Internet Addiction Disorder: Causes, Symptoms,and Consequences

Jennifer R. Ferris
Virginia Tech

The growing body of research in the area of addiction suggests that Internet
Addiction Disorder, a psychophysiological disorder involving tolerance; withdrawal
symptoms; affective disturbances; and interruption of social relationships, is a presenting
problem that is becoming more common in society as on-line usage increases by the day.
With the growing importance of the Internet in everyday life, more and more people are
accessing various on-line resources each day. The World Wide Web is informative,
convenient, resourceful, and fun. For some people though--the addicted--these benefits are
becoming detriments. There are varying opinions on the subject, especially among those
who utilize the Internet. Some say that the Internet can be addicting, to the point that it
disturbs one's life and the lives of those around him. Others say that there is no such thing
as Internet Addiction Disorder-- getting pleasure out of a computer is not the same as
getting pleasure from cocaine or any other drug. Whether there is or is not a bona fide
disorder, the Internet is disrupting many people's lives. Who is to blame for this disorder?
Is it the WWW companies or is it the individual? Whichever (if either), the solution is not
to outlaw the Internet, as with psychoactive drugs. Simple methods of prevention do exist
that can reduce the negative effects of Internet use.

To be diagnosed as having Internet Addiction Disorder, a person must meet certain
criteria as prescribed by the American Psychiatric Association. Three or more of these
criteria must be present at any time during a twelve month period:
1. Tolerance: This refers to the need for increasing amounts of time on the Internet to
achieve satisfaction and/or significantly diminished effect with continued use of the same
amount of time on the Internet.
2. Two or more withdrawal symptoms developing within days to one month after
reduction of Internet use or cessation of Internet use (i.e., quitting cold turkey) , and these
must cause distress or impair social, personal or occupational functioning. These include:
psychomotor agitation, i.e. trembling, tremors; anxiety; obsessive thinking about what is
happening on the Internet; fantasies or dreams about the Internet; voluntary or involuntary
typing movements of the fingers.
3. Use of the Internet is engaged in to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.
4. The Internet is often accessed more often, or for longer periods of time than was
5. A significant amount of time is spent in activities related to Internet use ( e.g., Internet
books, trying out new World Wide Web browsers, researching Internet vendors, etc.).
6. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because
of Internet use.
7. The individual risks the loss of a significant relationship, job, educational or career
opportunity because of excessive use of the Internet.
In recent research, other characteristics have been identified. The first is feelings of
restlessness or irritability when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use. The second is
that the Internet is used as a way of escaping problems or relieving feelings of
helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression. The third characteristic is that the user lies to
family members or friends to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet. And,
finally, the user returns repeatedly despite excessive fees (Egger & Rauterberg, 1996).

Bratter and Forest (1985; in Freeman, 1992) define addiction as "a behavior pattern
of compulsive drug use characterized by overwhelming involvement...with the use of a
drug and the securing of the supply, as well as the tendency to relapse after completion of
withdrawal." Like all other addictions, Internet addiction is a psychophysiological disorder
involving tolerance (the same amount of usage elicits less response; increased amounts
become necessary to evoke the same amount of pleasure), withdrawal symptoms
(especially, tremors, anxiety, and moodiness), affective disturbances (depression,
irritability), and interruption of social relationships (a decline or loss, either in quality or
Due to the nature of Internet Addiction Disorder (failed impulse control without
involving an intoxicant), of all other addictions, IAD is said to be closest to pathological
gambling. However, the effects that the addiction can have on every aspect of the person's
life are just as devastating as those of alcoholism. Kimberly S. Young, Psy.D., conducted
a study involving nearly 500 heavy Internet users. Their behavior was compared to the
clinical criteria used to classify pathological gambling as defined by the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV, published by the American Psychiatric
Association. Using this criteria, eighty percent of the participants in the Young's study
were classified as dependent Internet users. They "exhibited significant addictive behavior
patterns." She concludes that, "the use of the internet can definitely disrupt one's
academic, social, financial, and occupational life the same way other well-documented
addictions like pathological gambling, eating disorders, and alcoholism can" (Young,
There have been many attempts by medical doctors and psychologists to explain
addiction disorders. These theories include psychodynamic and personality explanations,
sociocultural explanations, behavioral explanations, and biomedical explanations. Not all
explain any addiction perfectly, and some are better than others at explaining Internet

