Characteristics of Internet addiction

Over the past decade, the Internet has become an indispensable part of most Poles’ lives. According to a CSO survey conducted in 2020, 90.4% of Polish households (with people aged 16-74) have access to the Internet1. Virtual space serves many functions – it is an unlimited source of information, enables efficient communication in various forms (written, video, telephone), provides entertainment and can be a source of income. Although for many people the web is a convenient and effective tool to help in everyday life, for some it can become a trap. As early as the 1970s, researchers began noticing certain behaviors associated with excessive and inappropriate use of the virtual space. Researchers agree that such Internet use includes problematic use of electronic devices that consumes a lot of time, causes anxiety or impairs a person’s functioning in important areas of life. Dysfunctional use of modern technology can be referred to as behavioral addiction because, like other such disorders, it is characterized by a dependence on a particular behavior and a compulsion to repeat it in order to feel satisfaction2. Although excessive Internet use shares many characteristics with addiction, it can also be categorized as an obsessive-compulsive disorder. People affected by such disorders feel a strong need to constantly perform a certain activity (compulsions) or are overwhelmed by repetitive (obsessive) thoughts. Some researchers, on the other hand, propose that Internet addiction be categorized as an impulse control disorder due to features shared with pathological gambling, or kleptomania3.

Due to the difficulty of fully describing and classifying Internet use problems, official classifications of mental disorders (such as DSM-V, or ICD-10) do not list a similar disorder. Nevertheless, the research community recognizes the dangers of dysfunctional use of new technologies and is constantly looking at it in research. Other terms are used for Internet addiction, such as networkoholism, Internet abuse, problematic Internet use (PUI), or Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).4 The last term translates as “fear of being disconnected,” i.e. a specific, pervasive fear that others at any given time may be participating in attractive events that the person experiencing FOMO is not participating in.5 The term is also used to refer to the fear of being disconnected.

Specialists have distinguished different types of Internet addiction such as cyber-sexual addiction (refers to individuals involved in viewing, downloading and trafficking pornography and those active in adult chat-rooms), cyber-relational addiction (describes individuals involved beyond the norm in online relationships that become more important to them than real-life relationships), compulsive behavior (e.g. virtual gambling, or shopaholism), information overload (refers to individuals who compulsively search for data online), and computer addiction (refers to individuals consumed by the initial installed games on the main drive)3.

Symptoms of networkoholism

Moving away from nomenclature and classification, it is worth focusing on the symptoms that may indicate that a person is experiencing difficulties associated with excessive Internet use. According to experts, in order to talk about behavioral addiction, a person must have three of the six main symptoms that persist over time. These symptoms are: a strong desire or compulsion to perform a particular activity, difficulty in controlling the onset, progression and duration of a particular behavior, physiological withdrawal symptoms (such as nervousness, distraction), a finding of tolerance (when, in order to get the desired effect, one must engage in the behavior with increasing intensity), neglect of alternative sources of pleasure (which is understood as the loss of previous interests and passions), and the finding of a pattern of repetition of the behavior by the person, despite its obvious harmfulness6.

According to studies, the most characteristic symptom of addiction to the virtual world is excessive, and not necessary, time spent in the online space. The amount of this time varies across studies, with some reporting that an addict spends an average of 27 hours a week on non-work-related activities or online education. In contrast, other studies report that people with netoholism spend about 8.5 hours a week online. It seems that an equally important symptom, besides time, is the amount of suffering and degree of functional impairment that problematic Internet use leads to. Addicts also complain of interpersonal, familial (especially serious problems in partnerships and marriages) and professional difficulties as a result of excessive online use. In one study, people spending between 20 and 80 hours in cyberspace admitted that their addiction leads to sleep problems, insomnia and giving up exercise. Some subjects were diagnosed with an increased risk of somatic ailments such as carpal tunnel syndrome, spinal strain and eye strain7.

Mechanism of addiction to virtual space

There are several theories explaining the process of addiction. One concept is the neurobiological proposal. Addictive behavior is characterized by the constant desire of the person who performs it to achieve a subjectively pleasurable state. Two neurotransmitter systems in the brain are responsible for this sense of pleasure – the dopaminergic system (called the “reward system”) and the serotonergic system (called the “punishment system”). Internet use affects the functioning of the systems described above and the balance of hormones released: dopamine and serotonin. Research on brain activity has shown that the use of virtual space is associated with changes in the reward system and loss of control. Internet use has been found to be associated with increased dopamine release (as in drug use) and that the brain mechanisms of control, inhibition and reward in addicts do not function properly. Over time, as Internet use increases, the dopaminergic system becomes less and less sensitive, which means that in order to be aroused and experience feelings of pleasure, the amount of behavior that stimulates this system must be increased. In this case, such a group of activities are those associated with network use. This is how addiction is formed8.

Another explanation for the development of Internet addiction relates to the concept of “Self on the Web.” Thanks to the virtual space, Internet users can create their own “Ideal Self,” which they find more attractive than the “Real Self.” The created identity seems to be unlimited by rules, functioning with ease, free, “loose” and unpunished. In the virtual space, the demands of the social environment on the person disappear, which promotes a comfortable, less stressful activity.

A third explanation for Internet addiction centers around the need for emotional support experienced by those prone to abusing the Web. Such Internet users perceive the online environment as a medium that can easily provide them with such support – as opposed to, say, the real world, where it is more difficult to get emotional help9.

Youth Internet abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic

Having outlined the context of addiction to online spaces in terms of the nature of the problem, symptoms and processes leading to the disorder, it is necessary to move on to networkoholism in the young during the global coronavirus epidemic.

