Internet Addiction, A Real Thing?

Last Updated on 24 January 2021

Have you looked at your favorite websites and social media tons of times today? You can’t stop controlling your mobile devices? It is like an uncontrollable need that makes you feel bad if you don’t do it? Well, if your answers have been Yes, Yes and Yes, you might be suffering from Internet addiction.

The latter is regarded as the new mental disorder of the digital age. It may affect both you and me, but only a few people have the perception to be affected by Internet Addiction. Many of them are even prone to think that it is a not real disorder, but an invention of those who would stop the progress of technology. This illness can severely impact many aspects of our daily life. To help you better define and understand it, I invite you to read this article.

Internet Addiction: What Is It?

Internet Addiction is a mental disorder related to the obsessive and intensive usage of Internet devices and online platforms, such as social media, websites, videos and online games.

The history and definition of the term were coined for the first time in 1995 by doctor Ivan Goldberg, who performed a sort of initially provocatory and goliardic survey about the obsessive behavior regarding the usage of the Internet. Afterward, the results raised the attention of other scientists and further controversial opinions about the real existence of this new type of addiction.

The debate has remained still now controversial, because even though this new disorder is today defined with the acronym IAD (Internet Addiction Disorder), it is not classified like a single illness, but as a set of sub-disorders listed in DSM-5, namely the fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (by the American Psychiatric Association) for the classification of mental disorders.

In the DSM5, Internet Addiction is defined like a no drug addiction and includes, above all, online gambling addiction. However, in 2014, Anti-Drug Addiction Department of the Italian Government recognized a frame of five different types of disorder.

They are:

  1. Cyber-Relational Addiction, characterized by the excessive habit to start friendships and relationships with people known only online and considered by the patient more important than his/her family and real-life friends.
  2. Information Overload, characterized by the prolonged and obsessive search for online information: people spent more and more time for the search and organization of data online.
  3.  Cybersex Addiction, characterized by the compulsive usage of porn and virtual sex websites. People are often engaged in erotic chat rooms or in the download and upload of porn material and compulsive masturbation.
  4. Computer Addiction, characterized by a tendency to excessively play virtual games on the PC without online connections and with no other players.
  5. Net Compulsion, characterized by exaggerate compulsivity in online games, online shopping, and role play games.

World Health Organization has, instead, defined pathological addiction as the psychic or physical interaction between a person and a toxic substance. This interaction entails a compulsive and obsessive need to intake the substance in order to avoid the malaise coming from its lacking. Internet, is, hence, as a toxic substance!

The code of Internet addiction disorder for insurance and reimbursement purposes is ICD-10, but in 2020, the Internet Gambling Disorder has been included in the code ICD – 11.

Moreover, you must know that the name Addiction derives from Slavery. Its ancient meaning is “to be enslaved by….”. One of the most prominent aspects of addiction is dominance, namely something, Internet, in this case, that exercises a strong power over our will!

Our globalized world is by now characterized by a strong penetration of the Internet. The overall penetration rate is nearly of the 60%. In April 2020, the 59% of global population resulted connected to Internet. This value is equal to 4.57 million active users.

Internet Addiction Statistics

The stats published on Comparecam revealed that “North America has the highest internet penetration at 94.6%. Other regions on the top list include Europe (87.2%), Latin America (70.5%), Middle East (69.2%), Oceania (67.4%), Asia (53.6%), and Africa (39.3%)” The same website also reported that “61% of internet users are addicted to it”.

According PEW Research Center, in 2019, the average age of users who resulted addicted to Internet were 18 -29 years (48%), 30-49 years (36%), 50 – 64 years (19%), 65+ years (7%).

Another study reported that the group who is likely to develop Internet addiction is the one of students. 65.5% of students may suffer from this addiction. Always this same study discovered that 6.5% of students were included the group with the most severe Internet Addiction.

Just think that only in The United States, 81% of people spend time online daily. Strangely, Adults resulted more addicted to Social Media than Millennials. I think these data are less than we’ll have after a pandemic. A related study revealed that only In Indonesia, anxiety, and isolation due to coronavirus increased the rate of Internet Addiction of 14.4%.

I suppose that by now, across the globe, and just due to the pandemic, everybody is Internet addicted. The consequences of this status are not easy to predict. However, it is extremely important to discover how this addiction starts.

