Click. Scroll. Double-tap. Repeat.

It’s almost impossible to imagine our lives without the internet. You can video chat with friends and family halfway across the globe, order takeout from your favorite local spot, check in with coworkers located in a different part of the country, and laugh at a funny video created by a person you’ve never met before–all from your chair. But as the saying goes, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. 

Internet addiction is a growing public health threat that is causing neurological, psychological, and social problems. As is the case with any type of addiction like that of drugs, sex, gambling, or overeating, the consequences can be drastic and severely impact a person’s day-to-day functioning. Learn how to recognize the signs of internet addiction and what you can do about it. 

Is Internet Addiction a Real Thing?

Funnily enough, the origins of internal addition started off as a joke. The term, coined in the early days of the internet’s existence by Dr. Ivan K. Goldberg, was a parody ailment that included a list of symptoms. To his surprise, his disorder was well-received by his peers, who flocked to him confessing their own suspected addictions to the nascent digital connectivity.

Internet addiction disorder (IAD) as it is formally dubbed, is not yet an officially recognized disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). A topic of controversy, psychiatrists continue to debate whether internet addiction is a “real” condition or not and whether it merits being added to the definitive list of mental disorders. However, the DSM does acknowledge that related issues such as internet gaming disorders should be further researched and the World Health Organization had its first-ever meeting about excessive internet use in 2014 and continues to monitor the issue, which they said in 2018 “has reached the magnitude of a significant public health concern.”

Despite the lack of official, and thus standardized, criteria for defining and diagnosing internet addiction, proponents agree on the overarching belief that problematic internet use is a legitimate disorder with the potential to cause serious disruption to a person’s everyday life. 

How Much is Too Much?

Although young enough for a significant chunk of the population to remember a pre-digital world (the internet wasn’t around until 1991), online access has quickly become integral to our society. We turn to it for work, play, education, entertainment, and even romance. According to a 2022 report, there are 5 billion internet users, approximately 63% of the global population. Even more staggering is how much time users are spending online, averaging nearly 7 hours online per day–a number that continues to grow.

However, internet addiction isn’t just defined by the amount of time a person spends on their phone or computer, but by their behavior and relationship to their online activities.   

Signs of Internet Addiction

Excessive internet usage has become a growing concern as social media and streaming platforms have pushed digital content consumption to record highs. A growing body of research is discovering just how harmful the consequences of such behavior can be, many of which meet the criteria to qualify as an addiction. Empirical studies have found 0.3% and 38% of their respective samplings to qualify for the diagnostic criteria for internet addiction which include:

  • Preoccupation with the internet (constantly thinking about their next browsing session)
  • A need to use the internet for increasing amounts of time in order to feel satisfied
  • Struggle to limit, reduce, or stop their internet usage
  • Restless, moody, irritable, or depressed when trying to cut back on usage
  • Staying online longer than originally intended
  • Jeopardized or caused the loss of a job, relationship, and/or educational or career opportunity because of internet use
  • Lies to others about the extent of their internet usage
  • Uses the internet to escape from their problems or relieve negative feelings

Similar to those with substance abuse disorders, internet-addicted persons can exhibit withdrawal behaviors, tolerance, and negative consequences. These individuals continue excessive or problematic internet use despite the harm they cause. Some studies have even witnessed physiological symptoms of internet addiction including nausea, tremors, sweating, fatigue, anger, and irritability.  

Getting Help for Internet Addiction

What do you do when mindless browsing and scrolling cross the line from harmless fun to too much? Although there is not yet a universal definition of what internet addiction is, numerous experts have observed that compulsive, excessive, or problematic online use can be a symptom of another mental illness.

Attempting total abstinence from the internet is highly unrealistic in today’s modern society. Instead, individuals should speak with a mental health professional to learn how to control their internet usage and determine whether there is an underlying mental illness that may be the culprit for this behavior.