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For Business
November 26, 2013

Internet addiction: a real issue or fact of modern life?

Internet addiction – problematic or pathological internet use, where someone’s online habits cause them difficulties or feel uncontrollable – seems to be on the rise. There are indications that it’s on its way to becoming an officially-recognised psychiatric condition, like drug or alcohol addiction, and a US hospital has recently opened the first in-patient internet addiction treatment centre.

But on the other hand, many people would argue that it’s not a real addiction, just a fact of the times we live in where internet connections and internet-connected devices are everywhere.teen

Are you an internet addict?

Psychologist Mark D. Griffiths writes there are five criteria for internet addiction. They are

  1. Salience: using the internet dominates your life, feelings and behaviour.
  2. Mood modification: your mood changes or you get a buzz from using the internet.
  3. Tolerance: your need to use the internet more and more to get the same effect on your mood.
  4. Withdrawal symptoms: if you don’t use the internet, you get unpleasant feelings or physical effects.
  5. Relapse: you fall back into your old habits if you try to give up.

I’m sure many of us feel a prickle of recognition when we read some of those criteria. But would we call ourselves internet addicts?

Confessions of an internet addict

Emily Mckenzie, is a head of social media and web content editor and a self-confessed internet addict. She says her addiction started in her early teens when her parents restricted her time on the internet, because they saw it as unhealthy. This resulted in a lot of teenage temper tantrums, and Emily secretly using the internet. (Let’s hope her parents aren’t reading!)

Such is her internet habit that if her home broadband goes down, she will spend £25 on getting access to WiFi hotspots, even though her WiFi might come back online in an hour or two.

What do Emily’s friends and family make of her internet habits?

“My friends just joke about it with me. Some occasionally say they used to think I was rude when I was always using my phone while I was out with them but now they understand I’m multitasking. My partner has never mentioned anything, but I do feel it irritates him and I don’t know what to do about it. I wish I could dedicate more of myself to my friends and partner when I’m with them, but I find myself getting twitchy to check Facebook and other social apps for new notifications,” she says

Without the internet, Emily says she feels: “Bored, restless, panicky, angry, frustrated – a whole mix of feelings that could also probably be attributed to someone quitting cigarettes for the first time.”

She adds:

“I feel I am missing something really important if I don’t have it. My brain is used to having a constant stream of information coming in to it. I feel like I need more information all the time. If the internet gets boring, I will sit there refreshing the same social bookmarking and networking websites until something new appears.”

Emily highlights one of the key effects that people see when they use the internet too much – a change in their attention span. (See our article on avoiding digital distraction for more.) Many people report that the more they use the internet, the harder they find it to tap into their ‘deep’ attention, because they have become hooked on a state of ‘hyper-attention’ where they have a high level of stimulation from multiple incoming sources of information, for example writing a report, while keeping an eye on Twitter and listening to a podcast. While we might like to think we can multitask, neuroscience shows the opposite – multitasking is an inefficient way of working that compromises our performance.

While Emily’s symptoms do have some of the hallmarks of an addiction, she doesn’t see her habit as all bad: “I think it’s only a real problem if you notice it having more of a negative effect than a positive one on your life. For me, I managed to make a career out of it, made new friends, stayed in touch with old ones and gave myself an education about the world I would have otherwise missed out on. That by far outweighs the few negatives.”

Emily highlights another key issue here – for some jobs internet addiction might be seen as a desirable quality, because it means you’re always on and always available. For these kinds of people, could internet addiction be better described as work addiction? (Take a look at ‘Is it time to switch off?’ for more on why always being connected isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.)

How to tackle internet addiction

If you think you have a serious issue with internet addiction, you should contact a professional for advice. If you feel like you just spend a bit too much time online, these three ideas might help you find a more balanced approach:

  1. Think about when being online will help or hinder your work and switch off accordingly. If you’re working on a spreadsheet, you probably don’t need to be online – turn the WiFi off on your laptop and put your phone into flight mode to get some internet and distraction-free time.
  2. Schedule offline time. Designate some time every day or every week when you’ll commit to being offline. It could be an hour at a time, or a whole day (like a screen sabbath).
  3. If you’re ready for a real challenge, try our screen-free experiment.

Do you think you’re an internet addict? Do you see it as a real problem or the new normal? Do you agree that internet addiction is a necessary part of some jobs?

This article is part of Nokia’s Smarter Everyday programme, which aims to inspire you with the latest ideas on productivity, collaboration and technology adoption. To download our latest ebook Mobile Mastery visit

Image credit: mandiberg