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Interpreting the Nature of Internet Addiction: Is it really the Internet’s fault?





Behavioral Internet-compulsion, although significantly controversial in relation to substance addictions, affects approximately 6% of Internet users.[1] Behavioral addictions such as this are considered impulse-control disorders and share many underlying similarities to substance addictions, including aspects of excessive use, tolerance, withdrawal, repeated unsuccessful attempts to cut back, and impairment in everyday life functioning.[2] However, controversy surrounding the validity of impulse-control disorders is centered around the lack of neurological basis for Internet addiction in relation to drug-related disorders. The root of the question is whether the addiction stems from the online environment itself, or whether the compulsion is based on a neural gratification from something else and the Internet is simply a means of delivery. 


The reward-system associated with substance addictions is a result of neurotransmitter release, usually dopamine, stimulating the brain receptors for “reward.” Unlike substance addicts, those with Internet addictions do not directly ingest neurotransmitters, but instead stimulate intense reward system activation as the Internet develops into a conditioned response and usage prompts dopamine release.[3] In essence, what one becomes addicted to is the unpredictable influx of dopamine that is associated with the substance or behavior, in this case Internet usage. New studies suggest that all addictions may actually stem from the elevated levels of dopamine itself in the brain, not simply the substance or behavior that causes it.[4] Is the influx of dopamine associated with Internet usage a direct result of the online environment? Or is the Internet merely a means of supplementing other addictions such as shopping, gaming, gambling, or sex?


Researchers argue that the Internet itself has characteristics that make it extremely appealing to those who are prone to addiction. The first factor that contributes to Internet compulsion is the highly stimulating content available through Internet usage. Searching and finding one’s most desired content, especially if it is difficult to find, produces a delay in gratification and makes the Internet that much more compelling. The second factor that induces Internet compulsion is the relative disinhibition and anonymity that the Internet provides. Studies show that 80% of Internet addicts and 43% of non-addicts reported feeling  disinhibited while online.[5] Cognitive science has demonstrated that disinhibition occurs allows for an altered state of consciousness in the brain that facilitates anonymity and compulsive online use.[6] The subconscious dissociation that users experience as a result of feeling less inhibited on the net facilitates the compelling nature of the online-world. The final, most significant element to Internet compulsion is the reinforcement/reward factor. The Internet operates under a variable ratio reinforcement schedule in which the saliency and desirably of targeted online content, along with the frequency of finding the correct content, contribute to the addictive experience. 


However, with each of these highly addictive Internet characteristics comes a counter argument supporting the idea of separate addictions augmented by Internet usage. The most addictive aspects of the Internet today, in terms of content,  are sexual and video computer gaming, and the most common content consumed, gaming, gambling, shopping, and sex, have a history of being “overused, abused, or addicted.”[7] Therefore, it is not the Internet content itself that provides gratification, but the process of searching and finding specific content that appeals to one’s previous inclination for shopping compulsions, or sex addiction, etc. Secondly, those with a proclivity to addiction capitalize on the idea of disinhibition with Internet usage. The ability to access subconscious elements of one’s persona through dissociation is shown the have addictive effects, and is especially prevalent in gaming, sexual content, and social networking situations. Of those with previous inclinations for addiction, 8.2% utilize the Internet to escape from real-world problems and take advantage of the disinhibition effect as a psychoactive medium.[8] Whether its gaming, sexual content, shopping, social media, or gambling, all aspects of the Internet support unpredictable and variable reward structures associated with behavioral addictions. Finally, the variable ratio reinforcement schedule creates an environment in which intermittent degrees of reinforcement stimulate pleasurable reward because of the combination of unpredictable frequency and unpredictable saliency. It is this kind of environment that is present in all behavioral addictions, and most game/sex industries recognize and exploit these behavioral principles. 


At this point, the nature of Internet addiction is up to individual interpretation. Those that argue for Internet Addiction to be a category of its own face a myriad of controversial problems in distinguishing specific behavioral addictions with compulsion for the Internet itself.  Similarly, those that argue the net is a means of facilitating other addictive propensities must address the specific neurological response addicts have to the Internet itself. Overall, the question remains: Is it really the Internet’s fault?








1 Young, Kimberly S., and Nabuco de Abreu, Cristiano eds. Internet addiction: a handbook and guide to evaluation and treatment. Wiley, 2010. Page 135.


2 Tao, R., Huang, X., Wang, J., Zhang, H., Zhang, Y. and Li, M. “Proposed Diagnostic Criteria for Internet Addiction.” Addiction, 2010. Page 556–564. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2009.02828.x


3 O'Brien, Charles P. “Commentary on Tao et al. (2010): Internet addiction and DSM-V.” Addiction, 2010. Page 565. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2009.02892.x


4 Young, Internet Addiction. Page 139.


5 Young, Internet Addiction. Page 142.


6 Ibid.


7 Young, Internet Addiction. Page 140.


8 Young, Internet Addiction. Page 142.









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