Do technology addictions exist?

The new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM-5) doesn’t list technology addiction, or internet addiction, as a disorder. This may be because there’s not enough data to determine whether internet addiction disorder (IAD) is a separate disorder or has another cause. Some doctors consider IADs as an “otherwise not specified” impulse control disorder.

Your doctor may also refer to an IAD as:

  • problematic internet use
  • computer addiction
  • internet dependence
  • compulsive internet use

Research shows that IADs can significantly affect an individual, especially their behavioral development and mental and physical health. Another study found that brain activity in people with IADs is similar to that of people with a drug or alcohol addiction. This means someone with an IAD experiences similar highs and withdrawal periods as someone with an addiction.

Even though the DSM-5 doesn’t list IADs as a disorder, someone with an internet addiction can still benefit from professional treatment. Find out what kind of internet addictions there are, what the signs can be, and how to treat it.

What is an addiction? »

Like gambling, technology uses the variable ratio reinforcement schedule to create a rewarding experience. The schedule is unpredictable and varied, but it also has content that’s mood-enhancing or stimulating.

Examples of these experiences include:

  • video games
  • pornography
  • social media
  • online gambling
  • texting
  • online auctions

These addictions can range from moderate to severe. One study found that people who used Facebook showed no negative effects on their brain. But they also recognized Facebook-related images faster than road signs.

While this may not be an addiction, it can still affect your day-to-day tasks. People may react faster to a Facebook message than traffic conditions if they’re on their phone while driving.

It may be difficult to recognize the signs of an IAD given how big a role technology plays in our daily lives. Someone with an IAD will display distinct habits. According to the journal Current Psychiatry Reviews, someone with an IAD will:

  • have mood changes
  • focus on the internet and digital media
  • be unable to control how much time they spend
  • need more time or a new game to be happy
  • show withdrawal symptoms when not using the internet or technology
  • continue using the internet or technology even when it affects their relationships
  • neglect their social, work, or school life

Having an IAD can also lead to other problems, such as depression, stress, and sleep disorders. Some mental healthcare providers see IAD as a symptom of another disorder.

How to recognize an addiction »

Other signs that someone may have an IAD include:

  • describing their activity as normal, or even healthy
  • compulsively checking text messages or notifications
  • losing interest in things that don’t involve the internet or technology
  • getting less sleep due to the activity
  • displaying irritability, depression, or lethargy
  • going out of their way to prevent interrupted play, such as wearing an adult diaper

Talk to your doctor about all your habits if you suspect your symptoms are a result of IAD. They’ll be able to help determine the cause and provide the right treatment.

There are several assessment tools a person can take to see if they’re at risk for an IAD. These tests will ask you to rate your behaviors on a scale to measure your level of internet addiction. One example is Dr. Kimberly Young’s Internet Addiction Test. It consists of 20 questions. The results range from 20–100 points. The higher you score on the test, the greater your level of addiction.

While diagnosing if you have an IAD, your doctor or mental health care provider may ask:

  • Do you think about your previous activity or expect the next session a lot?
  • Do you need to use more of the internet or play games for longer to achieve satisfaction?
  • Have you tried to control, cut back, or stop use without success?
  • Have you stayed online longer than intended?

Also, one of the following situations must be present to make a diagnosis:

  • You lost a job, relationship, or significant opportunity due to use.
  • You lied to a family member, therapist, or others about use.
  • You use the internet or games as an escape from problems or moods.

Your doctor may also ask about other symptoms or moods to see which “came first.” This is to make sure that an IAD isn’t a symptom of another disorder. They may also about your family’s mental health history to rule out other causes. In some children and teenagers, what appears as IAD may just be a phase.

Unlike other addiction treatments, researchers agree that completely avoiding the internet isn’t effective. Instead, IAD treatment should focus on time management and balancing or controlling use. However, it may help to avoid certain applications if they’re the cause of your addiction.

Treatment strategies generally include:

  • suggesting a new schedule to disrupt patterns
  • using real events and activities to help you log off
  • setting goals to help limit use time
  • quitting use of specific applications
  • reminding yourself the benefits of stopping
  • creating an inventory of missed activities due to an IAD
  • joining a support group
  • engaging in family therapy

Treating an IAD can also be a combination of therapies. Talk to a mental health care provider about your options, if you suspect you or someone you know has an IAD. They’ll be able to suggest a treatment plan to help.

Psychological approaches

Psychological therapies are shown to be effective for treating drug, alcohol, and eating disorders. While there are little to no studies about these therapies and IAD, they may still help.

Motivational interviewing (MI): There are no studies about IAD and MI as a treatment, but it may be effective. It works for disorders involving drugs, alcohol, and eating. MI is a technique that helps you learn new behavioral skills so you can give up addictive behaviors.

Reality therapy (RT): RT encourages you to improve your life through behavioral changes. You and your therapist will work to learn how to manage time and find alternative activities. Each session will also emphasize that addiction is a choice. One study found that RT effectively reduced internet addiction and improved self-esteem in 25 Korean university students.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Research shows that people practicing CBT for IADs improved in all areas. CBT is a goal-oriented therapy to help uncover unhealthy patterns and find ways to create healthier thoughts and behaviors. Another study found that CBT combined with electro acupuncture significantly reduced self-reported scores of IAD.

Counseling: A counselor can help with coping with the stress of recovery and developing healthier habits. An evaluation with a mental health expert may also be helpful, as severe cases may also have depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. In these cases a doctor may prescribe medication.

Medical approaches

Your doctor may prescribe selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) if you have an IAD and develop symptoms of depression and anxiety. Studies show that SSRIs can help decrease total internet usage and cravings for video game play. They can also improve moods. SSRIs that may help with IADs include:

What are the medications for someone with depression? »

Someone with an IAD, if left untreated, may develop further episodes of depression and anxiety. Severe physical consequences may also develop. For example, someone with an IAD may start eating instant foods to save time or they may skip daily hygiene. Over time this can lead to bigger health concerns such as obesity. The lack of sleep can also contribute to these consequences and increase your risk for other disorders.

Many people with an IAD can find support through groups such as Online Gamers Anonymous (OGA). These 12-step programs are free and provide a network of other people going through the same journey. Unlike inpatient treatment, these groups can provide long-term support.

Groups that offer information and resources for help include: