Eight Signs Of Internet Addiction

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated June 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The digital age has provided us with many benefits, conveniences, and sources of learning and entertainment. However, it has also led to various forms of addiction for many people, and it can be challenging to escape given the ubiquity of internet connectivity via computers and mobile devices. Findings from the Pew Research Center show 93% of U.S. adults use the internet, and nearly one-third of adults report being online “almost constantly.”


There are effective treatments available regardless of the type of internet addiction disorder or symptoms a person experiences. Below, we’ll look at eight signs of internet addiction and ways to get help with overcoming these addictions.

What is internet addiction disorder?

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Are you or a loved one trying to overcome internet addiction?

Some might find themselves wondering, “Is internet addiction real?”

Although it’s not yet recognized as a diagnosable mental health condition in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), excessive and uncontrollable use of the internet and online devices—called internet addiction—is a genuine phenomenon that affects millions of people globally. 

In South Korea, a government survey concluded that around 20% of the population is at risk of developing an internet addiction. This equates to about 10 million people in just one country. 

Internet addiction can be described as an impulse control problem or behavioral addiction that involves excessively using online devices and becoming dependent on different types of online access, ranging from spending time on social networking sites to browsing forums or looking at pornography. It can eventually develop into a hindrance and control a person’s life in several ways.

Despite not being an official DSM-5 diagnosis, internet addiction or pathological internet use contains many of the same traits as any other addiction.

According to research published in Current Psychiatry Reviews, addictions tend to present with the following characteristics:

  • Salience

  • Compulsive use or loss of control

  • Mood modification (i.e., distress reduction)

  • Tolerance

  • Withdrawal

  • Persistence despite negative consequences

Globally, around 60% of internet users connect via mobile devices. For someone experiencing internet addiction, this means that even if they need to be away from their computers, they can still be connected, not notice any withdrawal symptoms, and potentially never gain awareness of their addiction. Internet addiction has the potential to affect social relationships, contribute to financial hardship, and lead to underperformance at work or school.

For those experiencing internet addiction, the rewards and stimulation can be so powerful that reasoning and emotional control are overridden—something often seen in other addictive behaviors as well. This is often linked to the release of “feel-good chemicals” when a person engages with various online sites and social media networks. 

There are multiple studies like the ones mentioned above and many mental health professionals who can validate that internet addiction exists based on current research and reports. While more research may be needed before it’s added to the DSM, you can find internet addiction support groups and professional addiction treatment options to help with internet addiction symptoms like the compulsive need to use the internet. 

Types of internet addiction

Not every person experiences internet addiction in the same way, and researchers have identified different types of internet addiction:

  • Cybersex (e.g., porn or webcam services)

  • Cyber-relationships (e.g., online dating, chat rooms)

  • Social media (e.g., use of public or semi-public profiles)

  • Gaming (e.g., gambling and online video games)

  • Compulsive information-seeking (e.g., scouring sources of information constantly)

While internet addiction is often divided into these groups in the literature, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and there can be overlap and interplay. For example, for many people, online gaming or social media use can foster online relationships that can consume much of their time.

What are the signs of internet addiction?

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Although there are no formalized diagnostic criteria for internet addiction in the DSM-5, extensive research has been carried out on internet addiction, and patterns have been recognized among individuals experiencing this addiction. The following eight behavioral patterns may indicate an internet addiction:

Preoccupation with being online

For someone experiencing this type of addiction, being online is frequently at the center of their focus. They may think often about previous online sessions or anticipate (and really look forward to) their next session.

Likewise, individuals experiencing this type of addiction may value interactions with people online more than spending time with their real-life family. 

More time online needed for more satisfaction

Being online can create very positive feelings and can be a source of stress relief for some people, but with increased and ongoing use, that positive effect often begins to wear off. This can lead to using the internet even more often or looking for new online activities that can generate the same pleasure.

With this type of addiction, individuals may spend excessive amounts of time on social media consumption, pornography use, and online gaming. They might also report negative emotions or anxiety symptoms when they’re not able to spend time online. 

Losing track of time

Sometimes, spending more time online isn’t always a deliberate, planned effort, and it’s common for people to stay online longer than they originally planned. Because of the stimulation, positive feelings, rewards, and reinforcement they receive, people can become absorbed by internet activities—especially online games, which could lead to an internet gaming disorder.

Signs and symptoms of an internet gaming disorder can be similar to gambling addiction or even substance use disorder.* 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Using the internet as an escape

The internet can make us feel good and provide a sense of relief, which means people may use their internet addiction to avoid anxiety or another mental disorder. This is not to be considered a sign of weakness, as anyone can use behaviors like internet use to temporarily feel good. However, for some people, the experience of relief can create a feedback loop that becomes addictive.

For example, university students and young people in school might use the internet to escape the stressors of excessive schoolwork and social pressures to achieve high grades. This can lead to psychological symptoms associated with internet addiction that subsequently lead to increased difficulties with the stressors they were trying to escape in the first place, creating a behavioral health loop. 

Moodiness when internet usage is limited

When offline for any amount of time, people experiencing an internet addiction can become restless, irritable, and even depressed if they can’t reconnect. This can be a sign of withdrawal.

Unsuccessful attempts to manage internet use

Even if someone wishes to spend less time on the internet and to do so, withdrawal symptoms may hinder these efforts. This can cause feelings of hopelessness and a continuation of the same online usage habits.

Loss or risk of lost opportunities

People experiencing internet addiction may neglect their social lives and even jeopardize opportunities at school and work. An internet addiction can lead someone to become less productive at home, work, or school, and it may lead to missed opportunities for socializing. 

Hiding internet usage from others

An internet addiction may result in someone trying to conceal or downplay how often they are actually online. This can mean lying to friends, family, and even therapists about usage.

All of these signs are based on internet addiction criteria developed by psychologist Kimberly Young, as outlined in a paper by Dr. Keith Beard and Dr. Eve Wolf in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior. If someone identifies with having at least five out of the eight characteristics, they may receive a diagnosis of internet addiction. 

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Are you or a loved one trying to overcome internet addiction?

Internet addiction treatment options 

Even if you don’t experience five of the above eight signs of internet addiction, you may benefit from speaking with a licensed counselor. Many therapists are trained in helping people change their behavioral patterns into ones that are helpful and productive. If you don’t feel comfortable visiting a therapist’s office to discuss internet addiction, you might consider online therapy, which has been shown to be just as effective as in-person therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that research shows can help reduce symptoms of internet addiction, and it can be provided online. 

With online therapy at BetterHelp, you can communicate with a therapist in a way that is most comfortable for you, whether by audio, videoconferencing, live chat, or a combination of these modalities. You can also contact your therapist at any time in between sessions, and they’ll respond as soon as they can. This may be helpful if you experience difficulty with internet usage in between sessions, as you can write down what you’re experiencing at the moment.

Takeaway

Internet addiction can manifest in ways and can have serious effects on a person’s relationships and overall well-being. If you’re experiencing symptoms of internet addiction, know that you’re not alone. Many people experience various forms of internet addiction, and professional treatment is available. 

With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed counselor who has experience treating internet addiction, and you can normally start therapy within 72 hours. Take the first step toward freedom from internet addiction and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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