The Internet beckons with constant distraction and ever new things for us to discover. With our mobile devices, especially smartphones, we have the whole world at our fingertips. It’s no wonder that Internet-based behavior is so important. Unfortunately, in addition to all the benefits and temptations, this behavior carries an increased risk of addiction. The percentage of Internet users with harmful or pathological Internet use is rising. While in 2015 it was about 1% of the population, today it is estimated to be up to 3%, especially in the younger generation (DAK, 2018, PINTA, 2013).
But how can we tell that our Internet use is harmful or even pathological? As is so often the case, the boundary is very individual and difficult to determine precisely. However, it is worth taking a look at the following signs of Internet addiction:
If you want to illuminate your own Internet behavior is also useful to ask yourself: what did my life look like exactly one year ago? Were there things I did often, but neglect today because of online activities? Tracking apps can also provide clues to one’s own online behavior, because their use is often almost unconscious.
Excursus: A study by Markowetz et al. shows the extent to which looking at one’s smartphone has become automated: Based on long-term user data, it was found that participants “checked” their cell phones every 18 minutes on average and thus repeatedly let themselves be pulled out of concentrated work or conversations (Markowetz, 2015).
Internet Addiction in the Corona Pandemic
The current Corona situation fuels pathological Internet behavior. Distractions from analog activities, such as club sports, meeting friends, or going to restaurants, are falling away. We all spend much more time at home with our immediate family and turn to Internet-based media for entertainment and to combat boredom. There is also a lack of social control of Internet consumption. There are currently no social gatherings where we can be made aware of our constant glances at the smartphone. But what exactly makes the Internet so enticing? Why is it so hard for us to resist our smartphone, our tablet or our notebook?
Psychology explains the development of Internet addiction through the mechanism of intermittent reinforcement. Intermittent means “appearing at irregular intervals.” Looking at our smartphone again and again is like a little game or bet: did I get a new notification, or not? That’s what makes it exciting! As soon as a notification occurs, it’s like a small win and has a reinforcing effect on the reward centers in our brain. As a result, we learn to “check” again. Add to this the ever-increasing amount of social interaction on the Internet. As social beings, we strive for recognition and belonging. Social media companies exploit this mechanism. Likes, comments and followers become a currency for belonging and feeling accepted.
Is there a diagnosis of Internet addiction?
Addiction to the Internet has not long been represented in the catalog of mental illnesses. Currently, it is also strictly speaking spoken of an online gaming disorder, that is, addiction to online-based games. However, this falls short, because other activities on the Internet are also potentially addictive, for example Internet pornography, online gambling and also social media. In general, any behavior on the Internet can be highly addictive and ultimately lead to addiction.
Digital stress and digital burnout
But in addition to the risk of addiction, the Internet poses another danger that is becoming increasingly common: Internet users are increasingly experiencing digital stress. There is immense pressure to always be up-to-date. The “fear of missing out” also plays a role here. This fear of missing out leads some users to use the Internet even though it triggers negative feelings. You can find out more about this in the article on Digital Burnout.
Importantly, Internet addiction is often accompanied by other mental illnesses. Often, depression, anxiety disorders, social phobia, as well as substance abuse are present as a concomitant or as a triggering factor. In technical terminology, this is called “comorbidity.”
When Internet use takes on harmful proportions, a clear set of rules can help. Here are some examples:
Of course, professional help for Internet addiction may also be advisable. This support targets factors that promote and maintain Internet use. For example, programs that promote social skills and stress management outside the digital space are used to create alternatives to Internet use. It also works on cognitions and beliefs that influence Internet use, such as beliefs like, “Only on the Internet can I fully develop my personality”.
Understandably, the goal of treatment for Internet addiction can hardly be complete Internet abstinence. That is simply unrealistic these days. Rather, a self-determined and conscious handling of digital media should be trained. It is important to initiate this responsible use in children. Each person can reflect for once on what responsible Internet use would look like for him or her and draw inspiration from this idea for themselves and also for passing on to future generations.