What Is Internet Addiction?

Internet Addiction Photo courtesy of Addiction ResourceOpens in new window

Internet addiction (IA) is a recent phenomenon which describes a state where people become so involved in online behavior to the detriment of other aspects of their lives. Addiction of any kind is traditionally associated with an uncontrollable urge, often accompanied by a loss of control, a preoccupation and continued use despite negative consequences.

The phenomenon of Internet addiction has many related terms, including Internet Addiction (IA), Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), Internet dependency or Internet dependence (ID), Pathological internet use or Problematic internet use (PIU), excessive internet use, and impulsive-compulsive internet usage disorder (IC-IUD). Regardless of the term used, these behaviors have been defined as non-chemical or behavioral addictions which involve human-machine interactions (Griffiths, 1995).

Internet addiction (IA) is typically defined as a condition where an individual has lost control of their Internet use and proceeds to use the Internet excessively to the point where he/she experiences problematic consequences which ultimately have a negative effect on his/her life (Kardefelt-Winther, 2014; Scimeca et al 2013).

Young (1998) has been credited with devising the term Internet addiction disorder (IAD) which was used to describe excessive and problematic Internet use displaying features such as preoccupation and an inability to cut back on their usage of the Internet (Murali and George, 2007).

Researchers have endeavoured to classify Internet addiction (IA) into several different categories and as Murali and George (2007) explain, this feat was achieved by Young (1999) who categorized (IA) into the following five categories:

  1. Cybersexual addiction
  2. Cyberrelational addiction
  3. Computer addiction (which includes activities such as game-playing)
  4. Information overload (including uncontrollable database searching) and finally
  5. Net compulsion (which includes tasks such as gambling or shopping on the Net).

However, Griffiths (2000) argues that many of these are not Internet addicts but merely using the Internet as a medium to fuel a different addiction completely and highlights how there is a need to distinguish and differentiate between addiction to the Internet as opposed to addictions on the Internet.

Due to a lack of research, testing and validity of the term ‘Internet addiction’ many critics have suggested that maladaptive, excessive or problematic Internet use (PIU) should replace the term ‘Internet addiction’ (Murali and George, 2007).

Once the principle that people can become addicted to the Internet is accepted a further problem exists as the Internet consists of many different activities such as e-mailing, browsing information, file transferring, etc. and some Internet activities are more addictive than others (Griffiths, 1997).

Examining Addiction and Internet Addiction

In the same manner as an alcoholic who needs to consume large amounts of alcohol to achieve satisfaction, an Internet addict routinely spends a significant amount of time online and may go to great lengths to disguise their online activity and the extent of their Internet behavior (Young, 2004).

The Internet is capable of and does create obvious changes in mood with almost 30% of Internet users having admitted to Internet use in a bid to reduce negative feelings or mood, hence they are using the Internet like a drug (Greenfield, 1999).

Many believe that addiction is a term which should only be applied to the ingestion of a drug (Young, 1999a; Griffiths and Pontes, 2014).

Although some individuals’ views have moved on to include several different behaviors which do not involve the use of an intoxicant and include compulsive behavior such as gambling, playing video games, overeating, exercise, love relationships as linking the term addiction solely to drugs does not prohibit its use for similar conditions which do not involve drugs.

Despite the restrictive definition of addiction there is however no grounds for linking the word addiction solely to drug habits and there is no basis to assume that the most severe addictions automatically involve the use of drugs and therefore the term should not be limited solely to drug use (Alexander and Schweighofer, 1988; Griffiths and Pontes, 2014).

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as a chronic brain disorder which officially proposes that for the first time ever that addiction is not limited to substance abuse only.

Addictions, whether they are chemical or behavioral do share certain characteristics which include salience, compulsive use (loss of control) modifications in the individual’s mood, alleviation of distress, tolerance, withdrawal and the continuation despite the negative consequences (Cash et al, 2012).

