For those with access, the internet is a valuable connection to news, information, and entertainment.
But according to a British survey released last week, a lot of people are considering severing that connection, at least temporarily.
About 1 in 3 of the 2,500 Britons surveyed said they’d tried a “digital detox” of one kind or another, according to the telecommunications regulator Ofcom.
Most of the detoxers said they spent a day offline, while some reported going off the grid for a week or even a month.
Perhaps for good reason.
About 48 percent of those surveyed said online activities kept them from doing housework, while 31 percent said they missed out on spending time with family and friends. Another 47 percent said the lure of the internet robbed them of sleep.
An old problem
Ofcom’s report has generated a lot of buzz, but the concept of digital detoxing is not new.
In fact, concerns about spending too much time online are almost as old as the World Wide Web itself.
Hilarie Cash, Ph.D., a counselor who runs an internet addiction recovery center in Washington called reSTART, told Healthline that she saw her first online gaming addict in 1994.
She says that online gaming continues to be the biggest lure for her patients, who are mostly young men referred by their parents.
“They love playing a game where they’re part of a community, and they’re recognized for their competence, their powers, their intelligence, their leadership,” she said.
Being a valuable part of that community becomes central to the young men’s identities, she said.
Giving up online games is difficult for them because “we’re asking for them to give up an identity and develop a new one. And that’s a really big ask.”
Is it an addiction?
Like alcohol or drug rehab, reSTART sequesters patients in a temptation-free facility for up to 90 days, after which they typically go through an outpatient program and further therapy.
Although Cash is comfortable with the term “internet addiction,” that classification has not been officially accepted by the mental health community.
John Grohol, Psy.D, a psychologist who runs psychcentral.com, says there isn’t enough evidence to say whether a person can be addicted to the internet the way one can be addicted to alcohol or drugs.
“I think behavioral addictions share some things in common with regular addiction, but that there's also some very important differences that can't be ignored — like the lack of a drug entering a person's body, creating the addictive pathways in the brain,” he told Healthline.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) added a category for behavioral addictions in its 2013 update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but included only one such disorder: gambling addiction, which it had previously included as “pathological gambling.”
The new DSM does, however, include “internet gaming disorder” in a list of conditions warranting further study.
One researcher has estimated that nearly 1 in 10 young gamers could be considered addicted to video games.
A tool if used properly
Whether or not internet addiction is real, being constantly online does seem to make some people miserable.
“All hobbies and interests I developed during my teenage years were based on the computer, and when the internet came around I was sucked into it,” wrote Reddit user lokobang. “At first it augmented my interests and helped me get better at my hobbies, but slowly the internet took over my free time completely and my hobbies and interests just kind of faded away.”
“Because of this, when I block out the internet, it's like I die. I don't mean that in the literal sense, it's more like I lose my sense of self. I have no agenda or identity in real life because I never developed any.”
For others, the problem is less extreme and more complicated.
“When I’m having a major episode of depression I spend hours online, scrolling blankly through articles and newsfeeds and timelines as a way of distracting myself, using Twitter as a shield to avoid face-to-face interaction,” Emily Reynolds wrote in an opinion piece for the Guardian
“But the internet is also an extremely powerful tool for good, especially for the mind. Though I can often get sucked in, it can also act as a lifeline in times of severe distress, providing comfort, distraction, and sometimes even emergency support.”
For Reynolds, the internet is neither a demon nor a godsend. Instead it’s a tool that should be used “mindfully.”
For those who can’t afford reSTART’s $26,000 fee or the pricey adult summer camps offered by digitaldetox.org, there is software like Cold Turkey and LeechBlock that blocks a person’s access to certain sites, or limits the amount of time they are able to access the internet.
Another strategy is to take a vacation to a place without internet, as reported by 16 percent of the Ofcom responders.
Then there’s old-fashioned therapy.
“Psychologists have been helping people to change their behaviors for decades, so no matter what you call it, it's still something psychotherapy can help with,” said Grohol.