Research & Education

Internet Addiction – Yes, It’s Really a “Thing”

It’s hard to believe that we could become any more immersed in technology than we already are. Certainly, no one argues that its development and growth over the last two decades is unprecedented. According to a 2018 report by the Pew Research Center, “95% of teens now report they have a smartphone or access to one. These mobile connections are in turn fueling more-persistent online activities: 45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis.” Just three years ago, a similar Pew Research report indicated that 88% of all teens had a smartphone or access to one and 24% indicated they were online on a near constant basis. The same research group indicates that 1 in every 5 Americans use a smartphone exclusively for their internet use.  

While a majority of Americans still view this exponential growth in technology as positive, the tide is starting to shift and concerns are being raised as to its risk versus benefit ratio. Those using the internet for informational purposes continue to see it as positive, but when a broader view is considered, positive views of the internet and technology use decline.


Technology and internet addiction are a primary and growing concern. In fact, this addiction is now coined Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) or Compulsive Internet Use (CIU) and is linked to “neurological complications, psychological disturbances, and social problems.” Its prevalence is reported as high as 8.2% of the general population, but some suggest that it may actually affect nearly 38% of the population. It is even under consideration for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). As an addiction, IAD carries the traditional characteristics of any addiction including salience, compulsive use (loss of control), mood modification and the alleviation of distress, tolerance and withdrawal, and the continuation despite negative consequences.

Neurological Effects

The biological componentry involved in any addiction is activation of the brain’s “reward center” through the release of dopamine and opiates. Continual stimulation causes tolerance of the neurotransmitter receptors, leading to the need for increased stimulation (amounts of time, activity, etc.). Activation of this reward system can increase the likelihood of developing other addictions including gaming, drugs, alcohol, sexual, and food addictions. Depression, anxiety, hostility, and psychoticism often co-exist with addictions, including IAD. Other psychopathological disorders associated with IAD have included attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms, sleep disturbances and suicide ideation, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, and alexithymia.

Depression is a concerning outcome of internet addiction, which is most prevalent among those with introverted personalities and who are already predisposed to traits of depression. One explanation of this association is that significant time spent on the internet reinforces introversion and leads to deprivation of social interaction and reinforcement. Additionally, internet communication and interaction are often selective toward relationships that will offer affirmation, leading to an inability to problem-solve and engage in real-life conflict resolution. As a result, real-life relationships can become distant and strained, contributing to depression.

Dietary Parallels

Internet and technology addictions are highly associated with a state of dopamine dominance. In a previous blog, we saw how chronic dopamine dominance is associated with a high intake of stimulating foods such as sugars and refined grains, caffeinated beverages, artificial sweeteners, and high starch foods. These negative dietary habits can quickly lead to dysbiosis and systemic inflammation, which contributes further to imbalanced neurotransmitters, mental health, and behavioral challenges.

Social Consequences

IAD is directly linked to social isolation and loneliness – a paradox, considering the increased connectivity between people through the virtual world. Not only do the long hours on the internet isolate users from reality but they deprive them of time necessary for developing relationships with real people, leading to loneliness and isolation. The health outcomes of isolation are well-documented, and include higher risks of mortality risk, cardiovascular disease, and HPA dysfunction.

The future doesn’t seem to offer any immediate hope for a swing back to pre-internet days when more relationships were real than virtual. However, we can make personal choices to keep our internet use in moderation, and be aware of this problem in others who may be on the road toward addiction (or are already in its grasp), and displaying its inevitable health outcomes.

By Nicole Spear, MS, CNS