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Internet addiction (IA) and relationships: definition, signs, causes and remedy

Reading time: 16 mins
Internet addiction IA and relationships

Internet addiction (IA) is defined as an overwhelming and uncontrollable drive to use the internet, frequently at the expense of one’s job, daily life, personal relationships, and overall well-being. 

The signs of IA include loss of control over internet use, troubles in interpersonal relationships, deceptive behavior, reduced work or school performance, extended durations of internet usage, and poor sleep. 

Internet addiction disorder (IAD) can profoundly affect interpersonal relationships. As people’s engagement with online activities continues to grow, they frequently fail to prioritize the interpersonal connections that are critical for the sustenance of healthy relationships. This can lead to a breakdown in communication between partners, family members, and friends. 

Precautions that can help prevent problematic internet use (PIU) include time management, engaging in offline hobbies, socializing offline, digital detox, self-monitoring, and seeking professional help.

What does internet addiction (IA) mean?

Internet addiction (IA) refers to a behavioral condition in which an individual’s involvement in online activities becomes compulsive, excessive, and uncontrollable to the detriment of other important elements of their life. 

Many people living with IA have trouble with their daily functioning, duties, and well-being due to excessive amounts of time spent on social media, online gaming, or surfing the web.

A 2023 article written by Deyan Georgiev for TechJury.net revealed that 1.5% to 8.2% of the global population suffered from internet addiction in 2013, according to studies. A number of that magnitude was already cause for alarm even then. However, internet addiction has been on the rise in recent times. 

Then the COVID-19 epidemic hit, and everyone was quarantined indoors, with only the internet to keep them in touch with the outside world. Because of that, a startling 36.7% of the population is now considered to be an internet addict.

Why is the Internet addictive?

girl in a bed looking at the phone

The internet is addictive because of several factors, such as its ability to provide a seemingly endless array of content and experiences at one’s fingertips. This abundance of information and entertainment caters to our natural curiosity and desire for novelty, triggering the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward centers. 

Each click, video view, or social media like becomes a small pleasurable reward, reinforcing the urge to stay connected. Additionally, social media platforms and online games are designed with engagement in mind, utilizing features like variable rewards and notifications to keep users coming back for more. 

The fear of missing out (FOMO) and the urge to stay connected with friends and trends also contribute to the addictive nature of the internet. Moreover, its availability around the clock means that individuals can easily turn to it as a distraction from real-life problems or sources of stress, further cementing its role as an addictive escape. 

The internet’s design and accessibility, combined with our innate psychological tendencies, create a perfect storm of factors that make it highly compelling and, for some, addictive.

What are the signs that a person is struggling with IA?

Signs that a person is struggling with IA are indicators that  an individual may have developed an unhealthy and compulsive relationship with the internet. The most common signs that a person is struggling with IA are listed below. 

  • Loss of control over internet use: Internet addictions are accompanied by a (perceived) absence of control over one’s online activities, according to a 2014 review by Antonius J. Van Rooij and Nicole Prause published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions. The study added that laboratory research has established with greater certainty that individuals who struggle with internet use may also have difficulties with self-regulation.
  • Troubles in interpersonal relationships: Many studies have found that IA is linked to problems in interpersonal relationships among teenagers and college students, according to a 2022 study by Hao et al., published in Frontiers in Psychiatry. If successful interpersonal interactions are not created, a variety of psychological problems, such as aggression, anxiety, depression, and maladjustment will ensue.
  • Deceptive behavior: Engaging in secretive or deceptive actions related to internet use, such as hiding the extent of one’s online activities, is indicative of addiction. This behavior often stems from a sense of shame or guilt associated with excessive use.
  • Reduced work or school performance: An individual’s ability to meet professional or educational commitments can suffer as a result of internet addiction. Excessive internet time, especially when it comes at the price of work or study, can result in missed deadlines, poor productivity, and lower performance in school. 
  • Extended durations of internet usage: An excessive amount of time spent online, frequently at the expense of other duties and hobbies, is a clear symptom of internet addiction. Work, school, and personal relationships may suffer as a result of this conduct.
  • Poor sleep: The results of a study by YI-Lung Chen and Susan Shur-Fen Gau published in the February 2016 issue of the Journal of Sleep Research showed that internet addiction was progressively predicted by sleep issues, particularly early and middle insomnia. 