Psychodynamics and Personality
Psychodynamic and personality views account for addiction through early
childhood traumas, correlations with other certain personality traits or other disorders, and
inherited psychological dispositions (Sue, 1994). A dispositional model or diathesis-stress
model of addiction might help in understanding IAD. Certain people, due to a variety of
factors, may be predisposed (diathesis) to developing an addiction to something, be it
alcohol, heroin, gambling, sex, shopping, or on-line computer services. They could go
through their entire lives never developing any kind of addiction. On the other hand, if the
right stressor, or combination of stressors, affects the person at a critical time, the person
may be more inclined to develop an addiction. If the person begins drinking alcohol even
occasionally, but continues to increase consumption, he may develop a dependency on
alcohol. The same premise holds for Internet addiction. If it is the right combination of
time, person, and event, then addiction may take place. The idea is that it is not the activity
or subject that is important. It is the person that is most crucial to the equation.

Sociocultutral explanations
Addictions vary according to sex, age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion,
and country. Some addictions are more common among persons of different categories.
For example, alcoholism is most common in the middle socioeconomic classes, in Native
and Irish Americans, and in Catholics. Whites are more likely to use PCP and
hallucinogens, but less likely than Blacks or Latinos to use heroin(Sue, 1994). Not
enough data is available yet about those persons addicted to the Internet to determine if a
particular class is most predominant. In addition, at this point there is not enough diversity
among Internet users to make any definitive statements. As the diversity among users
increases, and as the amount of research on the problem increases, hopefully we will know
more about this interesting aspect of addiction with regard to the Internet.

Behavioral explanations
These explanations are based on B.F. Skinner's studies on operant conditioning
(Sue, 1994). The person performs a behavior and gets either rewarded or punished for the
behavior. To illustrate, there might be a child who is painfully shy and fears meeting new
people. Whenever it is time for recess, he goes off on his own, and does not play with the
other children. Thus, he avoids having to talk to anyone new, and consequently avoids the
anxiety associated with new encounters. This avoidance of anxiety is rewarding and
reinforces his behavior. This means that he is likely to engage in this behavior (escaping
from the problem) the next recess, or the next time he must meet new people. This relates
to addiction, and specifically Internet addiction in the following way: Drugs, alcohol, sex,
gambling, the Internet, and shopping offer many rewards. They offer love, excitement,
physical, emotional, and material comfort, and the means to escape from reality. These
can all be rewards. If an individual wants these rewards and learns that the Internet will
allow him to escape, or receive love, or have a lot of fun, he will probably turn to the
Internet the next time he feels these needs. This becomes reinforcing, and the cycle

Biomedical explanations
These explanations focus on hereditary and congenital factors, chemical imbalances
in the brain and neurotransmitters. There could be chromosomes, hormones, and surplus
or lack of certain necessary chemicals and neurotransmitters that regulate activity in the
brain and the rest of the nervous system. According to this perspective, this would cause a
someone to be susceptible to addiction (Sue, 1994). . There is definitive research that
shows that some drugs act to fill in the synaptic gaps of the neurons in the brain, fooling
the brain into sending out faulty information. This, it is thought, is one reason for the
"high" one gets from engaging in activities such as running, drug use, and gambling. This
might apply to Internet addiction, since many opportunities on the Internet are fun and

