Internet addiction

Written by Rebecca Wright

Rebecca Wright

Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated on 24th October, 2018

Continuing advances in technology now mean that more people than ever before are able to use the Internet extensively for both work and social purposes. In fact, according to The Office for National Statistics (ONS), in 2018, 90% of adults in the UK were recent Internet users in the UK.

Whilst, in many ways, it is a positive step that we can now talk, search, shop, play, find love and experience all of the other far-reaching benefits of the Internet, as with everything in life, there are some drawbacks. Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is the term used to describe excessive Internet use, which begins to interfere with daily life.

Medical opinion is divided on whether Internet addiction exists as a mental illness in its own right or whether it’s an expression of pre-existing mental health issues or behavioural problems. For example, a person who compulsively looks for gambling sites online may have a gambling problem rather than an Internet addiction.

Types of Internet addiction

Although IAD is not officially recognised as a clinical disorder, an increasing body of research and evidence is establishing Internet addiction as a public health concern, with many leading health experts now advising it be officially recognised as a clinical disorder.

The condition exists in many subtypes, all of which are essentially characterised by the excessive, overwhelming or inappropriate use of online activities, which if done in person would usually be considered negative. For example, compulsive gambling, shopping, pornography use or gaming.

Internet addiction disorder covers a variety of compulsive activities, including the following:

Cybersex and pornography

Though the Internet is often a great way of escaping reality, spending excessive amounts of time online engaging in cybersex, viewing pornography or carrying out relationships in online fantasy worlds can begin to have negative repercussions on an individual's real-life relationships.

On the Internet, we are able to change our identity, remain anonymous and engage in fantasies all from the privacy of our own homes. Whilst this is fine in moderation, compulsively participating in any of these activities can lead to individuals neglecting their real-life relationships, career and emotional well-being.

Pornography addiction can cause problems in a person’s life if it leads them to take risks in the setting in which they view it. It can also cause relationship issues if the partner considers this behaviour to be a form of cheating - or if it leads to further relationship problems.

Counsellor Graeme Orr discusses the implications of pornography on a relationship.

Net compulsions

Not only damaging to our mental health, but net compulsions can also have further financial and social implications.

Online gambling

According to the Gambling Commission, more than two million people in the UK are either problem gamblers or at risk of addiction. The ease and availability of gambling online has made it more accessible than ever.

In addition, recovering gambling addicts may also find it far more difficult not to relapse with the temptation of 24 hour online casinos which are open to anyone of any age. In addition, the financial problems brought on by online gambling can also result in stress, anxiety and depression.

To find out more about gambling addiction, visit our fact-sheet.

Spending addiction

Online shopping or auction shopping can be just as financially detrimental as online gambling if a habit gets out of control. Shopping addicts have a tendency to purchase things they don't really need and can't really afford but they do so in order to experience the temporary high of placing a winning bid or owning something new.

There is a difference between a little ‘retail therapy’ and a shopping addiction. Shopping addiction is a real problem, a real addiction. Shopaholics are unable to let go of the exhilaration that shopping brings, a feeling that they are better for their purchases.

- Counsellor Cindy Barnes discusses compulsive shopping and spending addiction.


The Internet can be a great way to meet and interact with new people and may even lead to the development of friendships or romantic relationships. Problems can arise, though, when online relationships take precedence over real-life, in-person relationships.

Social media

For most of us, social media is a huge part of our lives; whether we like to admit to it or not, many of us will use social networking sights daily. But, regardless of whether you’re using social media for work or play, it has the power to consume your time, energy and happiness - if you’re not mindful of how you’re using it. This can be especially true if you’ve had (or have) mental health concerns.

Are you worried about the amount of time you’re spending on social media? Counsellor Tatiana Pires Azevedo asks ‘Is social media damaging your life?

There are particular concerns about the negative impact of excessive use of social networking sites on the health and well-being of young people, who are enthusiastic users of this technology.

However, while social media often receives criticism for its potential impact on users’ mental health, there is another side to the story. Fiona shares her experience of how Instagram Stories helped her to overcome social anxiety:

Along with medication and talking therapy, I managed to overcome the crippling symptoms of social anxiety by using an app which many of us use every single day – Instagram.

Online dating

The dating scene has transformed dramatically with the introduction of new technology. Now we can merely swipe left or right to filter dating profiles, to find what our hearts most desire.

However, there are concerns that online dating apps can be a method for seeking validation, rather than for looking for romance - particularly when usage becomes habitual. The thrill of ‘matching’ with someone else feels good and can give a temporary boost of confidence. Although, issues arise when users of dating apps are looking for matches in a bid to affirm self-worth, as opposed to searching for love.

