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Symptoms - Internet Addiction

Julia Bursten & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 28th 2016

As Internet access becomes more widespread, Internet addiction becomes a growing concern. The DSM-5 does not currently recognize Internet gaming disorder as an official diagnosis. Instead, proposed criteria have been placed in Section III of the DSM-5. The section lists proposed diagnoses for future consideration and further study.

The proposed diagnostic criteria closely resemble the criteria for substance use disorders. The proposed criteria include:

  • Preoccupation with Internet games
  • Withdrawal symptoms (irritability, sadness, anxiety) when the Internet is not available or taken away.
  • Tolerance indicated by the need to spend increasing amounts of time playing Internet games.
  • Unsuccessful attempts to control participation
  • Loss of interest in other meaningful activities or recreation, except for Internet games
  • Continued use despite knowledge that the excessive use of the Internet use is causing problems.
  • Lying or other form of deceit regarding the amount of Internet gaming
  • Using Internet gaming as a means to escape or relieve negative feelings
  • Jeopardized important relationships, job, or limited occupational or educational opportunities due to Internet gaming.

As with other addictions, people with Internet gaming addiction may exhibit excessive use, and like other addictions, Internet use continues despite negative consequences. It's possible to envision addiction to other activities (besides gaming) that are unique to the Internet and/or computers. These include social media websites; chat rooms; online games; and virtual reality experiences. Many Internet-based activities also have real world counterparts. Examples are pornography websites, gambling, and online shopping. Online gambling may meet the criteria for gambling disorder and should be diagnosed as such.

It may be hard to imagine how the Internet could be "addictive." Our working definition of addiction guides us on this issue: "Addiction is the repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it now causes, because that involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable. The harmful consequences will partially depend on which Internet activities are involved. Pornography websites, gambling websites, and online shopping may increase financial debt at much faster rate than other activities. When the participation in these activities causes harm, or limits someone's life, we begin to wonder about addiction.

There are differences between Internet-based vs. face-to-face relationships. These differences have been a source of interest to researchers. Many people have relationships based on Internet communications. Sometimes these relationships are entirely based on Internet communication. It appears these relationships are here to stay.

So are these relationships helpful or harmful? Some people who have difficulty relating to others face-to-face. These folks may have a better social life because of the Internet. Thus, having a lively Internet social life does not make someone an Internet addict. So, how much is too much? A determination of this nature needs to evaluate the magnitude of negative consequences it creates. Such a determination would need to consider the individual's entire life and the range of activities.

Some activity addictions, such as gambling addiction and sex addiction, operate within the brain's reward system. These activities increase levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. However, Internet addiction may act through different neurochemical pathways. More research is needed in this area.

Approximately 86 percent of Internet addiction cases present with at least one other DSM diagnosis (Block, 2008). This is true of most addictions. The high likelihood of co-occurring mental disorders suggests that Internet addiction may not be a distinct disorder, but rather an effect of other disorders. For instance, someone with Social Phobia might rely on the Internet as their sole source of social interaction.

Currently there are numerous reports about video game, exercise, and shopping addiction. Perhaps some of these addictions will merit inclusion in a future DSM. Regardless, Internet addiction is a growing phenomenon that is associated with serious harm to some people. Because of this trend, research will likely increase in this area.


Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Compulsive Internet use - Melvin - Oct 9th 2014

[I have taken the time and liberty to improve (in my opinion) this part or section of your article. Hope you don't mind. -Melvin]

Symptoms of Internet addiction (Compulsive Internet use)

'Internet addiction' is not recognized as a formal mental health disorder. However, mental health professionals who have written about the subject note symptoms or behaviors that, when present in sufficient numbers, may indicate problematic use. These include:

  • Preoccupation with the Internet: User often thinks about the Internet while he or she is offline.
  • Loss of control: Addicted/Compulsive users feel unable or unwilling to get up from the computer and walk away. They sit down to check e-mail or look up a bit of information, and end up staying online for hours.
  • Inexplicable sadness or moodiness when not online: Dependency on any substance or behavior often causes mood-altering side effects when the addicted user is separated from the substance/behavior on which he or she depends.
  • Using the Internet as an anti-depressant (Distraction): One common symptom of many Internet addicts is the compulsion to cheer oneself up by surfing the Web.
  • Dishonesty in regard to Internet use: Addicts may end up lying to employers or family members about the amount of time they spend online, or find other ways to conceal the depth of their involvement with the Internet.
  • Loss of boundaries or inhibitions: While this often pertains to romantic or sexual boundaries, inhibitions can also be financial or social. Online gambling sites can cause addicts to blow more money than they would in a real-life casino because users never actually see their money won or lost, so it is easier to believe the money is not real. Chat rooms can incite users to reveal secrets they would not reveal in face-to-face or phone conversations because of the same separation from reality. Also, addicted users are much more likely to commit crimes while online (e.g., 'hacking') than non-addicts.
  • Creation of virtual intimate relationships with other Internet users: Web-based relationships often cause those involved to spend excessive amounts of time online, attempting to make connections and date around the Net.
  • Loss of a significant relationship due to Internet use: When users spend too much time on the Web, they often neglect their personal relationships. Over time, such relationships may fail as partners, family, or friends simply refuse to be treated badly and break off from relations with the addicted individual.

Former internet addict - - Mar 2nd 2013

At least internet addiction is not bad as alcohol or durg addtiction.

yea na - - Dec 15th 2010

contact "Psychiatrist Online" and then we are told that we have mental health issues if we have a relationship online  

Thank you! - - Sep 24th 2009

I'm so glad I stopped wasting my time on the internet like I used to. I probably would have ended up as an antisocialite. :c

Teenager and Internet - - Aug 26th 2009

My son who is 17 yrs old gets very aggresive and quarlesome when ask to log off. He gets very moody, insensitive and unsympathetic towards other member in the family. He goes to facebook all the time. H e doesn't even want to come to dinner, eats late, sleeps late. He got 'Es' on his AS Level results. I am gutted, he doesn't take responsibilities.

I am frustrated and now I have to cut off internet despite it is resourceful for the sake of child's health.

Parents! Do not subscribe to the internet, when your children becomes teenagers, then you can't make them do things.

Wow - Shayne - Jun 14th 2009

Wow.. This really helped me.

I might be an Internet Addict.


Vote for this topic - Nguyen Viet Dung - Jan 11th 2009

It helps me a lot, but there are symptoms which are similar to Internet Addiction Disorder affections

Great Job! - Bob - Jan 8th 2007
This really helped on my project. Thanks so much!

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