How Internet Addiction Starts?

Internet Addiction usually starts in a subtle way, without your being aware of it. Seen that the Internet nowadays dominates every aspect our life, such as job, friendship, relationship, and shopping, it is hard to understand when people become addicted to the virtual world.

The Internet, in its way, is built to boost engagement among people and things. The ring of our mobile phone and social and email notifications are always behind the corner to capture our attention. Information are always more and more appealing, images are catchier and catchier, daily tasks are always more and more online and it is this way that people become Internet addicted.

However, the real Internet Addiction is much more than that. It involves the fact that people become unable to have a life out of the Internet. In this New Addictioneon, Online prevails on Offline, Virtual becomes more important than Real.

A person is Internet addicted when the time spent online impairs severely the normal aspects of daily life, such as work, school, family, and marriage. When our physical life gives way to our virtual life, we can say to be addicted to Internet.

Information On the Causes Of Internet Addiction

A research published on The Us National Library of Medicine by National Institutes of Health reported that Internet addiction may be triggered by neurobiological vulnerabilities. Indeed, Internet instills a strong sense of pleasure in our brain. That is the same mechanism of any type of addiction.

When addicted, human brain releases a high level of dopamine associated with a sense of pleasure and emotional reward. Initially, this pleasurable sensation is perceived as positive and relaxing. Unfortunately, our neurochemical receptors tend to develop a tolerance threshold which, over time, requires a higher quantity of the addictive substance to feel the same pleasure of the early addiction stage.

It is by now indisputable that people spend many hours online because they find this type of activity more rewarding and pleasurable than reality. Always the above-mentioned research reported that the reward mechanism of the Internet is boosted by several platforms and devices.

The reward experience – the research reads– is intensified when combined with mood enhancing/stimulating content. Examples of this would be pornography (sexual stimulation), video games (e.g. various social rewards, identification with a hero, immersive graphics), dating sites (romantic fantasy), online poker (financial) and special interest chat rooms or message boards (sense of belonging)”.

With this wide range of rewarding online activity, the loop of the addiction becomes endless and unrestrainable. Other causes of Internet addiction may be biological and mental health vulnerabilities. People who have insufficient level of dopamine and serotonin experience very low levels of pleasure in the real life. Their Internet addiction may be a way to feel a pleasure they are unable to feel otherwise.

This cause is classified as biological predisposition. Mental health vulnerabilities, instead, regard people who suffers from chronical and previous mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, psychoticism, hostility, interpersonal sensitivity. It seems that these patients are more likely to suffer from Internet addiction.

But medical research does not provide further information about this further aspect of the matter. We only know that Internet addicted people affirmed that they forget the sad sensation of loneliness and isolation when they are online.

Internet Addiction Harmful Effects

Internet addiction disorder has unfortunately several negative effects. The most severe is the prolongment of time spent online: passed from 8 hours to 12 hours per day only from 2005 to 2006. The most of Internet users go online for leisure and this behavior often leads to overlook professional and academic careers, with lack of concentration, poor results, and scarce productivity.

Cybersex addiction, instead, may also lead to destroy marriage. Negative effects may also conduct the addicted patient to irritability, sleepless, further isolation, and depression.

The most severe effects are in young people, where isolation has the name of “hikikomori”, a Japanese word derived from the verb hiku (pull back) and komori (retreat). Hikikomori is the decision of isolating from the real world (closed in the bedroom) and spending the entire life connected to Internet. In this case, the addiction is a secondary consequence of the voluntary isolation.

This altered behavior may, in turn, lead patients to a complete inability to manage relationships in the real life. One of the worst effects of Internet addiction is suicide. It is more frequent on the social media, where more vulnerable people who experience and receive public attacks, such as in the cyber bullysm or body shame, may decide to commit an insane gesture because deprived of any opportunity to defend themselves.

Often, suicide from Internet addiction is the consequence of a severe depression triggered by the isolation. The latter is likewise due to the large number of hours, days and months spent online.

