What Is Internet Addiction?
More a popular idea than a scientifically valid concept, internet addiction is the belief that people can become so dependent on using their mobile phone or other electronic devices that they lose control of their own behavior and suffer negative consequences. The harm is alleged to stem both from direct involvement with the device—something that has never been proven—and from the abandonment of other activities, such as studying, face-to-face socializing, or sleep.
In addiction involving substance use, consumption ceases being pleasurable but continues and is difficult to escape even as the likelihood of harm to body and life mounts. Behavioral addiction is far less understood, and the concept is far more controversial: Experts debate where the line should be drawn between passionate absorption in any activity—say, devoting a lot of time to playing the cello or reading books—and being stuck in a rut of compulsivity that stops being useful and detrimentally affects other areas of life.
Internet addiction is a particularly big concern among parents, who worry about the harmful effects of screen time and often argue about device use with their children. According to a 2019 survey conducted by Common Sense Media, children aged 8 to 12 now spend 5 hours a day on digital devices, while teens clock more than 7 hours—not including schoolwork. Teen screen time is slowly ticking upwards, and most teens take their phones to bed with them.
How Addictive Is the Internet?
There’s no question that use of electronic devices is extremely widespread. Much of work life, schoolwork, social life, and recreation is now conducted via computer. And time devoted to use of computers (or anything else) comes at the cost of other activities, including outdoor play and face to face conversation, the lifeblood of relationships.
It is also the case that many apps—social media and video games particularly— are designed by experts to capture attention, provide an array of instant rewards for engaging (think: Facebook “likes” and the pings of text messages), and reinforce continued involvement so that it’s hard to pull away. But screen time also typically serves some positive need, such as social connection. Further, experts point out, “internet addiction” lacks one of the most the distinctive features of addictive disorders—users do not develop tolerance and constantly need more and more screen time.
Most often, the word “addiction” is used in the colloquial sense. Common Sense Media finds that 59 percent of parents “feel” their kids are addicted to their mobile devices—just as 27 percent of the parents feel that they themselves are. Sixty-nine percent of parents say they check their own devices at least hourly, as do 78 percent of teens.
Spending a lot of time on the internet seems to have become normal behavior, especially for adolescents. Much of their social activity has simply moved online. Like any new technology, the computer has changed the way everyone lives, learns, and communicates.
Is Internet Addiction a Mental Disorder?
In preparing the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatrists and other experts debated whether to include internet addiction. They decided that there was not enough scientific evidence to support inclusion at this time.
Can computer use be problematic? Definitely. It can displace such important needs as sleep, homework, and exercise, often a source of friction between parents and teens. It can have negative effects on real-life relationships. Many of those who’ve struggled to balance computer use with other activities recommend such simple “digital detox” measures as leaving devices in the kitchen or any other room but the bedroom at night.
Time online is also sometimes used as an escape from boredom or relief from loneliness or other unpleasantness. Occasionally, excessive internet use masks a state of depression or anxiety. In such cases, digital engagement becomes an attempt to remedy the feelings of distress caused by true mental health disorders that could likely benefit from professional or other attention.
Internet addiction might best be viewed not as a mental disorder per se but as a metaphor, a shorthand for, “my child spends a lot of time on social media, texting friends, or playing video games, and I’m worried how it will affect his or her future development and success.”