Internet addiction: symptoms, causes and treatment

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Page clinically reviewed by Claire Rimmer (BA (Hons), Dip.Psychology, FDAD (NCAC)), Lead Addiction Therapist at Priory Hospital Altrincham, in March 2024.

Internet addiction can cover a wide variety of problems, from compulsions to use social networking sites, through to shopping, gambling and pornography. Online addiction has been brought sharply into public awareness over the last few years due to a number of concerning headlines.

Often described as an impulse control disorder, internet addiction is a behavioural addiction that doesn’t involve the use of substances in order to feel desired side effects. If you have an internet addiction, the desire to go online may take priority over other aspects of your life.

Much like the relationship people experience when they're addicted to drugs and alcohol, heavy and repeated internet use can lead to them building up a tolerance to the pleasurable effects of using the internet or playing an online computer game. This can cause you to feel the urge to spend increasingly longer periods online to achieve the same effect.

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Priory is currently offering 10% off private self-pay addiction inpatient treatment, for admissions until 31st August inclusive. Get a free initial assessment with a therapist, to help you take the first step towards recovery. Call us on 0330 056 6023 to find out more. T&Cs apply.

Symptoms of internet addiction

Like any other compulsive behaviour such as gambling, spending long hours on the internet to shop, browse or game, can produce a rush of dopamine, the brain chemical associated with pleasure. This creates an experience that's similar to that of a drug-induced high, which can be the catalyst for developing symptoms of internet addiction.

  • No longer engaging in activities that you once enjoyed
  • Spending most waking hours online
  • Anger or agitation if you're asked to step away from your device of choice
  • Lying about your internet use
  • Concealing your internet use
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Aches and pains from lack of movement
  • Digestive problems
  • Change in physical appearance/no longer paying attention to grooming or hygiene
  • Unintended weight loss or weight gain
  • Poor concentration capabilities
  • Trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy
  • Memory impairment
  • Irritable mood
  • Social isolation
  • Employment problems
  • Strained interpersonal relationships
  • Academic difficulty

What causes internet addiction?

Addiction to the internet can be compared to other forms of addiction such as alcohol or drugs, in the sense that it can provide a type of escape or 'high' for some users. This is especially true when considering the release of your brain’s ‘happy chemical’, dopamine, which is released when playing a computer game, interacting with people online, or receiving ‘likes’ for content that you've posted on social media. This mood altering effect thereby increases your desire to repeat the process in order to attain the same feeling.

Those with other pre-existing addictions or mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, can be more predisposed to having an internet addiction. The secluded behaviour of internet addiction can actually increase unwanted symptoms of co-existing mental health conditions, due to us needing social interaction to feel increased self-confidence, relieve feelings of mental illness and boost mood. Treatment at Priory involves treating the symptoms of related mental health conditions first, in the hope that this would address the severity of an internet addiction.

Situational issues such as loneliness and a general difficulty making and maintaining relationships can lead to an unhealthy amount of internet use. This is particularly the case if you're looking to replicate such emotional attachment with chat rooms, social networking and virtual communities.

Long term effects of internet addiction

As with any addictive behaviour, if you find yourself unable to control your internet use, all other aspects of your life will begin to suffer in some way. Left untreated, an internet addiction may result in the following negative effects:

  • Job loss
  • Academic failure
  • Loss of friendships
  • Health problems (for example, dry eyes, headaches, stiffness, neck and back problems)
  • Financial hardship
  • Onset of other mental health conditions
  • Withdrawal symptoms when you can't access the internet (for example, panic, anger, irritability and fear)

However, when you choose to get professional help for an addiction to the internet, these effects can be remedied or avoided altogether.

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We recognise that reaching out for help can be daunting. That’s why we offer a free addiction assessment with a Priory expert at your nearest Priory hospital. Call our dedicated team today to arrange an assessment.

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Treatment for internet addiction

While many people are able to detach themselves from the daily use of technology, it can be more difficult for others to switch off. If virtual worlds and online friends have become more important than the relationships you have in the ‘real world’, and you feel anxious without them, then it's a sign that you need a period of abstinence in order to regain control of your life.

Internet addiction treatment at Priory is delivered via a number a methods, including a 12-step rehabilitation programme, group therapy, abstinence and counselling.

At your free assessment, recommendations for suitable treatment will be discussed. Usually this will be outpatient one-to-one therapy with a specialist addiction therapist, but depending on your individual needs and/or co-morbid mental health concerns/diagnosis, a further assessment with a specialist addiction psychiatrist may be recommended.

Because there's no medications that can specifically treat internet addiction, a treatment programme will focus on the thoughts and behaviours you have that contribute to a compulsive urge to go online.

Therapy for internet addiction

Therapy sessions for internet addiction aim to encourage ways you can reduce the amount of time spent on the internet, with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), behavioural activation techniques and family therapy being effective methods of reaching this goal.

CBT for addictions helps you to understand the impact that internet addiction has on your relationships with others, as well as teaching you methods of managing your thoughts and behaviours that lead to compulsive internet use, in a more positive manner.

Behavioural activation aims to increase activity levels and focus on ways that you can prevent feeling the need to avoid other activities through your internet use, and help you to find alternative hobbies which can help improve your mood and overall wellbeing.

Family or relationship counselling can be useful if your internet addiction has affected the family unit or caused problems in your relationships. It allows you to work through unresolved issues that might be affecting existing relationships, while marriage-specific counselling works towards improving communication and re-establishing an intimate bond between you and your partner, if you have turned to the internet to fill such a void.

Self-help for internet addiction

Internet addiction therapy at Priory includes self-help groups and behavioural talking therapies focused on abstinence and understanding more about why you may turn to excessive internet use.

The goals of self-help and therapy sessions for overcoming internet addiction include:

  • Helping you to identify how internet addiction has impacted your life
  • Working with you to try and understand if there are any underlying mental health issues that may be causing you to compulsively use the internet as a coping mechanism
  • Shifting a negative relationship with the internet into a positive one by finding new outlets for coping with the stresses and strains of daily life

Save 10% on addiction treatment

Our free addiction assessment explained

Priory is currently offering 10% off private self-pay addiction inpatient treatment, for admissions until 31st August inclusive.

Get a free initial assessment with a therapist, to help you take the first step towards recovery. T&Cs apply.

  • Work with world-class addiction specialists
  • Network of rehabilitation centres nationwide
  • Range of therapeutic techniques used, including equine therapy

Private medical insurance

We are a registered and approved provider for all of the UK's leading private medical insurers. All of the services we offer at Priory can be funded through private medical insurance. This includes:

  • Mental health treatment
  • Addiction treatment
  • Eating disorder treatment

All clients will have access to our highly skilled and accredited clinicians, many of whom are published experts in their fields of treatment. Whatever your requirements, we're committed to working with you to get your life back on track.

Registered and approved provider

We are a registered and approved provider for all of the UK's leading private medical insurers.

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