There is debate among users as to whether there really is such an addiction, and as
to whether it's a bad thing. Some people feel that the Internet is just a harmless, friendly
tool for gathering information, making new friends, and passing time. Mental Health Net
sponsors a discussion room about different topics related to mental health. There were several
responses from people across the United States. Some of the people agreed that it
is indeed possible to become addicted to the Internet. Others claimed it was all a farce. One
of the participants, Charity, believes there is no such thing as Internet Addiction Disorder.
She says there are many activities in life that she gets pleasure from engaging in, yet she
does not believe she is addicted. She says, "Maybe the computer is just nicely interactive
in a world of increasingly isolated people. And it's quiet, which is a very nice thing."
Scribe, another participant, holds that maybe there is such a disorder, but it may not be all
bad. He says, "...a person may spend a lot of time on the Internet, as I do, because I have
finally found the 'bottomless' source of information. There is no last passage to this
reference book, and if I am addicted to anything, it is knowledge... Are we not all addicted
to something, which keeps us interested in living?" (Mental Health Net, 1997)
Others such as Young and other psychologists, feel that used in excess, the Internet
can become hazardous to one's mental and physical health. By definition, an addiction
does interfere with normal, adaptive functioning. So if someone is addicted, his or her
functioning is maladaptive. This may manifest itself in a few of the symptoms classified by
the American Psychiatric Association, or it may manifest itself in all of them.
The New York Times reported last August about IAD, providing true stories about
individuals who think they might be addicted. The paper tells the story of one woman in
the Pacific Northwest who was divorced by her husband because of the enormous amount
of time she spent in front of her computer. Her fixation with the Internet apparently caused
her to forget to buy food for her children, to take them to their doctor appointments, and to
buy enough oil to heat her home. There is also the story of the seventeen year old boy from
Texas who was suffering from Internet withdrawal symptoms. When he was brought into
the alcohol and drug rehabilitation center, his body convulsed about, and he through tables
and chairs around the rooms (Belluck, 1996).

It seems obvious that Internet Addiction Disorder does indeed exist. The question
arises of who, if anyone, is to blame? Should it be the individual who chooses to
participate in any on-line activity--from research, to chat, to just "surfing" the Net? A
contemporary and pressing issue involving alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and even state-
sponsored gambling faces legislatures today. Is it the suppliers of these addictive
substances and products that should take responsibility for the problem? LavaMind, a
company that produces computer games, quoted one of their customers in an advertisement
on their web page. "Why is this thing so damned addictive?" is what the customer had
written to LavaMind (LavaMind, 1997). Should the programmers and on-line services
providers, like the drug dealers on the street, or the nicotine fixers at R.J. Reynolds, or the
Commonwealth of Virginia Lottery marketers be held responsible for how and how much
people use their products? Not everyone gets addicted to drugs or the lottery. In fact, it
seems most people who do use the Internet, even in large quantities, never get addicted. It
is hard to say who, if anyone, should take the blame. Programmers and service providers
should be responsible enough to create appropriate products, and provide services in the
ways that best serve the public, while maintaining their competitiveness. Consumers,
however, should take responsibility for themselves and "know when to say when". If not
that, then at least "tie one on". Unfortunately, if there are those that are predisposed to
addiction, they might not be the ones to recognize a problem when it is happening.

Psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg, MD is the doctor who coined the term Internet
Addiction Disorder. Goldberg and Young offer some ways people who believe they are
addicted, or may be heading toward addiction, can help themselves. First, Goldberg says,
people must recognize patterns of overuse. An awareness of the basic symptoms is
important. A key signal to this would be time spent at the computer, but also time spent
thinking about the Internet or in activities related to the Internet. The next step, according
to Young, is to identify underlying problems. Similar to other kinds of addicts, Internet
addicts should ask themselves what is causing them to want to escape from everyday life?
The third step is to devise and act out a plan to work through the problem, rather than
escape it. Escaping from the problem through the Internet, and effectively ignoring it,
does not make the problem go away. It usually only intensifies the problem. Finally, the
addict needs to take steps to resolve the addiction itself. Young advises a gradually decline
in use, until finally a "sensible" amount of time is reached (Murray, 1996).

The Internet is not the enemy just because people become dependent on it. It has
many important and necessary benefits. It is fast, ecologically sound, convenient, and
informative. In many ways it makes our lives much simpler. In many ways it makes our
lives more complex. The Internet provides an escape from reality and everyday problems
just like alcohol or drugs. Some argue that the interaction with other people on the
Internet fills a social void. People can assume new identities; others interact with that
identity and the person may assume these on-line relationships are the same as the real
thing. It becomes a problem when people become so engrossed and enmeshed in on-line
activities, and their "other" lives to the point of neglecting their health, relationships, jobs,
and other responsibilities. As with many of life's pleasures, moderation is the key.

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