Does IA impact relationships?

Yes, internet addiction does impact relationships. Excessive and compulsive internet use can strain personal relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners. 

This impact occurs as individuals may spend an excessive amount of time online, neglecting face-to-face interactions and failing to fulfill their social and emotional responsibilities. The result can be an emotional disconnect, decreased quality time spent with loved ones, and a sense of isolation among those affected by the addiction. 

Additionally, internet addiction can lead to secrecy and dishonesty in relationships as individuals attempt to conceal the extent of their online activities, eroding trust. In extreme cases, it can even lead to relationship breakdowns, as the addiction consumes more time and emotional energy than the maintenance of meaningful connections. 

Therefore, it is crucial to recognize and address internet addiction to preserve and strengthen these vital interpersonal relationships.

Can spending much time on the internet lead to conflicts in relationships?

couple fighting

Yes, spending much time on the internet can lead to conflicts in relationships. When one partner or family member devotes an inordinate amount of time to online activities, it can result in frustration, neglect, and emotional disconnection among loved ones. 

Conflicts may arise due to a lack of quality time spent together, unmet expectations, and a sense of being sidelined for the internet. These disagreements can wreak havoc on emotional attachments within relationships, causing failures in communication and, in extreme circumstances, contributing to the demise of such bonds. 

Balancing internet use with quality time spent with loved ones is essential to prevent and resolve such conflicts.

What are the causes of internet addiction (IA)?

The causes of internet addiction include the fundamental influences or factors that contribute to the onset of compulsive and excessive internet usage. The causes of internet addiction are listed below. 

  • Genetic predisposition: There is evidence of a genetic predisposition to IA or PIU, according to a 2022 review of the genetic basis of problematic internet use published in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. It is also hypothesized that heredity can influence IA not just directly, but also indirectly through personality qualities such as impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and compulsivity.
  • Environmental factors: An individual’s internet habits are heavily influenced by their physical and social surroundings. The availability of digital gadgets, high-speed internet connections, and the ease of access to the internet all contribute to the allure of spending too much time online. Addiction is further reinforced by the cultural and societal conventions around internet use, particularly in areas where online activities are strongly encouraged or even needed for job or socialization.
  • Social factors: Loneliness and social isolation can drive individuals to the internet in search of social connections. Online communities and social media can offer a sense of belonging that may be lacking in their offline lives, leading to addictive behavior.
  • Mental health problems: Those with existing mental health problems are also more likely to develop an addiction to the internet. There are several mental health concerns that may have this effect, with a particular focus being placed on both depression and anxiety. The individual may turn to online services like social media or games as a way of escaping reality, instead of focusing on finding effective ways to manage and treat these conditions.
  • Escapism: The internet provides a convenient way to escape from real-world concerns. People may turn to it as a means of evading difficult situations, which can eventually lead to a vicious cycle consisting of avoidance and addiction. Online games, for example, may give a person an opportunity to enter a virtual world and forget about their worries in real life. 

Who are the people prone to internet addiction (IA)?

People prone to internet addiction (IA) include male adolescents, those with underlying psychological conditions, people facing a lack of social interaction or companionship, and those struggling with the absence of fulfilling offline activities. 

A study by Silvana Karacic and Stjepan Oreskovic published in the April-June 2017 issue of JMIR Mental Health confirms that teens between the ages of 15 and 16, particularly male adolescents, are the most vulnerable to developing an internet addiction.

Additionally, those who are already battling with underlying psychological disorders such as anxiety, sadness, or poor self-esteem may turn to the internet for coping or solace, thus increasing their risk of addiction.