Abuse is different in that it is a milder form of an addiction which can worry and create problems for the user but the user is better equipped and has better control over their behavior allowing them to set limits and regulate their use.

Addiction and abuse of the Internet will both result in consequences such as the student who is obsessively using social media sites to chat with friends loses valuable study time resulting in poor academic performance and the employee who spends too much time surfing the Internet during his/her working hours will result in poor job productivity and may lead to further actions such as job loss.

The major elements which make up an addiction include the fixation on a specific substance or activity which the individual partakes in despite continual, failed attempts to decrease it and the development of mood disturbances as a direct result of these failed attempts (Christakis, 2010).

Christakis (2010) also highlights that signs of an addiction are both a greater usage than expected or wanted which can lead to possible loss of employment, jeopardizing both relationships and education or lying about actual usage.

While instances such as these are present and can be seen within Internet usage there is a strong foundation that there is an issue with pathological Internet usage and the argument is no longer about the existence of Internet addiction as a condition but rather how widespread it is (Christakis, 2010).

What Are Internet Addicts Addicted To?

There remains no clear and concise reason as to what Internet addicts become addicted to however many suggestions have been proposed including: the physical process of typing, the communication properties the Internet offers, information attained from a wide range of different Internet sites and the allure of applications such as e-mail, gambling, pornographic material, video games are just a few of the many possibilities to attract addicts to the Internet along with the anonymity that it also offers (Murali and George, 2007).

Past studies have revealed an association with Internet addiction and psychological variables including shynessOpens in new window, lonelinessOpens in new window, self-consciousness, anxietyOpens in new window, depressionOpens in new window and interpersonal relations (Ahmadi et al. 2014; Zhu et al. 2015).

Individuals who experience social anxietyOpens in new window may compensate for these feelings of loneliness which they experience by socializing in a game or via social networking sites as they feel safer in online environments due to the sense of anonymity. Such cases where using the Internet relieves an unfulfilled, real-life problem may lead to problematic outcomes and debate as to whether this can be called Internet addiction are ongoing (Kardefelt-Winther, 2014).

The Internet is used by many shy individuals to avoid face to face interaction. They often choose to engage with others in Internet relay chat and virtual multiuser domains (Murali and George, 2007).

The addictive potential offered by these massive multiplayer online roles playing games (MMORPGs) has led some people to refer to them as heroin ware (Murali and George, 2007).

Christakis (2010) highlights how reality games which allow people to assume different identities or join forces with team members from all over the globe may pose the greatest risk of addiction. In these worlds, a continuous online presence is vital and going offline may often incur penalties. Such games have a large profit margin and the makers of such games have an incentive to create games which are addictive in nature.

Whether it may be playing games online or the use of the Internet as a medium for communication, there is a differentiation in those which are addicted to the Internet itself as against those using the Internet as a means of fueling a different addiction (Griffiths, 1998).

How to Diagnose Internet Addiction?

Young identified eight questions for Internet addiction according to 10 criteria for pathological gambling in the DSM-IV:

  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 relationship, 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 for relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)?

Patients were considered “addicted” when answering “yes” to five (or more) of the questions, and when their behavior could not be better accounted for by a Manic Episode. A cut-off score of “five” was consistent with the number of criteria used for Pathological GamblingOpens in new window, and was seen as an adequate number of criteria to differentiate normal from pathological addictive Internet useOpens in new window.

It should also be noted that a patient’s denial of addictive use is likely to be reinforced from the encouraged practice of utilizing the internet for academic or employment-related tasks. Therefore, even if a patient meets all eight criteria, these symptoms can easily be masked as “I need this as part of my job,” “It’s just a machine,” or “Everyone is using it” due to the internet’s prominent role in society.

