For some people, the omnipresence of the internet in every area of our lives can lead to the problematic use of this tool or some of its applications. Internet dependency, internet addiction disorder and problematic or pathological internet use are some of names used to describe these problems.
Internet dependency, like other dependence disorders, is characterized by an uncontrollable, insatiable need to use the internet. Internet dependency is governed by the same principle as affective disorders, with the dependent person developing an obsession and their activities becoming increasingly centred on this behaviour. The user’s obsession with online activities ends up disconnecting them from reality.
Even though internet dependency is not recognized at this time as a proper clinical diagnosis, scientific articles indicate that it can be manifested through a number of online activities (Young, n.d.; Young et al., 2000; APA, 2013):
- online activities of a sexual nature (dependence on adult chat rooms and pornography)
- relationship-related internet dependency (online relationships and social media, sites for making friends individually or in groups that replace in-person social contact)
- compulsive online behaviour (compulsive online gambling or transactions or obsessive online buying and selling behaviour)
- information overload (obsessive information searching and browsing)
- online video games (persistent and recurrent use of the internet for playing games, often with other players, leading to altered functioning or clinically significant distress)
Although anyone can develop internet dependency, certain factors facilitate its emergence for some people. Among these factors are: having a lot of free time or having a flexible schedule; the ability to remain anonymous in internet relationships leading to the creation of one or several online identities. Another element that facilitates this dependency is easy access to the internet (24/7) and low-cost availability.According to scientific articles, men use the internet in their search for power and control, as well as to act on sexual fantasies. Women tend to look for friendship, support and romantic partners and prefer anonymous communications in which they can hide their appearance. In addition, this “phenomenon” is increasingly affecting people under the age of 20, who stay up all night playing online video games. The internet intensifies the passion for gaming because people can play against other users rather than alone.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, there are three main phases that internet users go through before developing a dependency:
- Regular use: The person has access to a computer, gets information, becomes familiar with online applications and becomes a regular user. The person develops a virtual identity.
- Substitution: The virtual world of the internet replaces what the person lacks or cannot find in real life (having a social network, friends, etc.). The user who was experiencing loneliness, relationship problems, stress, boredom, financial problems, insecurity about their physical appearance, etc., feels more confident, has power, activities, a feeling of belonging, support and/or affection. The person starts to ignore the people and activities that they used to know/do in real life.
- Escape: The internet is used more and more often for increasingly longer periods. The user feels calm, peaceful and happy in their virtual world. They use the internet to manage unpleasant emotions, they want to spend more time online and they never feel ready to end an online session.
An internet-dependent person will tend to cut themself off from the real world, seeking refuge in a virtual world. This new world has advantages over the real world because it allows them to satisfy their desires without the obligations imposed by the outside world. As a result, they feel they can control their environment and will increasingly turn to the virtual world. Like people who are substance-dependent, internet-dependent individuals will develop preoccupations with respect to the internet. In general, their desire to use the internet increases steadily. They are constantly seeking bigger thrills. Their internet use extends beyond the time they had initially planned on or they always need to spend a few more minutes online even when another activity is scheduled. The person may stay online all night long even though they had planned to go to bed early. As a result, there is an increase in their tolerance threshold.
As with other dependencies, internet-dependent individuals resist the need to seek help and rationalize their behaviour while denying they have a problem. They take refuge in denial (“Leave me alone, I’m not bothering anyone,” etc.) and can even become aggressive and irritable when the people around them try to make them face reality. This jeopardizes their emotional and professional relationships. Internet dependency can also cause physical problems (due to an unhealthy lifestyle, lack of sleep, a poor diet, etc.), as well as social, financial and even psychological problems (anxiety, depression, irritability, etc.). Internet-dependent individuals often have other psychiatric disorders or another type of dependency.