Online, all the time?

Some people count compulsive use of the internet – usually for social networking or game playing – as an addiction

The incidence of ‘internet addiction’ is unclear. In terms of ‘normal use’, it is reported that 99 per cent of UK children aged 8–17 have access to the internet and at least a third of those aged 3–4 use the internet.

At the top of the internet to-do list are schoolwork, gaming and social networking. Studies suggest that 84 per cent of children aged 8–15 regularly play online games, and that 52 per cent of 8–16s ignored the minimum age requirement on Facebook when signing up. This, combined with the increase in access to technology such as smartphones and tablets – with over a third of children aged 5–15 now having their own tablet – shows the ever-increasing use of the internet by young people.

But when does internet use become over-use, and when does over-use turn into addiction?

Why is the internet addictive?

Games can be addictive, in the loose sense of the word, because of their constantly repeated challenges and rewards, often moving through skill levels that reinforce the player’s interest. The immersion in a fictional world may reduce interest in dealing with people in the real world outside, though this may only affect people already seeking escape.

The internet in general mimics this to an extent. With boundless information available, the user may feel a sense of reward from gaining more and more information – whether that be formal information from Wikipedia or yet another cat video.

With so much available at the click of a button, it is easy to spend hours and hours on the internet without noticing.

But when does this use, or over-use, become an addiction? While not yet a recognised condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), many other sources have outlined symptoms or warning signs of internet addiction. The amount of time spent online may be suggestive of addiction, but other symptoms, such as failed efforts to cut down on internet use, inability to participate in ‘real-life’ activities, and changes in mood caused by lack of internet access, are more worrying.

Who’s at risk?

Both males and females are at risk at becoming addicted to the internet, but their usage tends to be different: where males tend to use gaming sites, females are more likely to use social networking sites and chat rooms.

Age seems to be a contributing factor, with young people more likely to become addicts than older people. When age and sex are considered together, males under 30 are most likely to be internet addicts.

A University of Leeds study in 2010 suggested that 1.2 per cent of people were internet addicts, and many of those were depressed. However, critics noted that recruitment to this study was via social networking sites, so it did not include people who don’t use the internet. Others suggested that the results showed that the problem is depression, not internet use, and that these individuals seek out internet use to escape from depression.

Several Asian countries, including China, report high levels of internet addiction. Research in Taiwan suggested that 11-year-olds who showed signs of depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), social phobia or hostility were more likely to develop an internet fixation when they became adolescents. Other research suggests that children with ADHD are more likely to become internet addicts, as the internet offers them constant stimulation with a rapid response. This raises an interesting relationship between addiction and other mental health problems – does one cause the other, or does influence go both ways?

What harm does it cause?

Compulsive internet use can lead to neglect of family, friends and other interests, sleep deprivation, and problems with school or work. Those affected may be bored, anxious or irritable when they cannot get online. Then again, some people feel the same way when they cannot get to the gym or watch their favourite soap.

Any similarities to substance dependency?

Some studies claim that internet use can resemble substance addiction for some people, who show a preoccupation with their compulsion: they are always mentally replaying the last game session or thinking about the next one. There may also be signs of tolerance, inability to cut back on use, and withdrawal symptoms – but no physical dependency.

Lead image:

Fancycrave1/Pixabay CC BY


Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Addiction’ in June 2010 and reviewed and updated in September 2015.

Addiction, Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development