How Internet Addiction Harms Your Brain, Health, and Sleep

by Martin Reed Patient Advocate

Do you find yourself browsing the internet at all hours of the day (and night)? When you get a spare moment or two, do you find yourself reaching for your phone or tablet for a quick online fix? If so, you may be suffering from internet addiction. There are, however, physicians and therapists who are not ready to deem the internet "addictive," just yet. For example, internet addiction disorder is not listed in the DSM-5, for example.

Am I Addicted to the Internet?

Kimberly S. Young, Psy.D., devised an eight point questionnaire to help determine the likelihood of respondents' internet addiction. According to it, you are considered to be addicted if you answer "yes" to five or more of the following questions:

  1. Do you feel preoccupied with the internet (think about previous online activity or anticipate next online session)?

  2. Do you feel the need to use the internet for increasing periods of time in order to achieve satisfaction?

  3. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop internet use?

  4. Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop internet use?

  5. Do you stay online longer than originally intended?

  6. Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of a significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the internet?

  7. Have you lied to family members, a therapist, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the internet?8. Do you use the internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)?

How Does Internet Addiction Affect the Brain?

A 2011 study linked internet addiction disorder with:

A 2014 review found that internet addiction was also associated with alcohol abuse and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

Unfortunately we still don't know for sure whether internet addiction causes these health issues, or if the health issues themselves make internet addiction more likely. However, we do know that sleep deprivation comes with a number of health risks — and internet addiction can have a serious impact on the quality of our sleep.

How Internet Addiction Harms Sleep

Excessive internet use is associated with sleep disruption. In volume 17 of the book Innovations in Clinical Practice, Dr. Young reported that internet addiction led some individuals to staying up later and using caffeine pills as a way of sustaining lengthy online sessions.

Sleep deprivation can lead to negative outcomes such as fatigue and even a compromised immune system. As suggested by Dr. Young, the sedentary nature of being online for excessive periods of time can also lead to a lack of exercise and a higher risk for carpal tunnel syndrome, back strain, and eye strain.

Accessing the internet via a mobile device when in bed may make it harder for your mind to relax, further inhibiting sleep. In addition, the electromagnetic radiation associated with mobile devices has been found to delay melatonin secretion.

Excessive exposure to blue light emitted from the screens of internet-connected devices can also disrupt the sleep-wake cycle, making sleep more difficult.

When our internal body clocks become disrupted, we may even develop a circadian rhythm sleep disorder such as delayed sleep phase disorder, which can further exacerbate the health effects of sleep deprivation.

How to Cure Internet Addiction

Dr. Young recommends the following techniques to alleviate internet addiction:

1. Disrupt internet use patterns.

If you find yourself logging onto the internet first thing in the morning, replace that routine with something else. For example, put on the coffee machine and take a shower instead. If you connect to the internet as soon as you arrive home from work, change your routine so that you only log on after dinner.

2. Use external stoppers.

If you need to leave for work at 8 a.m., don't connect to the internet before 7 a.m. Alternatively, set a timer or alarm clock to limit the length of online sessions.

3. Set goals.

Set yourself some reasonable goals. If you use the internet for 40 hours each week, try setting a new target of 20 hours each week. To avoid cravings and withdrawal, keep internet sessions frequent but brief.

4. Write reminder cards.

Make a list of five major problems related to your internet addiction and five major benefits of reducing your internet use. Refer to the cards anytime you feel the urge to go online.

5. Find an alternative activity.

What have you cut down on as a result of your internet addiction? Focus on the activities you value the most and recognize that your internet use is preventing you from being able to pursue those activities. Replace your online time with the activities you miss the most.

Support Groups and Therapy for Internet Addiction

If the techniques mentioned above don't help, you may want to seek additional assistance through support groups or addiction therapy. These options can be particularly helpful if you feel your excessive internet use is caused by low self-esteem.

If your internet use is getting out of control, take steps to improve the situation. Change your internet habits and substitute internet time for alternative activities. Not only will your sleep improve, but your overall health may benefit, too.

Martin Reed
Meet Our Writer
Martin Reed

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Coach, an eight-week course that combines online sleep education with individual sleep coaching. His course helps clients improve their sleep so they can enjoy a better life with more energy and start each day feeling happy, healthy, rested, and refreshed. Martin also runs a free sleep training course that has helped over 5,000 insomniacs. He holds a master’s degree in health and wellness education and studied clinical sleep health at the University of Delaware.