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Internet Addiction: Why Is It Serious? And How Do We Treat It?

shutterstock_571061509How much is too much?

That’s the basic question behind many addictions.

In the case of the Internet and digital addictions, we could rephrase this as, “How much of a good thing is too much?”

More than two decades into the mainstreaming of the World Wide Web, we now find ourselves interdependent with — and dependent on — Internet use. It is the central means of most of our communications these days, particularly for business but also for social and personal use.

Let’s be honest: some great things have come from the Internet. We’re closer as a global community in many ways. Our access to valuable information has vastly expanded in a relatively short period. Our ability to accomplish more and be more productive has certainly been enhanced.

We’ve also begun to see long-term ramifications that have an increasing number of people concerned. The concept of “being addicted” to the Internet is becoming more prevalent, especially with the onset of smartphones and ‘normalizing’ of their use among youth from an early age.

How do we know when someone is “addicted” to the Internet or other technology? How do we go about treating this relatively new phenomenon?

Read on to discover more about Internet addiction, and how Capital Choice Counselling Group in Ottawa can help you or someone you love.

Is It an Addiction, or Isn’t It?

shutterstock_196910813Scientists and professionals in the fields of psychology and mental health have been engaged in a (mostly) healthy debate over Internet addiction. One side, in fact, would argue that it isn’t a true addiction because it involves not a substance but rather a behaviour. A substance (illicit drugs, alcohol, etc) affects a person physically and physiologically, they say, something that behaviour “addictions” cannot possibly replicate.

The other side of this debate points out that compulsive gambling is addiction that is now recognized by the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association. This “bible” of modern day psychiatry and mental health treatment had not previously accepted a behaviour as an addiction, but years of painstaking research and public debate eventually produced this official categorization for gambling addiction.

Evidence gathered on Internet addiction has shown it to be quite similar to gambling addiction in many ways. Yale psychiatrist and researcher Marc Potenza cites “things like the motivation to engage in the behaviors and put aside other important elements of life functioning, just to engage in them.” Basically, this is ‘behavior for behavior’s sake.’ Potenza has been recently treating patients who are unable to get off the Internet, and while he sees parallels to other behavioural addictions, he says that it is “more difficult to pin down a quantifiable, negative effect of Internet use.

In other words, how much is too much?

A gambling or drinking problem is usually more apparent, as the effects and consequences are visible to many more people. Internet addiction is trickier to spot, as nearly all of us are online to some degree these days, most without issue of addiction. And of the people who could be spending “too much” time online, it’s likely that they have not been told “how much is too much,” and are themselves unaware of their addiction or that their online behaviour is a problem.

Diagnosing an Internet Addiction

Untitled design (1)Although the DSM-5 doesn’t refer to this as an ‘official’ addiction, it’s becoming more and more apparent with the volume of patients seeking help that some serious issues have sprung forward, with serious consequences. Families find themselves torn apart. Relationships have suffered. Sadly, even suicide has occurred in numerous cases where an Internet addiction played a central role.

Diagnosis starts in much the same way, therefore, as an addiction to gambling, illicit drugs or alcohol.

One scenario occurs when a person realizes that he or she has addiction issues (either over time, or often with some sort of ‘rock bottom’ event or moment(s)). This is ideal. Of course we wouldn’t wish the most severe of the ‘rock bottom’ moments on anyone, as the damage can be harsh and lasting. We encourage people to come to terms with their addictions and “want to get help” of their own. In a perfect world, one could wake up one morning, look at their productivity and physical fitness going downhill, and conclude, “I’ve got a problem.”

Alas, that’s the minority of cases. The other and more common situation is when friends or family notice over time that their loved one is becoming distant, disinterested in things that used to give them pleasure (food, physical activity, outdoors, etc), and generally unproductive. In this case, it’s the person’s Internet use which causes these side effects. Many of us, however, could have no idea that a friend spends too much time online. That’s more likely to come from a parent or spouse, someone who spends much more time day to day and can see this Internet activity ratcheting up.

Often it’s a confrontation (or series thereof) that takes place, the proverbial “intervention” that sends an addict seeking treatment. Hopefully.

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of Guilt
  • Dishonesty
  • Euphoria while in front of a computer, phone, tablet, etc.
  • Lacking sense of time, can’t stick to a schedule
  • Isolated
  • Defensive
  • Easily agitated
  • Unproductive, avoids doing work
  • Headaches
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Sleep issues (too much or not enough)
  • Other pains or conditions not previously manifested


Untitled design (2)While an initial glance at online sources is fine in general, it is always better to seek help from a trained and experienced mental health professional to ensure that a proper diagnosis is provided, and that the most effective path of treatment can be mutually agreed upon.

The Science Behind Internet Addiction

If you’re keen on knowing more detailed, scientific explanations of how Internet addiction takes hold and escalates, here are a couple of articles on the neuroscience and “brain restructuring” that takes place.

Essentially, the internet has become a way for us to live in an alternate version of our current reality. Engagement on the various platforms (most notably social media) can lead to the release of dopamine, something that we used to get more from physical activity or other traditional sources. If we don’t get pleasure at work or school, and we don’t have to go out and hunt or catch our dinner (a la caveman), we might find ourselves looking for a different way get that release. This can lead to compulsive behaviour, something that escalates over time.

Social media is a huge factor in this modern addiction, and its role is getting bigger by the day. That’s an ironic name, though, isn’t it? The more time people spend on “social” media, the less social they tend to become. True (offline) social relationships are jeopardized, and family life is undermined.

As entrepreneur and Stanford lecturer Nir Eyal says, “what Facebook wants to create an association with is every time you’re bored, every time you have a few minutes. We know that, psychologically speaking, boredom is painful. Whenever you’re feeling bored, whenever you have a few extra minutes, this is a salve for that itch.”


shutterstock_315803288What can someone do to mitigate their Internet addiction?

We do not recommend a self-guided approach to treating this or any addiction. Our counsellors are professionally trained and have experience in this area, and thus are able to be your guide and partner on the journey to recovery.

Having said that, here are some basic steps that will help you better understand what that road could look like:

  • Understand what triggers you (the “why” behind your Internet addiction, what makes you “go to that place”)
  • Know the difference between online and offline interaction – and find more outlets and places in real-life where you can be calm, content and at peace
  • Build and strengthen the skills you have to cope with life and with your addiction (if you feel “shy,” for example, do more gradualy to talk with colleagues, classmates et al in person as opposed to the virtual sense)
  • Expand and strengthen your social (real-life) support network
  • Look for other “comorbid” issues that you may have, things happening at the same time that are feeding into and/or off your Internet addiction, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, etc.

Of course, the obvious one here is to cut back your use of technology that’s connected to the Internet and feeding your addiction. That’s a whole lot easier said than done. We can’t emphasize enough, it is vital to seek the help of a professional when addressing addiction treatment; if not from one of our counsellors at Capital Choice, then by all means from someone else who is trained to help.