A lack of social interaction or companionship can also lead to PUI through various mechanisms. Human beings have an innate need for social connection, and when this need is unfulfilled in the real world, individuals may turn to the internet to seek social interactions. Online platforms provide an easily accessible means of connecting with others, offering virtual companionship and a sense of belonging that may be missing in offline life.

Finally, a lack of fulfilling offline activities can contribute to internet addiction by leaving individuals with unmet leisure and recreational needs. When there are limited or uninteresting options for offline pastimes, the internet becomes a primary source of enjoyment and engagement, often filling the void left by the absence of fulfilling offline hobbies.

Is internet addiction a disorder?

a boy and a girl sitting on a stair looking at phone

No, internet addiction is not officially classified as a standalone disorder, at least in widely accepted diagnostic manuals like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). 

Nonetheless, there is growing recognition of problematic internet use as a significant mental health concern, and research and clinical efforts are ongoing to better understand and address it. 

The specific terminology and diagnostic criteria may vary among experts, but it is widely acknowledged that excessive and compulsive internet use can have profound negative impacts on an individual’s life, leading to a need for assessment, treatment, and support.

How does internet addiction affect physical and mental health?

Internet addiction affects physical and mental health by leading to a range of negative consequences. On a physical level, excessive internet use often results in a sedentary lifestyle, contributing to issues like obesity, poor posture, and increased risk of various health problems. 

Prolonged screen time can lead to eye strain and disrupted sleep patterns, affecting overall well-being. Additionally, the impact of internet addiction on mental health is significant. It can exacerbate or contribute to conditions like anxiety and depression, as individuals may experience feelings of isolation, inadequacy, or FOMO (fear of missing out) when comparing their online lives to others. 

This can lead to a cycle of poor mental health, as people may continue to seek solace or validation online, further intensifying their addiction and its negative consequences. Recognizing and addressing these physical and mental health impacts is crucial in effectively dealing with internet addiction.

How is IA related to a relationship?

Internet addiction is closely related to relationships, and the connection between the two is undeniable. Relationships between people can be strained by IA, resulting in emotional estrangement and a sense of neglect among loved ones. 

Individuals who are hooked to the internet frequently spend an inordinate amount of time online, ignoring real-world interactions and their duties in their relationships. This can lead to conflicts, emotional distance, and trust issues, as the addiction may involve secretive or deceptive behavior. 

In fact, people who are severely addicted to the internet may even end relationships as they put their online activities ahead of their relationships with other people.

What are the signs that internet addiction (IA) has affected relationships?

The observable signs that internet addiction has affected relationships indicate that a person’s heavy internet use has already had an impact on their personal life. The most common signs that internet addiction (IA) has affected relationships are listed below. 

  • Emotional distance: Individuals affected by IA may become emotionally distant from their loved ones. They may seem disengaged or uninterested in conversations and activities, putting online interactions ahead of connections in real life.
  • Neglect of quality time: Spending less time with friends and family can result from problematic internet use. The preference to be online may reduce shared experiences and emotional intimacy.
  • Conflict due to neglect: Neglect of relationship responsibilities and obligations due to excessive internet use can lead to conflicts. Loved ones may feel unimportant or unheard, causing tension and frustration.
  • Secrecy and dishonesty: People may hide how much they do online when they have IA, which can lead to secretive or dishonest behavior. This can cause trust to break down in relationships.
  • Loss of emotional intimacy: Over time, IA can erode emotional intimacy, as individuals may struggle to connect on a deeper level with their loved ones. This can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection within relationships.

What are the effects of internet addiction (IA) on relationships?

The effects of internet addiction on relationships describe the negative effects that obsessive internet use can have on one’s relationships at home, at work, and in their personal life. The effects of internet addiction (IA) on relationships are listed below. 