Ivan Gordenberg put forward seven criteria for how to identify Internet addiction, which coincide with Young’s scale. He stresses that the following six are central to internet addiction:

  1. Salience: Internet use occupies the user’s thinking and behavior.
  2. Tolerance: Internet users continue to increase time and effort in order to obtain satisfaction.
  3. Withdrawal symptoms: Negative physiological response and negative emotions caused by a cessation from the internet.
  4. Conflict: The use of the internet conflicts with daily activities or interpersonal communication.
  5. Relapse: The internet addiction recurs even after remission and treatment.
  6. Mood alteration: The internet is used to change a negative state of mind.

Shapira et al., argues that Internet addiction is an impulse control hurdle, where the core of the problem lies in the individual’s strong desire for the internet, thus weakening the individual’s life in many aspects. His diagnostic criteria are: “not properly focused on the use of the internet,” and have the following:

  1. An irresistible strong desire to use the internet
  2. Use of the internet for unexpected amounts of time
  3. Use of the internet causes significant clinical pain or social occupational or other important functional impairment
  4. Excessive use of the internet does not appear in a manic or hypomanic period, and cannot be explained by other diagnoses.

The China Youth Internet Association developed the following criteria for determining addiction in 2005. The criteria have one prerequisite and three conditions. The prerequisite is that the internet addiction must severely jeopardize a young person’s social functioning and interpersonal communication. An individual would be classified as an internet addict as long as he or she meets any one of the following three conditions:

  1. One would feel that it is easier to achieve self-actualization online than in real life
  2. One would experience dysphoria or depression whenever access to the internet is broken or ceases to function
  3. One would try to hide his or her true usage time from family members.

Specific symptom criteria include: long term, repeated use of the internet, the purpose of using the internet not to learn and work or not conducive to their own learning and work, in line with the following symptoms:

    1. Having a strong desire or impulse to the use of internet
    2. Whole body discomfort, irritability, inability to concentrate, disordered sleep, and other withdrawal reactions that appear when reducing or stopping internet use; the withdrawal reaction may also be eased via the use of other similar electronic media (such as television, handled game, etc.)
    3. At least meeting one of the following five: (1) increasing use of internet time and input level to achieve satisfaction; (2) difficulty controlling the beginning, end and duration of internet use even after repeated efforts to stop, (3) stubborn use of the internet regardless of its obvious harmful consequences; (4) reducing or abandoning other interests, entertainment or social activities because use of the internet; (5) use of eh internet to escape problems or alleviate negative emotions.
  1. Akin, A., & Iskender, M. (2011). Internet addiction and depression, anxiety and stress. International online Journal of Educational Sciences, 3 (1), 138 – 148.
  2. Alexander, B. K., & Schweighofer, A.R. (1988). Defining addiction. Canadian Psychology, 29 (2), 151 – 162. doi:10.1037/h0084530
  3. Cash, H. D., Rae, C. H., Steel, A., & Winkler, A. (2012). Internet addiction: A brief summary of research and practice. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8(4), 292 – 298. doi:10.2174/157340012803520513 PMID:23125561.
  4. Griffiths, M. (2000). Internet addiction-time to be taken seriously? Addiction Research, 8(5), 413 – 418. doi:10.3109/16066350009005587
  5. Murali, V., & George, S. (2007). Lost online: An overview of Internet addiction. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 13(1), 24 – 30. doi:10.1192/apt.bp.106.002907.
  6. Davis RA (2001) A cognitive-behavioral model of pathological Internet use. Comput Hum Behav 17(2):187 – 195.
  7. Chen SH, Weng LZ, SU YR et al (2003) Study on the establishment of Chinese Internet Addiction and the level of depression. Procedia-Soc Behav Sci 114:831-839.
  8. Chen SH, Weng LZ, SU YR et al (2003) Study on the establishment of Chinese Internet Addiction and the level of depression. Procedia-Soc Behav Sci 114:831-839.
  9. Shapira NA, Goldsmith TD, Keck PE, Khosla UM, McElroy SL (2000) Preliminary communication: psychiatric features of individuals with problematic internet use. J Affect Disord 57: 267 – 273.