The current pandemic creates almost ideal conditions for the development of Internet addiction in a group of young people. First, the order to limit real-world contacts has moved many youth relationships, especially those with peers, to the virtual world. Second, online teaching, in addition to increasing the frequency of young people’s contact with the screen, has enabled them to use portals, instant messaging and other applications in parallel with classroom participation. In the real world, such accompanying behaviors were difficult or even impossible. Third, urging society to stay at home and restrict movement has deprived many young people of opportunities to engage and develop their passions and interests in the real world. The factors outlined are just some of the components of the “ground” ideally suited for the development of networkoholism.

The most extensive studies that focus on the problem of Internet addiction in pandemic times are conducted in China. One such study showed that some 47% of participants report increased dependence on the Web in the time since the start of the epidemic, and some 17% of people spend more time surfing the Internet in the pandemic compared to before the pandemic. Worryingly, as many as 4.3% of survey participants report being “severely” addicted to the Internet, indicating a 23% increase in this problem since pre-pandemic times10.

Another Chinese study conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic focused on a group of young people in the context of network addiction. It found that about 2.7% of those surveyed met the criteria for Internet addiction. This result is fortunately not particularly alarming. Unfortunately, worrying conclusions can also be drawn from the survey. After all, nearly 33.4% of young people were categorized as “problematic Internet users,” that is, people at risk of becoming addicted to the online space. In addition, it was found that Internet addiction is related to gender (women are more vulnerable), age (the older the adolescents, the greater the risk of problems with online use), depression (this condition increases the risk of addiction) and stress (the greater the stress, the greater the likelihood of problematic Internet use)11.

As for Polish data on young people’s Internet addiction during the pandemic, very little has been conducted, unfortunately. One source of such statistics is the nationwide survey “Teens 3.0” conducted by the National Research Institute NASK. The organization has been surveying adolescents (before the age of 20) on their use of virtual space every two years since 2014. The latest measurement of indicators related to networkoholism was taken just during the pandemic, at the end of 2019. According to what the researchers declare, it turned out that teenagers spend an average of 4 hours and 12 minutes a day in front of screens, excluding remote learning from this time. Experts warn that this result is about 32 minutes longer compared to the 2018 average. Interestingly, teens seem to recognize the problem in excessive Internet use, with 65% of youngsters declaring that they should “use” their smartphones less, and 49% admitting that they usually spend more time online than they initially assume. However, the results indicating problematic use of the virtual space seem disturbing. Indeed, a third of respondents agreed with the statements: “My life would be empty without my smartphone.” and “I feel impatient and upset when I can’t use my smartphone.” In addition, we found that young people use the Internet primarily for: listening to music (about 65% of respondents), watching movies and TV series (about 62% of respondents), communicating via instant messaging (about 61% of respondents) and using social media (about 51%). Teens mainly access the Web using smartphones (about 94% of respondents) and laptops (58%)12.

In conclusion, the NASK survey outlines a certain picture of problematic Internet use by Polish teens. Thanks to the fact that these surveys are longitudinal – measurements are collected every 2 years – it is possible to see the changes that have occurred in the area of online use during the pandemic period. Unfortunately, similar studies only illustrate correlations. This means that it is impossible to say with full certainty what is the cause and what is the effect of the changes taking place. Nonetheless, it is worth noting the connection between the increased use of the Internet by young people and the conditions created by such an extremely important factor as the pandemic.

A proposal for a prevention program

In light of the research presented, and in view of the current pandemic conditions that are particularly conducive to the development of Internet addiction, the primary focus should be on preventive measures aimed at the young. An interesting educational program was developed and tested by Russian researchers9. This program was aimed at young people and was designed to counteract network addiction and support young people in building a social identity (i.e. learning to take on social roles and find their place in society). The concept proposed by the researchers included activities aimed at:

arousing young people’s reflections on life values;
directing young people’s attention to valuable social experiences;
developing self-regulation and time and information management in virtual space;
training critical thinking in analyzing the content of information acquired online.

The intermediate goals of the program described above were achieved through talks, practical activities, group discussions, social games, psychological exercises and so-called “brainstorming.” The effectiveness of the program developed by Russian researchers was confirmed on a sample of students. It was shown that the program has positive effects and contributes to reducing the manifestations of vulnerability to Internet addiction.

It is worth introducing similar measures aimed at young people in Poland. It is necessary to protect the young, who are the future of the country, from the dangers of excessive use of the Internet. It is worth ensuring that Internet addiction does not obscure young people’s life goals, values and, that it does not deprive them of authentic relationships in the real world.

Literature cited,3,19.html;3992023.html
GREENFIELD, David N. Psychological characteristics of compulsive Internet use: A preliminary analysis. Cyberpsychology & behavior, 1999, 2.5: 403-412.
PRZYBYLSKI, Andrew K., et al. Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out. Computers in human behavior, 2013, 29.4: 1841-1848.
YOUNG, K. S. Internet addiction: The emergence of a new clinical disorder. Cyberpsycholoy & Behavior, 1998, 1, 237-244.
WEINSTEIN, Aviv; LEJOYEUX, Michel. New developments on the neurobiological and pharmaco-genetic mechanisms underlying internet and videogame addiction. The American Journal on Addictions, 2015, 24.2: 117-125.
NEVERKOVICH, Sergey D., et al. Students’ internet addiction: study and prevention. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, 2018, 14.4: 1483-1495.
SUN, Yan, et al. Brief report: increased addictive internet and substance use behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic in China. The American journal on addictions, 2020, 29.4: 268-270.
DONG, Huixi, et al. Internet addiction and related psychological factors among children and adolescents in China during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) epidemic. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2020, 11: 751.,Raport-z-badan-quotNastolatki-30quot-2019.html