  • Lack of communication: Internet addiction can make it difficult to communicate effectively in relationships. Individuals may become engrossed in online activities, resulting in less meaningful talks and connections with loved ones.
  • More conflict and arguments: IA causes issues in any relationship. When a person emphasizes the internet over genuine conversations with loved ones and isolates oneself from the outside world, conflict might arise. Dispute over excessive internet use can damage these ties.
  • Marital disharmony: Online relationships have been identified as a growing source of marital discord in certain affluent nations, according to a 2020 study on the effect of internet addiction on marital life published in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal. Cyber infidelity is one area that has an impact on marital relationships. Online dating searches and addiction to pornographic websites have both been reported. Numerous websites offer the chance to meet new people online and have been involved in the start and maintenance of extramarital relationships.
  • Impact on parent-child relationships: Internet addiction can have a particularly profound effect on parent-child relationships, as it may lead to neglect of parental responsibilities, reduced quality time with children, and the modeling of excessive screen time for kids.
  • Relationship dissolution: When internet addiction gets out of control, it can cause friendships and intimate relationships to fall apart since it takes up more time and emotional energy than keeping genuine interactions going.

How does internet addiction (IA) affect friendships?

man and woman standing back to back

Internet addiction (IA) can have an enormous effect on friendships. When people become addicted to the internet, they frequently prefer online activities over spending time with their friends. 

As addicted individuals grow increasingly secluded and engaged with their online environment, the quality and amount of social contacts may suffer. As a result, individuals may miss out on opportunities to connect with friends, participate in common interests, and offer or receive emotional support. Neglecting these friendships can strain them over time, potentially leading to feelings of abandonment or frustration among friends. 

How does internet addiction (IA) affect family relationships?

Internet addiction (IA) can have profound effects on family relationships. It often leads to a shift in priorities where the addicted individual may spend an excessive amount of time online, neglecting family interactions and responsibilities. 

This neglect can result in family members feeling undervalued and emotionally distant, which can lead to a breakdown in communication. The addictive behavior can also cause financial strain if the individual overspends on online activities, which can further strain family relationships.  In the long run, IA can disrupt the overall harmony of the family unit.

How does internet addiction (IA) affect romantic relationships?

Internet addiction can deeply affect romantic relationships by disrupting the emotional and physical connection between partners. When one person in a relationship is addicted to the internet, they may withdraw from their partner both emotionally and physically. 

They might choose to spend more time online than engaging in quality time together, leading to a lack of intimacy and shared experiences. The neglect of emotional connection can result in feelings of emotional abandonment and frustration for the partner who feels unimportant or undervalued.

When one partner hides the extent of their online activities or the negative consequences of their addiction, it can create a significant breach of trust. This breach can lead to arguments, as the addicted individual’s partner may feel deceived or betrayed, further straining the relationship.

What are the consequences of neglecting relationships in favor of online interactions?

The consequences of neglecting relationships in favor of online interactions refer to unfavorable results that might arise from choosing virtual interactions over physical encounters with loved ones. The consequences of neglecting relationships in favor of online interactions are listed below.

  • Emotional estrangement: Prioritizing online relationships over those in the physical world can result in emotional disconnection with loved ones. The lack of face-to-face interactions and emotional presence can lead to a sense of isolation and loneliness.
  • Stunted social skills: Excessive online interactions at the expense of real-life relationships can hinder the development of essential social skills. Individuals may become less adept at reading and responding to non-verbal cues and navigating complex social dynamics
  • Missed opportunities: Neglecting real-life relationships might lead to wasted possibilities for personal development and experiences. It might result in regrets and a sensation of having missed out on crucial life events, experiences, and connections.
  • Decreased empathy: Overusing the internet might make people less empathetic toward others because they lose awareness of the needs and feelings of those around them. This may affect one’s capacity to establish and preserve deep relationships.
  • Strained relationships: Neglecting real-world relationships can strain and damage them. Loved ones may feel unimportant, undervalued, or abandoned, which can lead to conflicts, emotional distance, and even relationship breakdowns.

