The Truth About Teen Internet Addiction Disorder

The Truth About Teen Internet Addiction Disorder

October 14, 2022

The internet has wide-ranging impacts on our daily lives, regardless of age. People of all demographics and from all age groups use the internet in some form to communicate with others. Despite the dramatic effect the internet has on people worldwide, there is little research available on the effects of regular or excessive internet usage on teens. 


Is there an Internet Addiction Disorder Diagnosis? 

Data from recent studies by the Pew Research Center shows that approximately 80% of Americans use the internet every day. Although many do so for specific purposes such as education, work, or checking email, a large portion of the population spends a significant amount of their day online for other reasons. In some cases, their perceived need to be online interferes with their daily lives, sometimes so much so that it could be classified as an addiction. 


Is internet addiction in the DSM?

Mental health and treatment professionals like our team at Hillcrest use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM to assess the presence and severity of various mental health conditions. Currently, internet addiction or internet addiction disorder is not listed as a separate diagnosis. Similar to video game addictions and cellular phone (smartphone) addictions, internet addiction lacks clinical diagnostic criteria in the DMS. Therefore, many mental health providers do not recognize it as an illness. 


Recent studies point to evidence for classifying internet addiction as a diagnosable illness. A study conducted by the National Institutes of Health in 2017 showed a strong connection between excessive internet use and problematic behaviors and psychological disturbances. Because internet addiction or internet addiction disorder are not listed in the DSM, teen mental health providers often classify them as another behavioral health condition with similar symptoms, such as impulse control disorders, other behavioral addictions, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. 


Classifying internet addiction in this way allows treatment providers to develop treatment plans for individuals experiencing the harms related to excessive internet use. Although internet addiction does not directly mirror the symptoms of OCD or gambling addiction, these conditions have clear diagnostic criteria and defined treatment guidance. 


What are the Types of Internet Addiction Disorders? 

Again, there are no universally accepted diagnostic criteria for internet addiction disorders. It is important to remember that internet use can occur in a variety of ways, including desktop computers, laptops, smartphones, and iPads. Another consideration mental health providers must account for when assessing internet use disorders is that internet addiction is more than merely using the internet too often. The term internet addiction is an umbrella term used to explain several problematic behaviors and impulse control problems that arise from frequent internet use.  


Because the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not include internet addiction disorders as an official diagnosis, it can be challenging to determine if your teen’s behaviors could be connected to harmful internet use. Currently, treatment professionals can use the five subcategories of internet addictions provided by researchers at the National Institutes of Health. These five subcategories can help parents and caretakers identify potential internet-related challenges that could benefit from treatment at a teen-focused program like ours at Hillcrest in Los Angeles, California. 


Compulsive information seeking

The internet provides countless resources for people to research, view, and learn about various subjects. For some teens, the opportunity to search the internet for details about others or to collect and analyze data becomes addictive. In some cases, compulsive information-seeking may be a symptom of an underlying mental health condition such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. For others, it is a way to learn details about family, friends, or community members that others may not wish to share or disclose. Regardless of the root cause, information-seeking behaviors can lead to several problems for your teen, including challenges with friendships and reduced productivity at school or other areas of their life. 


Net compulsions

The National Institutes of Health explain net compulsions as “online activities that cause harm.” Common examples of net compulsions include online gambling, auctions, and compulsive online shopping. These activities can affect both your teen’s emotional health as well as financial stability and their understanding of personal finances. The economic consequences for teens who participate in these types of online activities often extend beyond the teen to their parents, as most teens are not old enough to have their own credit cards or open credit accounts. Also, the emotional toll of losing auctions of the money associated with the loss can be damaging for teens who are not yet equipped to manage these emotions. 


Online (cyber) relationship addictions

A teen with online relationship addictions will spend an excessive amount of time finding and maintaining online relationships. In many cases, so much time is spent in the online world that personal (face-to-face) relationships with family and friends fail. Online relationships or cyber relationships develop out of interactions on social networking sites and or chat rooms. They may also occur through online dating sites, gaming services, and other online locations where people can meet and communicate. 


It is common for people who engage in online relationships to hide their true identities. This means they often choose not to disclose or create false information about themselves, including their age, location, and identity. These actions can lead to dangerous outcomes for teens and adolescents who decide to meet the object of their interest face to face. It can also lead to many legal challenges for those who share suggestive or expletive content, such as messages or images online, with people they do not know outside of the online environment. 


Computer or gaming addictions

Computer or gaming addictions are characterized by excessively online gameplay. Depending on one’s individual circumstances, these can be solo games such as solitaire or online games involving thousands of people worldwide across several servers. Like other internet addictions, video gaming addiction does not have a unique diagnosis. However, research suggests there are wide-ranging psychological impacts linked to compulsive video game play for adolescents and teens. Excessive gaming not only interferes with obligations such as homework, sports, afterschool jobs, or extra-curricular obligations, but it can also dramatically limit a teen’s ability to maintain relationships with family and friends who are not part of the online community. 


Cybersex addiction

This type of internet addiction disorder is easiest explained in the title. Cybersex addiction involves an addiction to visiting and viewing websites or downloading content from sites that offer adult material, X-rated webcam services, and fantasy chatrooms, among other sexually oriented content. Unfortunately, many online sites that provide this type of material, while age-restricted, are not as protected as they should be. It is essentially possible for anyone, regardless of age, to use credit cards that belong to an adult and create fake accounts that state they are of the appropriate age to access explicit content. For teens, this can be a dangerous and slippery slope. In addition to potential legal, personal and social repercussions, addictions to sexual content can make it difficult to forge and maintain healthy in-person intimate relationships as one ages. 


Treatment for Teen Internet Addiction Disorder At Hillcrest

Internet addiction disorders can have dramatic physical and psychological effects on your teen. People who, regardless of age, spend much of their time on a computer can develop various physical and psychological health issues, including weight gain, carpal tunnel syndrome, eye strain, and general body aches and pains. Also, the emotional effects connected to certain online activities can include developing new or worsening pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, social isolation, and other changes to your teen’s behavior.


As noted above, there is no specific diagnosis for internet addiction disorder and, therefore, no specific treatment guidelines for mental health providers to use. Mental health providers at a program like Hillcrest apply many of the same treatments used to address other compulsive behavioral disorders. Internet addiction disorders share many of the same symptoms as compulsive disorders; therefore, their treatments have shown promise in helping address and manage the symptoms of internet addiction disorders. 


Treatment for Teen Internet Addiction Disorder

Like other mental health and addiction disorders, internet addiction disorder is a condition unique to the person. Working closely with your teen’s treatment team at Hillcrest is essential to develop a treatment plan that uses the therapy models focused on addressing your teen’s specific needs and goals. If you are a parent or caretaker concerned about your teen’s excessive internet use, it is important to seek help. Therapeutic interventions as part of a comprehensive treatment program can help your teen learn how to manage their internet use in a safe and healthy way. The best treatment programs address both the addictive nature of frequent internet use and the underlying mental health concerns that may lead to internet addiction. 


Unfortunately, diagnosing internet addiction disorder is not as straightforward as diagnosing other mental health conditions. Because internet addiction disorder (and other similar addictions) are not listed in the DSM, many mental health professionals may look to other potential diagnoses before considering internet addiction disorders. If you are concerned that your teen’s symptoms suggest an internet addiction, it is vital to know that the symptoms and the challenges they face are real. Those who live with an addiction to the internet are at risk for profound emotional and social challenges. 


Our team at Hillcrest understands the importance of comprehensive treatment to help your teen begin their journey toward healing. To learn more about our programs, contact a member of our Los Angeles area admissions team today