Is Internet Addiction Real?

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Do you get anxious when you’re separated from your smartphone? Feel uneasy when you can’t check your email for a few hours? You could be truly addicted to the internet, a new study suggests, and it might be harming your health. 

Researchers from Swansea University in England wanted to see what would happen, both psychologically and physiologically, when admitted “problem internet users” were temporarily kept away from their devices. These users weren’t defined by the amount of time spent online. Rather, it was determined by whether they stayed on longer than intended, isolated themselves from friends or family, ate up all their free time with web surfing, or let work slide because they were tethered to their tablet or phone. Problem internet users also often feel anxious or depressed or have trouble sleeping when they’re not plugged in, similar to withdrawing from alcohol or drugs.

For this first-of-its-kind study, the researchers recruited 144 men and women ages 18 to 34 who believed they may be problem internet users. Interestingly, those who thought they had the more intense problem averaged six to eight hours online — not a crazy amount by any stretch, especially because work hours were included. Without knowing the real reason they were being studied, the participants went through multiple sessions of either using the internet or being kept from it. Meanwhile, at different points throughout the study, the researchers measured their stress levels, blood pressure, and heart rate.

As expected, the problem internet users became anxious when they weren’t allowed online. But their heart rate and systolic blood pressure also increased, each by three to four percent, proving that the effects of internet withdrawal are physical as well as mental. “Three to four percent may not sound a lot, but that can move you from the normal to the pre-hypertensive range,” says lead study author Phil Reed, a psychology professor at Swansea University.

Long-term, Reed says these small elevations in heart rate and blood pressure could have a domino effect. “In terms of ill health, prolonged stress, from both physical and psychological sources, impacts a wide variety of physiological systems,” Reed says. “This includes the immune system, increasing your vulnerability to illness.”

Which is why Reed believes the internet can be a real addiction: “These results show that withdrawal effects exist, so combined with all the other [research] out there, I think we can say ‘yes’ to that.”

So, do you have a problem? “The key issue is whether you can walk away from the internet and not let it bother you,” Reed says. “If you work 12 hours a day online, leave work, and don’t give the internet a second thought, then you are not addicted.” But if you use your smartphone two hours a day and feel anxious when separated from it, Reed adds, then you know you have a problem. And just like any other addiction, “Anything that disrupts your life, stops you from doing the things you want to do, and bothers you or those around you should be addressed.”