How to maintain a balanced relationship with internet addiction?

boy and a girl in bed, looking at phone

Maintaining a balanced relationship with internet addiction involves implementing strategies to ensure that online activities do not overshadow or negatively impact your real-life relationships. 

Some of the easiest ways to achieve this balance include setting clear boundaries for internet use. Designate specific times when you will be online and when you will disconnect to spend quality time with loved ones. Communicate with your family and friends about your intentions and the importance of these boundaries to ensure their understanding and support.

Additionally, make use of technology itself to help you maintain a balance. Set timers or use apps that restrict your online time, which can serve as a helpful reminder to disconnect and engage in real-life interactions. Prioritize face-to-face interactions, whether it’s with friends, family, or a romantic partner, to nurture and strengthen those connections. 

Finally, seek support when necessary, such as from a therapist or support group, to address and manage internet addiction effectively. A balanced relationship with the internet is achievable through mindfulness, clear boundaries, and the active effort to prioritize the people and experiences that matter most in your life.

How can couples address the issue of IA?

Addressing internet addiction as a couple is a process that requires understanding, collaboration, and open communication. The first step is acknowledging the issue without judgment or blame, recognizing how it has affected the relationship. 

Both partners should engage in open and non-confrontational conversations, sharing their concerns and feelings about the addiction’s impact. This dialogue sets the foundation for finding solutions.

It’s crucial to establish limitations on internet use, with both partners agreeing on guidelines for time spent online and when it is acceptable. Prioritizing quality time together through shared activities that both enjoy can help reestablish emotional intimacy and connection.

In more severe cases, seeking the assistance of a therapist or counselor who specializes in addiction and relationships can provide valuable guidance and tools for managing the addiction. Using technology to manage technology is a helpful approach; employing apps or features that limit online time can assist in adhering to the agreed-upon boundaries.

Lastly, offering support and encouragement is crucial. Internet addiction is a genuine struggle, and a partner’s understanding and compassion can be a significant source of motivation and strength in overcoming it. This collaborative effort can not only help address the issue of internet addiction but also strengthen the relationship itself.

What are the ways to prevent internet addiction (IA)?

The ways to prevent internet addiction comprise a range of measures designed to reduce the chances of harmful patterns of behavior emerging in the first place. The ways to prevent internet addiction (IA) are listed below.

  • Time management: Set specific time limits for online activities. Allocate time for work, social interaction, and leisure online, ensuring that it does not encroach on your responsibilities and offline life.
  • Engage in offline hobbies: Cultivate offline hobbies and interests to diversify your activities. Exploring new interests or rediscovering old ones can provide a fulfilling alternative to excessive online use.
  • Socialize offline: Prioritize face-to-face social interactions with family and friends. Engage in regular offline gatherings and activities to strengthen real-world connections and reduce the need for online socialization.
  • Digital detox: Periodically disconnect from the internet to reset your online habits. Schedule tech-free hours or days to recharge and spend quality time with loved ones.
  • Self-monitoring: Regularly assess your online activities and their impact on your life. Recognizing any patterns of excessive use and making necessary adjustments is a crucial part of preventing IA.
  • Seek professional help: At times, it is not always enough to know how to overcome internet addiction, especially if it is starting to profoundly impact one’s daily functioning. If you suspect that your IA is worsening, consider seeking support from a therapist or counselor specializing in addiction. Professional guidance can help you address the issue proactively and develop healthier online habits.

What are the tips to handle internet usage?

The tips to handle internet usage can help individuals implement a couple of strategies in order to ensure they keep their internet use in control. The most helpful tips to handle internet usage are listed below.