Another problem with developing online relationships is that many people online lie about who they really are - their sex, age, appearance, relationship status and job. This means that when people meet in real life, unfortunately, they may not live up to one another’s online persona, resulting in significant emotional distress.

Smartphone addiction

In a 2017 Deloitte survey, 38% of the British public said they thought they were using their smartphone “too much”. But when does our smartphone usage cross the line?

The fear of being left without a mobile device, or nomophobia, is a growing problem in today’s society. If the idea of being without your phone leaves you feeling stressed or anxious, it’s possible that your relationship with your phone is having a negative impact on your mental health.

If you feel pulled to look at your phone more than you secretly want to, and you are not in complete control of this behaviour, then you have a form of addicted behaviour. If you feel a loss without access to a mobile or Internet then your brain is wired to the dopamine hit of finding something interesting, new or exciting. Our brains do not enjoy boredom.

- Counsellor Gerry North Couple provides some insight.

Phone addiction can pose problems not only to our own mental health but also on our romantic relationships and friendships, too. Phubbing, or snubbing somebody by using your phone, can be seen as a form of rejection and has the potential to damage your real-life connections.

Gaming addiction

Many people find enjoyment in playing online games in their leisure time and, of course, not everyone who does this is an addict. The vast majority of online gamers are able to strike a balance between gaming, work, friends and family. But, unfortunately for some, the compulsion to play online games becomes uncontrollable, meaning that other areas of real life are neglected.

In 2018, the World Health Organisation officially recognised gaming disorder as a mental illness. Happiful explores what to expect from a gaming disorder diagnosis and, more importantly, when treatment will become available.

Internet addiction symptoms

Each and every one of us will use the Internet in our own way for different purposes and for varying amounts of time. Internet usage only becomes a problem when it begins to take up too much of your time, to the point where you start to neglect what's going on in real life.

Some of the key indicators to be aware of are:

  • Losing track of time - Many people find that they lose themselves when they are online and, as a result, consistently spend longer online than initially intended.
  • Social isolation - Cracks in your real-life relationships may indicate that you are spending so much time focusing on online relationships. Some individuals may also find that they feel their online friends 'understand' them in a way that no one in real life can.
  • Temporary high - As with any addiction, individuals keep returning for their next 'fix' because it gives them the feeling of euphoria and excitement. If you tend to rely heavily on the Internet for stress relief purposes as a pick-me-up or for sexual gratification, then it could be a sign of a deeper underlying issue.
  • Feelings of guilt and defensiveness - If you are feeling guilty and constantly trying to justify the amount of time spent on the Internet, or if you are lying about or trying to hide what you do online then this could be an indicator of Internet addiction.
  • Physical symptoms - Aside from the emotional aspects, excessive use of technology can cause some physical side effects and discomfort including strained vision, backache, neck ache, headaches, sleep difficulties and carpal tunnel syndrome.

What causes Internet addiction?

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centres, is activated when we consume something which we perceive to be good and pleasurable. We all differ in our need for pleasures and rewards. Some people seek this out from behaviours, in the form of sex, gambling or the Internet, for example, as well as from chemical dependence with alcohol, cigarettes, food or drugs.

The reason many of us feel dependent upon the Internet it is that it is designed to be that way. Websites, games and apps - they’re all created with the intention of capturing our attention and seeking our engagement.

The danger comes and addictive behaviours can set in when we overindulge specifically in response to low mood or to stress.

For more information, counsellor Noel Bell explores this topic further.

Internet addiction help

The concepts of a ‘digital detox’ or a ‘social media break’ are becoming more popular, perhaps in response to the increase in the amount of time we are spending online these days. Whilst taking a break from being online may come as a welcome relief for some, other people may not feel able to do this. This is where additional support may be needed.

Counselling and psychotherapy can offer a way of exploring what is behind your need for connection. It can also allow you to explore other ways of feeling connected, without digital stimulation.

A behavioural addiction, such as to the Internet and social media, can often be masking underlying issues that heighten anxiety. Exploring your feelings within a private and confidential setting can be a useful way of working through behavioural addictions.

The ultimate goal of counselling is to help individuals either reduce or stop their addiction altogether, depending on their specific needs and goals. Though each counsellor will have their own unique way of working, sessions may involve exploring different ways of dealing with certain urges and triggers and exploring the origins of the problem and the underlying reason for your addiction.

What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?

Whilst there are currently no official rules and regulations in position to stipulate what level of training and experience a counsellor dealing with Internet addiction needs, we do recommend that you check your therapist is experienced in this area.

An accredited course, qualification or workshop was undertaken as part of continuing professional development, will also provide further assurance that your counsellor has developed the necessary skills.

In regards to psychological treatment, as with other addictions, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is considered a useful tool to break the habit of addiction.

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