Internet addiction: What can I do?

19. January 2021

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).

Signs of Internet addiction

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:

  • Neglect of work and duties due to Internet consumption
  • Neglect of friendships outside of the Internet
  • Neglect of personal hygiene and household chores
  • Suffering pressure from the person him/herself or else from his/her relatives
  • Nervousness and anxiety when the use of the Internet is not possible
  • Little control over one’s own Internet use
  • Feeling of inner emptiness or constant irritability

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?

Scientific explanations of Internet addiction

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.”

What helps with Internet addiction?

When Internet use takes on harmful proportions, a clear set of rules can help. Here are some examples:

  • Internet-free rooms (for example, the bedroom)
  • Internet-free places (for example, the dining table)
  • Use of flight mode after a certain time
  • Introduction of behavioral etiquette in the college and circle of friends (for example, no more e-mails or notifications after 18:00; no forwarding of videos or pictures that are solely for entertainment)
  • Introduction of abstinence days or abstinence periods (also called Digital Detox)

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”.

Total abstinence from the Internet is difficult

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.

References

(1) DAK-Gesundheit (ed.) (2018): WhatsApp, Instagram und Co. – so addictive is social media. DAK study: survey of children and adolescents aged 12 to 17. Hamburg. https://www.dak.de/dak/bundesthemen/onlinesucht-studie-2106298.html, accessed: 07.01.20

(2) Markowetz, A. (2015). Digital burnout: why our permanent smartphone use is dangerous. Droemer eBook

(3) Report on the PINTA study with short and final report see: https://www.bundesgesundheitsministerium.de/ministerium/ressortforschung/krankheitsvermeidung-und-bekaempfung/drogen-und-sucht/epidemiologie-des-suchtmittelkonsums/praevalenz-der-internetabhaengigkeit-pinta.html (retrieved 07.01.20).

Friederike Reuver
Autor:in Friederike Reuver
"Die LIMES Schlosskliniken haben sich auf die Behandlung von psychischen und psychosomatischen Erkrankungen spezialisiert. Mit Hilfe des Blogs möchten wir als Klinikgruppe die verschiedenen psychischen Erkrankungen näher beleuchten und verschiedene Therapien sowie aktuelle Themen vorstellen."

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