Internet addiction disorder is a recent phenomenon, but it has been affecting a significant number of people in recent times. Considered worse than chemical dependence by psychologists and psychiatrists, this type of addiction can cause psychological, physical and social problems, among other things. However, studies regarding this type of disorder are very limited and are still under development. But there are already some tools and service centers for people who develop this type of addiction. As much as it seems something that affects only young people, dependence on a cell phone or staying connected is something that can affect the most varied types of people.

Despite reaching people of all ages, Internet addiction tends to affect the most anxious and prone to depression. According to some experts, the virtual world becomes an escape from reality. The problem is that it can become a cycle and further reduce chances of fitting properly into society. Internet use can distract the user from a difficult situation in real life to trying to compensate for low self-esteem, lack of social skills and even psychiatric disorders.

However, not everyone who spends a lot of time on the Internet is an addict. What characterizes the addiction is not necessarily the amount of hours, but the effect on the user. Digital addiction can cause a loss of work capacity, socialization or other type of impairment. The person starts to feel bad without the stimulus received from the Internet.

The expression “Internet addiction” was created in 1995 by Ivan Goldberg, but it was Kimberly Young who researched the subject the most and in 1996 proposed the first criteria for the diagnosis of this condition. According to these criteria, anyone with the following symptoms was considered dependent on the Internet:

  • Excessive concern about the Internet
  • Need to increase the connected time (online) to have the same satisfaction
  • Display repeated efforts to decrease Internet usage time
  • Presence of irritability or depression
  • When the use of the Internet is restricted, it presents emotional lability
  • Stay connected longer than needed
  • Work and social relationships at risk from overuse
  • Lying to others about the amount of hours online
  • Listen to the phone ring or vibrate, even when turned off (phantom symptom)
  • The main symptoms of cell phone withdrawal are: anguish, existential emptiness (life seems to have no more meaning), despair, stress, irritability, nausea, tachycardia, sweating, muscle tension, panic, among other manifestations.
  • Significant damage in important areas of life (academic, professional, social, family, financial or legal).

There is still no consensus on which criteria should or can be used universally. We usually value the presence of significant damage in the individual’s life (academic, social, family, etc.) as one of the main markers of this disorder. This approach, while not trying to explain the reason for the problematic use, allows the therapist greater freedom to formulate a diagnostic understanding and a specific therapeutic plan for each patient.

Psychological assessment can, in addition to determining the real extent of the problem with games and social networks, understand the difficulties that the individual may be experiencing at this stage of life, better understand how relationships with friends and family are, assess aspects of personality and identify, or rule out other possible mental disorders (depression, social anxiety, attention deficit, among others) that may be contributing to the excessive use of technologies.

At the beginning of the evaluation, it is essential to establish a trustworthy, therapeutic alliance, which will serve as the basis for the therapy itself. It is necessary to develop an environment in which the patient is listened to carefully and without judgment and that this information is treated in an absolutely confidential manner. The therapist needs to keep in mind that the patient may not be 100% motivated to change their internet usage pattern. This should be respected in this situation and try to work to increase the patient’s motivation.

In the care of patients with very intense symptoms and very little motivation for treatment, the participation of family members is a great help for the therapist to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. In such cases, family therapy is more effective. When a person recognizes their using the Internet is causing a lot of damage in their life and are motivated to modify their behavior, individual therapy is the most appropriate.

Gleice Silva is currently studying psychology. She works at PrevOne Diagnostics and Prevention based in Brazil. The company is responsible for implementing Prevention and Control Programs for the Use of Psychoactive Substances in aviation, including customization of programs, training, exams and toxicological tests.