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In today’s digital age, technology and the internet play significant roles in our lives. In fact, a recent study by Pew Research found that as much as 31% of Americans report that they are online almost constantly. And while the internet offers numerous benefits, it’s crucial to be mindful of the potential downside – internet addiction (disorder).

In this post, we will explore what internet addiction is, what causes it, why it’s a problem, its impact on the brain and behavior, as well as preventive measures and strategies to overcome it.

What is internet addiction?

Internet addiction, also known as problematic internet use or internet addiction disorder, refers to a condition characterized by excessive, compulsive, and problematic use of the internet and online activities.

It’s characterized by a loss of control over internet usage, leading to negative consequences in various areas of life. Individuals who are addicted to internet often feel a strong urge to constantly engage with their devices or online activities, even at the expense of their physical and mental well-being, relationships, work or school performance, and other important aspects of life.

How do you get addicted to the internet?

Several factors contribute to the development of internet addiction. Similar to other types of addiction, internet addiction involves a cycle of craving, reward, and withdrawal.

The instant accessibility, convenience, and stimulating nature of internet, including social media, video games, and online content all contribute to its addictive potential. The constant availability of digital stimuli and the fear of missing out (FOMO) on online interactions or information can further fuel these addictive behaviors.

Major problem(s) associated with internet addiction

Internet addiction poses significant problems due to its wide-ranging negative impacts on individuals, relationships, and society as a whole.

Here are several reasons why internet addiction is a cause for concern:

Impaired physical health. Excessive internet use often leads to a sedentary lifestyle, contributing to a lack of physical activity and increased risk of health problems like obesity, cardiovascular issues, musculoskeletal disorders, and sleep disturbances.

Decline in mental well-being. Internet addiction is associated with higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. In addition, constant exposure to social media and online platforms can lead to social comparison, feelings of inadequacy, and a distorted sense of reality.

Financial consequences. Some forms of internet addiction, such as online gambling or compulsive online shopping, can have severe financial consequences. Excessive spending on virtual items, gambling losses, or accumulating debt due to impulsive online purchases can lead to financial instability and significant personal and familial stress.

Cognitive impairment. Continuous exposure to the internet and frequent multitasking can negatively impact cognitive abilities such as memory, attention span, and critical thinking skills. The constant distractions and information overload associated with internet addiction can impair cognitive processes and hinder learning and problem-solving abilities.

Cybersecurity risks. Engaging in risky online behavior, such as sharing personal information or interacting with strangers, increases the likelihood of falling victim to scams, online predators, identity theft, or cyberbullying. Internet addiction can impair judgment and decision-making, making individuals more susceptible to these cybersecurity risks.

The effects on the brain

Research suggests that internet addiction can have significant effects on the brain, altering its structure, function, and neurochemical activity.

Here are some of the key ways internet addiction impacts the brain:

Illustration of a synapse and neurotransmitters.

Reward System Activation

Engaging in internet-related activities, such as social media interactions or playing video games, activates the brain’s reward system. These activities trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. Repeated exposure to rewarding stimuli leads to the reinforcement of addictive behaviors.

Dopamine Dysregulation

With continued internet use, the brain’s reward system becomes dysregulated. Over time, the brain begins to produce less dopamine or become less responsive to it, leading to a diminished sense of pleasure. Consequently, individuals may require more extensive or intense internet use to experience the same level of satisfaction, leading to tolerance and craving.

Impaired Impulse Control

Internet addiction can impair the brain’s ability to regulate impulses. The constant availability of digital stimuli and the anticipation of rewards associated with internet use can weaken the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions such as impulse control, decision-making, and self-regulation.

Altered Brain Structure

Prolonged internet addiction has been associated with structural changes in the brain. Neuroimaging studies have revealed alterations in gray matter volume and connectivity in brain regions involved in cognitive control, such as the prefrontal cortex, as well as regions associated with reward processing, such as the striatum. These structural changes may contribute to difficulties in impulse control, decision-making, and emotion regulation.

Disrupted Sleep Patterns

Internet addiction often involves late-night device use, which can interfere with sleep patterns. The blue light emitted by screens suppresses the release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles, leading to difficulty falling asleep and obtaining quality sleep. Sleep deprivation, in turn, can negatively impact cognitive function, mood, and overall brain health.

Neural Pathways and Reinforcement

Internet addiction can establish and reinforce neural pathways associated with addictive behaviors. Repetitive engagement in online activities strengthens the connections between brain regions involved in reward processing, memory, and motivation. This can contribute to the development of habitual and compulsive internet use patterns.

Overcoming Internet Addiction

Overcoming internet addiction requires a combination of self-awareness, strategies, and support. Here are some steps and techniques that can help someone overcome internet addiction:

  1. Set realistic goals: Establish specific targets for reducing screen time and gradually work towards achieving them.
  2. Create a schedule: Develop a structured daily schedule that includes dedicated time for offline activities, such as hobbies, exercise, social interactions, and self-care. Allocate specific time slots for internet use and stick to them.
  3. Practice digital detox: Take regular breaks from technology by designating certain days or hours as tech-free time to allow for relaxation, reflection, and engagement in offline activities.
  4. Identify triggers and replace habits: Identify the triggers or situations that lead to excessive internet use and start replacing internet use with healthier habits or activities, such as reading, exercising, or pursuing creative endeavors.
  5. Seek support: Reach out to friends, family, or support groups for encouragement and accountability, just be sure to clearly communicate goals and boundaries.
  6. Professional help: Consider seeking professional help from therapists or counselors who specialize in internet addiction or behavioral addictions. They can provide tailored guidance, support, and techniques to help you effectively overcome internet addiction.

Remember, overcoming internet addiction is a process that requires commitment, patience, and perseverance. Celebrate small victories along the way and focus on developing a healthy and balanced relationship with technology.

Preventing internet addiction in children:
What parents need to know

Prevention is key when it comes to internet addiction, particularly for children. Parents can take proactive steps to promote healthy internet habits, such as:

  • Setting limits on screen time
  • Encouraging physical activities and face-to-face interactions
  • Fostering open communication
  • Being good digital role models themselves

Educating children about the potential risks and responsible internet use is essential. Parents should stay informed about internet addiction and its potential risks. Being aware of the signs of addiction, fostering open communication with their children, and actively monitoring and guiding their internet use can greatly reduce the risk of addiction.

Additionally, promoting a balanced and diverse range of activities, providing positive reinforcement for offline pursuits, and being involved in their children’s digital lives can all contribute to a healthier relationship with the internet.

Woman showing her son how to responsibly use his smartphone.
Get Help for internet addiction with Enterhealth

Not everyone who’s tied to their computer or smartphone has a problem. But if you or someone you love has tried to cut back on internet use and can’t, we urge you to reach out to us. Our mental health professionals are specially trained and experienced in treating addictions and compulsive behaviors of all kinds.

We offer inpatient, outpatient, and even virtual treatment options, and all patients receive a customized treatment plan that’s uniquely tailored to address the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual elements that caused or accompanied their addiction.

Call us at 800.388.4601 today or fill out the form on our contact page today to get help overcoming internet addiction.