Internet Addiction Symptoms

Due to the large penetration and usage of Internet, it is very tricky to understand what are the exact symptoms of this disorder. A study by Giovanna Ricci, researcher at Unicam, Computer and Science Division of School of Science and Technology in Italy, reported that Internet addiction develops along three stages:

  1. Obsessive care about what is online, such as the check of email and mobile device during the day and long permanence on online chat rooms;
  2. Toxicophilia. A stage characterized by a long amount of time spent online, with a sense of discomfort toward the real life, a growing malaise as soon as you try to keep yourself distant from Internet, and sleepless triggered by the need to be always connected;
  3. Addiction. The final stage of the disorder, characterized by compulsive usage of the several online platforms, websites, and devices, (such as information overload, cybersex, or online gambling addiction), with negative consequences on family, social life, work, school, and relationships.

The mentioned research affirms that Internet addicted patients may also suffer from dissociative disorders. These disorders are characterized by a breakdown in the normal interaction among memory, conscience, emotion, identity, body perception, and behavior. It is not by chance that, after many hours spent online, users tend to become forgetful.

Scholars and scientists don’t know, yet, if Internet addiction causes dissociative disorders, it has been only seen that dissociated patients were Internet addicted, also.

However, a further study published in Korea in 2017 revealed that online gambling addicted patients showed altered decision-making processes.

In summary – the study says – most behavioral decision-making task studies have demonstrated that Internet Addiction is associated with a higher risk-taking propensity under ambiguous situations compared with controls. Neuroimaging findings have provided evidence of abnormal functioning in the prefrontal cortex associated with the planning and execution of subsequent motor responses during decision-making”.

In short, it seems that Internet Addiction may have negative effects on our brain, also.

But, for now, there aren’t further evidences that the disorder can alter our cognitive skills. It remains the mechanism of abnormal expectations triggered by the desire of immediate reward. As already said, that is the main mechanism of online platforms, where people are attracted by the principle of immediate satisfaction and reward.

If this expectation does not get met, Internet users go across frustration and enhanced reactivity or impulsive reactions. Can all this explain the irritability, jittery and frustration perceived by Internet addicted patients?

Unfortunately, we don’t have studies confirming this question, because it is still unclear if these reactions are triggered by personal vulnerabilities or by the Internet. Of course, the two phenomena interact each other.

The sad aspect is that when we are in the grip of Internet addiction is not so easy to get rid of it. Internet is physiologically and naturally addictive and built to make us always connected. Hence, how we can overcome this disorder? You’ll find the answer below.

Internet Addiction Treatment

Overcoming the Internet addiction disorder is not an impossible goal. Even though there are few proven studies about effective treatments for Internet Addiction, scientists suggested a double approach: psychological and not psychological. Let’s see how these two different kinds of treatments work.

  • Psychological treatment

The psychological treatment utilizes a behavioral approach to treat Internet addiction effectively. The treatment is performed by behavioral psychologists within the so called cognitive – behavioral psychotherapy. The latter is a specialistic field of psychology aiming to treat the unbalanced behavior of the Internet addicted patient. Behavioral strategies, indeed, help the patient restore a healthier usage of the World Wide Web.

Usually, behavioral strategies include the execution of daily or weekly exercises prescribed by the psychologist. They are structured by a set of goals and progressive results. To stop using mobile devices compulsively, the psychologist may suggest you to check your device only for two hours per day.

The psychological treatment, in fact, does not aim to completely stop using Internet, but to learn a more balanced approach with this new technology. Behavioral strategies may also be relational and involve your friends and relatives. Another therapeutic exercise may be the one to take a walk along with your partner as soon as you feel the urge to connect.

These are only examples; the real exercises will be prescribed by your psychologist. In case of previous vulnerabilities and relational problems, the psychological treatment may provide a further and different approach, such as entering a support group or a family psychotherapy.

Many behavioral strategies can also be performed by yourself if your addiction is not still so severe. Try turning off your mobile device per an hour per day; then, try turning off per two hours per day, trying also to abstain from your favorite app per a couple of days per week. Replace these habits with other things you loved before the Internet entered your life.

I tried these strategies by myself, and I must admit that not hearing sounds, rings and notifications helped me very much reduce my need to check my mobile device. I often replace the usage of Internet devices with a book, you could read a book on Internet addiction, for example. If you know your enemy from inside, you’ll have more power to defeat it!

To restore sleeping, instead, don’t check your mobile device at night! I resumed sleeping thanks to this latest habit. If you stay connected at night, your brain remains active and this condition leads to sleepless.

