Can I Really Become Addicted to the Internet?

Q: Can I really get addicted to the Internet? How is that possible? Do I need to mainline my Internet cable? And can you tell me how to do that? -A.J.

Q: Is it just me, or have you also noticed everyone seems to have an addiction of some sort? Or are my acquaintances of questionable mental health? -Spike

Dear A.J. and Spike,

addiction to the internetAddiction is such an unforgiving word: so vague in implication, so uncompromising in its verdict. Once an addict, always an addict, some say. Others find more shades of gray.

In the purest sense, “addiction” applies to the fun but damaging things we can put into our bodies. It’s easy to make the case for addiction with the drinker, for example, who relies on the hair of the dog* to stave off morning withdrawals. It’s tougher if we’re talking about behaviors that don’t involve a glass, a needle, or rolling papers.

On the other hand, run-of-the-mill behaviors like surfing the web, shopping, eating, or even exercising can become so important that they impede work, love, and play. That’s why the official definition of addiction includes these criteria:

  • spending a great deal of time and energy in pursuit of the habit,
  • giving up important social, occupational, and recreational activities for it,
  • continuing the habit while aware of the problems that it causes.

Most of us know someone who has turned toward things like the Internet and away from deeper connections in life. I suppose anyone who does that, beyond a certain point, could be labeled an addict. But that word doesn’t teach us much about the individual or their habit. I’m more interested in the function of a thing than its label. I’m always looking for the function. (But I can quit anytime I want.)

When a behavior consumes a person’s life, the function can often be summed up in a word: avoidance. Activities like surfing the Internet are tailor-made for avoiding unpleasant experiences outside the mind (like a troubled marriage or a to-do list) or inside (like anxiety or disparaging thoughts about the self).

It’s reasonably obvious that things like the Internet serve as an escape, but the power of such a habit bears a bit of explanation. It’s strange that an activity can be so compelling in the absence of physical addiction. Friends and family often wonder, “why don’t they just quit?” And the person with the habit is often burdened with shame and confusion about their inability to stop.

Behavioral addiction (a sloppy term; “compulsion” is usually more accurate) can be thought of as learning something too well. When we stumble onto something that 1) feels good and 2) makes bad things go away, we can enter a battle between short-term and long-term consequences. The primal mind will usually opt for short-term solutions, long-term costs be damned.

Charlotte’s Web Addiction
Consider the example of Entirely Fictional Charlotte. Like so many others, Charlotte has struggled against anxiety that began in childhood. As a kid, she often had headaches and stomach problems that kept her home from school. As a young adult, her friends noticed that she was perpetually concerned about reputation, grades, and relationships.

Young Charlotte seemed to believe the world would fall apart around her unless she sought reassurance from friends and family. They tolerated her worry but occasionally grew weary of it, which only heightened her anxiety.

In middle age, she found herself in an unsatisfying marriage and laid off, leaving her with time on her hands for the first time in many years.

The free time and sense of rejection caused her anxiety to rise. The old worries, which may have been blunted by work and a happier marriage, began to take center stage. Was she good enough? Would anyone ever want to work with her again? And why was her husband so disappointed in her? Painful thoughts, those.

Enter the Internet. One day, perhaps while job-hunting, Charlotte discovered a social networking site or an online game. As she lost a couple of hours to her newfound toy, her mind, being a strong and attentive mind, noticed that her anxiety decreased while she was online.

Charlotte soon found herself immersed in the web from the moment she woke until the wee hours of the morning. Eventually, those around her began to notice that she was receding from their lives. Her marriage took a turn for the worse, and for all her time on the Internet she was no closer to finding new employment.

Even when Charlotte realized that she had a problem, she was unable to stop surfing the web. With every attempt to do something more constructive, she found herself back at the keyboard. She felt almost as if she were possessed.

What happened, and why couldn’t she break the habit?

Rewards & Punishment
If we were to ask Charlotte why she continued such a destructive habit she would probably say “I don’t know.” For most people, that’s an honest response served up with a heaping helping of shame. Charlotte was unaware of the forces working behind the scenes to keep her engaged in her habit.

  • Positive & negative reinforcement: Whenever Charlotte logs onto the ‘net, she gets a pleasing burst of fun activity (positive reinforcement), plus relief from the unpleasant feelings of anxiety (negative reinforcement). Either type of reinforcement can be powerful by itself, but combine the two and they can strengthen any habit.
  • Short-term vs. long-term consequences: Ask an early toddler whether she wants one piece of candy now, or two pieces of candy later, and she will choose immediate gratification even if it nets her less candy in the long run. Eventually, we learn to defer gratification, but that old wiring never goes away. When we are in pain or under duress, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture and instead go for immediate gratification.
  • Self-reinforcing behavior: We tend to believe what we hear ourselves saying and see ourselves doing, especially when it works. In Charlotte’s case, surfing the web works (temporarily) to relieve anxiety. Of course, it also leads to shame, which leads to anxiety, which leads to the desire for relief from anxiety, which leads to… the Internet. Charlotte’s habit magically feeds itself.

Another feature of habits like Charlotte’s is that they tend to operate at a visceral level, outside the realm of words. This means that unless she devotes effort to observing her own behavior, Charlotte will probably lack insight into its power and function. She may have no understanding – at least none that she could describe in words – that the Internet has become more than a habit. It has become medicine for her anxiety.

Some researchers suggest that the internet is more often medicine for conditions like loneliness and depression (Ceyhan & Ceyhan, 2008). Regardless of the problem, or the behavior, humans are uniquely skilled at avoidant strategies that offer short-term solutions and long-term costs.

So… is the Internet addicting? In my opinion, the label doesn’t matter much. The more important question is: how does the habit function in your life? If you find yourself drifting from what you hold to be important, then maybe the habit is taking on a life of its own.


* From the expression, “hair of the dog that bit me.” People who have developed a tolerance for alcohol may wake up after a bender (the aforementioned metaphorical dog) suffering withdrawal symptoms ranging from tremors to elevated blood pressure and a risk of seizure. People suffering from alcoholism quickly learn that bit of booze can ease their morning symptoms. back

Ceyhan, A.A. & Ceyhan, E. (2008). Loneliness, depression, and computer self-efficacy as predictors of problematic internet use. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11(6), 699-701.