the root of the problem. A psychologist or social worker might be a good place to start.

The most common treatment is psychotherapy, namely cognitive-behavioral therapy, which as the name suggests focuses on changing unwanted behaviors. Much like any other addiction, enough treatment and understanding can lead to recovery without a relapse. But, of course, each case is different. 

“There are no existing FDA-approved medications for ‘Internet Use Disorder,’” says Dr. Luo. “A number of medications have been tried, but existing data are not enough to make across-the-board recommendations. Medications would be used to treat other associated conditions, such as depression and ADHD. Cognitive-behavioral therapy addresses some of these symptoms by developing more coping skills, keeping track of Internet use, restructuring negative and distorted thoughts, and developing behavioral strategies for preventing relapse or aim for moderation.”

So you can relax. Just because you change your profile picture every other day and tweet out your sweet Insta filters does NOT mean you’re addicted to the Internet. You might, however, want to consider spending a little more time in the three dimensional world. Couldn’t hurt.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.Meagan Drillinger is a contributing writer for Thrillist and thinks it's a little wrong that she did the research for this online. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @drillinjourneys.