  • Not Psychological Treatment

The not psychological treatment should be used only in case of severe addiction with likewise severe damage of life balance and occurrence of serious symptoms such as anxiety and depression. In these cases, doctors used selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Always the research published on The Us National Library of Medicine by National Institutes reported that in 14 subjects with impulsive-compulsive Internet usage disorder, treated with the above-mentioned medication, “Internet usage decreased significantly from a mean of 36.8 hours/week to a baseline of 16.5 hours/week”.

Other studies discussed about the usage of bupropion (a not tricyclic antidepressant) and Methylphenidate (a psycho stimulant drug). The latter has been used to treat 62 Internet video-game addicted children diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder).

These treatments are subject to further trials and if you look for help about your Internet addiction, don’t take drugs, but ask your doctor who will be able to advise the most effective treatment for you.

Other researchers suggested that physical exercises increase the level of dopamine depleted by the intensive usage of the Internet and help overcome the related addiction.

That is why sport exercises prescribed by cognitive behavioral psychotherapy may be more effective than medications and drugs.

Conclusion

Internet Addiction has ruined and is still ruining our life. All this is happening all over the world: from China, to The United States, up to the emerging economies such as India and Malaysia and affects adults, students, and children. We are all victims of an unexpected revolution.

This troubled time, so filled with social distancing, lockdown and online working will escalate the risk to get more and more Internet addicted. In the past, we had only to look and listen to the Television. In the most of times, this device helped us grow and learn.

Nowadays, Internet devices allow us to interact with them and to contribute to their content. This aspect is, obviously, addictive, besides increasing human individualism, loneliness, and narcissism. None pays attention to others, but only to their own needs.

It is this way that Internet makes us believe to meet our desires, perpetuating the malevolent pattern of expectation and reward. This loop is fostered by Internet marketing, also, where people are repeatedly kept in a constant state of illusory need, because the more need they have, the more money they spend.

And when we are about to leave Internet, here is that we continuously receive online invitations to join social groups, to read newsletters, to subscribe promotional offers and so on. How hard is to be free from Internet by now! The trend is so growing that someone said that technology is sucking our soul!

Internet is a blessed opportunity and we don’t have to stop using it. It must only facilitate our life, not ruin it!

References & Bibliography

  1. Arthur Zuckerman – 46 Internet Addiction Statistics: 2019/2020 Data, Facts & Predictions – May 20, 2020 – https://comparecamp.com/internet-addiction-statistics/
  2. Kristiana Siste, Enjeline Hanafi, Lee Thung Sen, Hans Christian, Adrian, Levina Putri Siswidiani, Albert Prabowo Limawan, Belinda Julivia Murtani and Christiany Suwartono – The Impact of Physical Distancing and Associated Factors Towards Internet Addiction Among Adults in Indonesia During COVID-19 Pandemic: A Nationwide Web-Based Study – September 3, 2020 – www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.580977/full
  3. Giovanna Ricci G. – La Sindrome da dipendenza dal Web: cause, sintomi, effetti – PDF file – www.cs.unicam.it/devivo/riservata/informatica1/SindromeDaWeb.pdf
  4. Hilarie Cash, Cosette D Rae, Ann H Steel, and Alexander Winklerb – Internet Addiction: A Brief Summary of Research and Practice – 2012 Nov; 8(4): 292–298 – www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3480687/
  5. Dr. Giulia Calamai – Dipendenza da internet – July 26, 2020 – www.ipsico.it/sintomi-cura/dipendenza-da-internet/
  6. Yeon Jin Kim, Dai Jin Kim, Jung-Seok Choi – The cognitive dysregulation of Internet addiction and its neurobiological correlates – Frontiers In Bioscience, Elite, 9, 307-320, June 1, 2017 – www.bioscience.org/2017/v9e/af/804/2.htm.

Author: Rosalba Mancuso
Rosalba Mancuso is a medical journalist, an international content writer credited at the University of Washington and a blogger born in Sicily. She is popular for founding four websites in English. On Modernhealthinfo.com, Rosalba writes well researched and detailed health articles backed by her experience as a medical writer for pharma companies and as a PR assistant for a clinical analysis laboratory. She is also a member of the AHCJ, American Association of Health Care Journalists and Center for Excellence in Health Journalism.

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