  • Filter content: Employ parental control tools and content filters to restrict access to time-consuming or distracting websites and applications. This lessens the temptation to indulge in pointless browsing and helps you stay on track with your online objectives.
  • Set specific goals: Define clear objectives for your online activities. Whether it’s for work, research, or leisure, having specific goals in mind can help you stay focused and avoid aimless scrolling.
  • Minimize notifications: Disable or limit notifications on your devices. Constant alerts can be distracting and lead to frequent online checks. By reducing notifications, you regain control over when and how you interact with the internet.
  • Regular screen breaks: Incorporate short, frequent screen breaks into your day. These breaks provide a chance to rest your eyes, stretch, and briefly disconnect from the digital world, promoting better overall well-being.
  • Accountability partner: Tell a family member or close friend who you trust about your internet usage objectives so they can help you stay accountable. They can offer inspiration and assistance while you strive to control your internet behavior.

Who can help the person experiencing internet addiction (IA)?

group of friends looking at a phone

A person experiencing internet addiction (IA) may receive help from loved ones, support groups, mental health professionals, educational institutions, and rehabilitation centers.

Supporting an individual with an internet addiction can be greatly facilitated by the presence of close friends and family. They can provide moral support, motivation, and oversight for responsible use of technology.

Participating in online or in-person support groups can also be helpful. These groups offer a network of others going through comparable struggles and a forum for exchanging stories, getting counsel, and supporting one another.

Psychologists and counselors, among other mental health specialists, are skilled in treating addiction and may provide individualized therapy and counseling to meet the needs of each patient. They can assist with determining the root causes of internet addiction as well as creating coping mechanisms.

Schools and universities may offer resources or counseling services to students dealing with internet addiction. These services can provide guidance and support in maintaining a balanced online and offline life.

Finally, when other methods have failed, addiction treatment at a residential or outpatient facility may be necessary. These facilities offer comprehensive treatment for substance abuse and its root causes.

Is it possible to repair relationships strained by IA?

Yes, it is possible to repair relationships strained by internet addiction. Internet addiction can take a toll on personal connections, causing emotional distance, conflicts, and mistrust. However, with dedication and the right strategies, relationships can be mended and even strengthened.

To repair these relationships, individuals must first acknowledge the issue and its impact on their loved ones. Open communication is essential; honest conversations about the addiction, its causes, and its consequences can foster understanding and empathy. 

Setting clear boundaries for internet use and actively prioritizing quality time with family and friends are key steps in rebuilding trust and emotional intimacy. Seeking professional help, such as therapy or counseling, can also provide guidance and tools to address the addiction and its effects on relationships.

Ultimately, the process of repairing relationships strained by internet addiction requires commitment, patience, and a joint effort from all parties involved. With the right support and strategies, individuals can successfully navigate this challenge and reestablish healthier, more fulfilling connections with their loved ones.

What is the difference between internet addiction and internet abuse?
woman in pyjamas distressed

The difference between internet addiction and internet abuse is the extent and impact of the affected individual’s relationship with the internet in each condition. 

Internet addiction, also known as internet use disorder, is characterized by a compulsive, often uncontrollable, need to use the internet, leading to a negative impact on various aspects of a person’s life, including their physical and mental health, work or school performance, and relationships. Internet addiction is akin to other behavioral addictions, such as gambling or gaming addiction, and is often associated with a loss of control over online activities.

On the other hand, internet abuse refers to problematic or excessive internet use that may not meet the criteria for addiction. It involves overindulgence in online activities, which can lead to negative consequences in one’s life but might not exhibit the same level of compulsivity and loss of control as addiction. 

Internet abuse often encompasses behaviors like spending too much time online at the expense of other responsibilities, using the internet as a coping mechanism for stress, or neglecting in-person social interactions.

In summary, when talking about internet addiction vs. internet abuse, it is important to take note of the degree of compulsiveness and control associated with each behavior. Internet addiction is marked by an uncontrollable need to use the internet, while internet abuse involves problematic, excessive use without necessarily exhibiting the full range of addiction symptoms. 

Both, however, can have significant adverse effects on various aspects of a person’s life and well-being, necessitating attention and intervention to maintain a healthy balance between online and offline activities.