The Internet offers a vast array of resources for fun, education, and business and acts as a new way to form lasting social connections. Combined with the rise of mobile device technology and the increasing amount of broadband coverage across the United States, many Americans now have access to the Internet all day, every day and everywhere. While this easy access helps a boring commute fly by, provides easy directions to a new restaurant, or helps you finish a last-minute project for work, it comes with a darker side: Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD). Those afflicted have trouble logging off, find more comfort online than in real life, and may compulsively spend money or time to the detriment of other relationships. Where’s the line? How do you know if it’s IAD?


Of Megabytes and Mental Health

The go-to resource for mental health disorders is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). While Internet Addiction Disorder, also known as Internet Use Disorder (IUD) isn’t yet on the list, researchers are investigating the online affliction to see if it meets the required criteria. A recent study lends support to this idea: Comparisons of healthy and IAD users showed patterns of “abnormal white matter” in the brains of those with IAD, similar to those who used drugs such as alcohol, cocaine, or even heroin. In effect, those with IAD get “high” when the use the Internet and have difficulty coming down when not online, showing what the DSM-V authors call a “preoccupation.”

Typically, the disorder is broken down into several subcategories, including cyber-relationship addiction, compulsions like gambling or online gaming, and information overload, where obsessive web searching causes lower productivity and stress. It’s possible to exhibit one or all of the addictions listed.

When to Power Down

There’s a fine line between everyday Internet use and full-on addiction. Enjoying massively multiplayer games (MMOs), collaborating on work projects, or just cruising the web for interesting tidbits of information are all perfectly normal habits; taken to extremes, however, they can start to damage real-life relationships. Assessing your Internet use starts by looking at the other people in your life — are there friends and family you ignore in favor of spending time online? Do they often ask you to put your phone down or talk to them rather than logging into a game or doing work? If so, consider why you’re using the Internet in the first place. Often, being online can relieve feelings of anxiety, tension, or stress for short periods of time. Once you log off, however, these feelings return. While blowing off steam with a session of online poker isn’t a concern, using the Internet as a primary coping mechanism can be dangerous.

Who’s Most at Risk?

Certain risk factors can increase the likelihood of IAD. A lack of social support such as close friends or family, a sudden change in life circumstances such as the loss of a job or arrival of a new baby, or existing mental health issues like depression can all lead to unhealthy Internet use. In extreme forms, IAD poses serious health risks for users who forget to eat, clean, or sleep, but if caught in early stages most users can self-regulate their time online.

Simply put, if you find yourself losing track of time online, avoiding real-life relationships, or feeling defensive about your Internet use when asked, you may want to become more mindful of the time you spend online and make sure you’re balancing it with offline activities.