Why internet addiction is a problem – the signs, risks, and how to keep children safe

Internet addiction is a behavioural addiction which can see a person spending greater amounts of time online, to the point where it is seriously affecting their life. The risks include relationship problems, health issues, problems at work and obesity.

Internet addiction can co-exist with other underlying mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety. Links with gambling, pornography, gaming and shopping addiction are common, likely due to the 24/7 access the internet provides to each of these things.

Internet addiction affects young people too. They are spending increasing amounts of time online so internet addiction is a very real risk. An Ofcom report found the internet had overtaken television as a pastime, with even children as young as 3-4 spending over 8 hours a week online.

What are the signs of internet addiction?

There are some common signs of internet addiction that you may recognise in yourself or a loved one. Spending increasingly long periods of internet time, particularly for non-work related reasons, is the obvious one. An addict may also:

  • actively look forward to using the internet
  • become irritable or annoyed when access to the internet or a device is cut off
  • constantly check their devices (particularly during the night)
  • use the internet to relieve stress
  • retreat into online gaming or social media for social interaction
  • lose interest in activities they used to enjoy

It can feel easy to dismiss some signs as merely normal - everyone is online these days. However, persistent usage can begin to negatively affect a person's life. This addiction will eventually hurt personal relationships, your health, and your work. Some people believe their internet use is a form of stress management. In reality the opposite is true.

Internet addiction can also fuel other addictions (for example gambling or shopping). It doesn't feel like you're really spending money when the transaction happens online; this makes spending large sums easier. This kind of spending can put a strain on your own mental wellbeing and also your relationships.

There may also be additional cognitive issues involved with internet addiction. Dr Adam Alter, in an interview with the New York Times, suggests another of the drawbacks of excessive internet use is its negative effect on memory and initiative. He cites having everything at your fingertips through a smartphone as part of the problem.

Where internet addiction starts

Lucinda Pollard, Therapy Services Manager at The Priory Hospital Woodbourne, says: “The challenge lies in being endlessly surrounded by technology that can support your access to the internet. Whilst this indicates a sign of how socially we have changed, it equally shows how challenging treatment can be for individuals.

"The addictive behaviour triggers the release of dopamine to promote the pleasurable experience. Over time, we require more and more of the same activity to create the same release of dopamine as at the beginning - this creates a dependency.

"Another effect which can have an impact are the emotional and physical responses you experience. For example, you can log onto a social media site, such as, Instagram, and when scrolling through your friends' posts you may be happy to see a friend is due to have a baby, another has just bought a house, or someone else has achieved their weight loss target. This element of unpredictability, but also guaranteed emotional and physical response, keeps you entertained and wanting to keep going back. However, this can become the problem when the effects on your emotional or physical health become negative. A range of issues, from depression, anxiety, fear of missing out, to neck pain, poor personal hygiene, weight gain or loss. You may also be placing yourself in risky environments such as chat rooms etc."

How to help a child addicted to the internet

Internet addiction can be particularly potent in young people. Ofcom’s report highlighted huge increases in the ownership of digital devices in those under-18. Even those as young as 3-4 are using them frequently. Young people can be impressionable and exposure to significant online content, for example through social media, can leave them at risk of cyberbullying, body shaming, addiction and more. The longer they spend seeking social interaction through online means the more isolated from forming real friendships they become.

As parents, you can help your children by setting a good example. Spend time interacting as a family rather than spending each evening watching television. Once your working day is over, put your devices away and leave emails for the morning. Try to avoid using devices in front of young children as much as you can, and don't use devices as 'digital dummies' and try to occupy children with phones, computers or tablets. For older children, impose deadlines for a cut-off time. This will discourage them from playing computer games or chatting with friends until late.

These simple suggestions can help have a positive effect on the wellbeing of both you and your family. Becoming closer as a family and having more 'family time' together can have a positive impact on you all. For those who are struggling to break away from their devices, counselling and therapy is available to help. Looking for the right support can help you start to rebuild your life.

If internet addiction is affecting either you or a loved one, Priory offers a free addiction assessment. For further information on the full range of Priory Services, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to make an enquiry.