Internet addiction occurs when compulsive online or computer behavior begins to interfere with normal day-to-day life. Internet addiction also known as internet dependency or Compulsive Internet Use (CIU) has not been officially recognized as an addiction in the 5th edition of the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but it is listed under Conditions for Further Study, as a disorder that requires additional research. More and more attention is being brought to this addiction as it can have serious negative impact on wellbeing and can affect children and adolescents just as frequently as adults. Subtypes of Internet addiction include video game, social media, cybersexual, auctions, Internet gambling and excessive cell phone usage or texting.

An Internet addict makes the Internet the number one priority in their life and they reorganize their life around it. It can completely dominate every aspect of their life, as the addict is willing to sacrifice everything they cherish to maintain their behavior. Relationships, employment and social aspects of an addict's life suffer as a result.

Signs and symptoms

Internet addiction is a relatively new addiction, which can make it more difficult to recognize the warning signs.

Signs of Internet addiction can include:

  • Making excuses or lying in order to spend more time on the computer
  • Downplaying the amount of time spent on the Internet or gaming
  • Inability to control time spent on the computer (i.e., sitting down with the intent to play or browse for 15-20 minutes, but ending up spending hours at the computer)
  • Neglecting obligations and school or work responsibilities
  • Loss of interest in socializing or other previously enjoyed hobbies
  • Agitation, preoccupation, and disinterest when away from the game or computer
  • Feelings of intense pleasure or guilt in relation to gaming or computer use
  • Obsessive thoughts (i.e., constantly thinking about a game while doing other things)
  • Lack of attention to hygiene as a result of time spent gaming or on the computer
  • Skipping meals or sleep to stay on the computer or game
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut back or control usage
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Unable to keep schedules

Extended Internet addiction can also result in physical symptoms:

  • Carpal tunnel
  • Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
  • Migraines or headaches
  • Neck and back pain
  • Digestive problems
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Backache
  • Headaches
  • Blurred or strained vision

Effects

Internet addiction can impact all aspects of an addict's life. It impacts relationships with family, friends and other loved ones and can lead to social withdrawal. Many times Internet addicts begin to feel more comfortable interacting with people online rather than in person. In addition to the physical effects listed above, an addict can also suffer financial consequences, including bankruptcy, especially if the addiction is focused on auctions, shopping, gambling or gaming.

Causes and risk factors

Anybody can develop an Internet addiction, though studies have found that certain factors can increase the risk of developing the disorder:

  • Gender: research studying brain activity while playing video games suggest that males may be at a higher risk of developing video game addiction
  • Mental health: individuals who are anxious, depressed, or have low self-esteem can be especially susceptible to developing internet or video game addiction

Some researchers propose that children and teenagers are especially susceptible to video game addiction because video games offer a virtual alternative to the real world, presenting the player with control and freedom they may not experience in regular life.

Internet addiction may stem from social anxiety, especially in children and teenagers who may not have the skills to communicate with peers in real life and instead resort to Internet or gaming for social interaction. Specialists often suggest that Internet addiction could result from underlying mental health issues, and be used as an escape or coping mechanism.

Internet addiction affects brain chemistry just like any other addiction. Playing video games or browsing the Internet can cause a release of endorphins, neurotransmitters that create feelings of pleasure or euphoria. After long-term Internet use or gaming, the brain begins to associate these activities with the release of endorphins, leading to cravings and reliance on video games and computer use.

Researchers have related gaming addiction to gambling addiction, citing that both the behaviors can have similar motivators: a hard-to-reach goal or challenge combined with many small "wins" or successes that cause a rush of pleasure and encourage the addict to continue playing.

Treatment

Cognitive behavioral therapy, counseling and limiting an addict's access to computers or the Internet are the most common forms of treatment for Internet addiction. Support groups can also be a valuable resource and can help compensate for the loss of online social interaction. Residential treatment centers for extreme cases also exist. Since Internet addiction is commonly linked to other mental disorders treating the underlying cause can be the most effective method. Medications may be prescribed to treat anxiety or depression.

Treating Internet addiction in children may be especially tricky if the child's peers and friends are playing the same games. The time that was previously spent playing games or staying on the computer now needs to be filled with other activities. Professionals suggest specialized camps or retreats for children and adolescents, as taking them out of their natural environment can help reorient the child and put their addiction in perspective. Introducing and encouraging other hobbies is also suggested.