I’m addicted to the internet – an 11-day online binge cost me my career
It’s 7.45 on a Tuesday evening, and members of Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous (ITAA) are logging on for a regular meeting. Some 30 faces fill the screen: from Oxford to Baltimore, Vancouver to Tel Aviv. If there’s any irony to people who deem themselves internet addicts getting together on Zoom, no one remarks upon it.
‘My brain is thinking it’s a very good idea to start using again,’ says Dave*. ‘I’m OK with the first video, then I’m up till 4am watching films I hate, then I have to work the next day.’
Juliette* says, ‘I put loads of items in the basket, and fantasise about checking out. My ego is very insecure right now.’
Andy*, who works in IT, tells the group how jealous he is of the gardener he watches through his home-office window. ‘He gets to work without tech. What a wonderful life that must be, no screens or temptation.’
Much of the talk at ITAA is about being clean, relapsing and being ‘internet sober’. Group members say the Serenity Prayer and refer to their Higher Power. It’s the language of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in the 1930s, imported to tackle a 21st-century ‘poison’.
According to ITAA, internet and technology addiction comprises: ‘addiction to social media, smartphones, streaming video or audio content, games, news, pornography, dating apps, online research, online shopping, or any other digital activity that becomes compulsive and problematic’. Members of the free international ‘fellowship’ programme have diagnosed themselves, and most came across ITAA while scrolling.
But what is the difference, you may ask, between the average person who looks at emails first thing in the morning and last thing at night, who endlessly scrolls Twitter and news apps as a matter of habit, who likes an after-work Netflix binge – and an ‘internet addict’? Aren’t we all addicts in the uber-connected 2020s?
‘It’s true that internet addiction is a debated term,’ says Dr Marc Potenza, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University and a specialist in addiction treatment. ‘Some people have posited that the internet is a vehicle and not a target of disorder – a delivery device rather than the focus of it.’ To illustrate, ‘internet addiction’ per se doesn’t exist in the DSM-5 – the American Psychiatric Association’s bible of disorders – but internet gaming disorder and gambling disorder do. Many feel it is the gaming and gambling that people are addicted to, rather than the internet itself.
‘The word “addiction” has been used differently over time,’ says Potenza. ‘It used to describe the excessive use of alcohol and drugs. But the behavioural problems we started seeing in the ’90s – such as shopping and sex addiction – share many of the same patterns as substance abuse: compulsive use, repetitive urges and cravings, and interference with major areas of a person’s life, despite adverse consequences.’
At one extreme of internet-based obsession is the case of the Korean couple whose three-month-old daughter died of malnutrition in 2009 while her parents were raising a ‘virtual’ child online. Closer to home, and less dramatically, there are lost jobs and broken relationships, all because an individual couldn’t tear themself away from their online world.
‘Most people can use technologies for extended periods without ill effect,’ says Dr Petros Levounis, chair of the department of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in the US, and chief of service at University Hospital in Newark. ‘But just as happens with substances like alcohol and opioids, people become so caught up in their virtual existence that their real world – jobs, finances, relationships, physical health – begins to suffer. They think, “I know this is bad for me, but I can’t help it.”’
According to Levounis, the number of ordinary people seeking help because they can’t get off the internet has skyrocketed in recent years: ‘During the pandemic, we saw an explosion.’
Research also shows we have an increasing problem with technology. ‘Internet addiction, although not recognised by the WHO [World Health Organization], is a serious and problematic pathology,’ read a 2022 study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. Even pre-pandemic, studies in the US and Europe suggested rates as high as eight per cent.
In South Korea, which by 2019 considered a fifth of its population at risk of internet addiction, the issue has been termed a public health crisis.
In the UK, a 2016 Ofcom report revealed that more than a third of internet users had at some point resolved to take a ‘digital detox’ break from the web, with 59 per cent saying they were ‘hooked’ on their devices. The average user said they spent 25 hours a week online, an increase from nine hours in 2005. A third found it difficult to disconnect and almost half said they felt lost when they could not access the internet, rising to 59 per cent among 16- to 24-year-olds.
There is a split between ages and sexes. ‘Online gaming addiction occurs more frequently in men, while social media addiction is more likely to affect women,’ says Levounis. ‘Texting addiction is seen more often in young adults, while shopping addiction is more common in older adults.’
Harriet*, 43, from Suffolk, is an executive in the hospitality industry. Or she was, until an 11-day YouTube binge five years ago: she lost her job, and now works in a café. ‘I felt under-qualified in my former role, which was stressful, and was also struggling because my mum was ill with dementia. As a child, watching TV with my family had always been where I felt safest, all cuddled up together. So, in my late 30s, to replicate that feeling, I started to come home from work, get into bed fully clothed, and watch videos and movies until I passed out.’
Using streaming sites on her laptop, Harriet would watch Disney animations and episodes of Friends she had seen countless times – never anything serious. ‘I was “numbing out”,’ she says. ‘While I was watching these videos I wouldn’t have to think or feel – I was like a drug addict.’
When one ended, she would click compulsively on to the next. ‘Sometimes I’d take days off work – or even start watching the videos at work, under my desk,’ she says. ‘Occasionally, I didn’t even bother to call in sick.’
Harriet saw a doctor who prescribed a stress management course, which didn’t help. After catching a cold in 2018, she went to bed and embarked on the 11-day session. ‘I didn’t wash, I didn’t go outside, I barely ate or drank,’ she says. ‘I would only go to the loo when absolutely desperate. My arms were aching, and my eyes were red and sore.’ Her employers told her not to return.
‘Any regular person who says they are “addicted” to a TV show has no idea,’ says Toby*, an entrepreneur from Connecticut, USA. ‘During the worst of my addiction, if I couldn’t access technology, I would get physical withdrawal symptoms – terrible pains in my arms and legs. It was like going through a meat grinder. At the time, I felt embarrassed calling it an addiction, because it wasn’t heroin. But there was definitely something physiological going on.’
For Toby, problems started in childhood. ‘I can clearly remember a world before and after the internet,’ says the 30-year-old. ‘Arcades and screens always felt like a magical world to me.’
As a child, all he wanted to do was watch TV, so his mother got rid of their cable service. ‘So I’d take my Game Boy into the bathroom.’ The arrival of a home computer and then internet sent his gaming to another level. ‘It started off with a game called Neopets – where you’d own a virtual animal – then I graduated to maze games. I was excited when my mom left the house, so I could play on the desktop. At school, I’d be showing people YouTube videos in our computer lab. When everyone ran outside to play, I was stunned. I had another 30 videos to show them, I couldn’t believe they could just stop.’
Toby somehow got through high school and into college, but his compulsion towards technology worsened. ‘People talk about addiction progressing, and that certainly happened to me,’ he says. ‘The older I got, the more intense it became.’
By his late teens and early 20s, Toby’s game of choice was League of Legends. ‘I’d tell myself, “Please stop” – but I could see my hands clicking on another game, as if they belonged to someone else,’ he says. ‘My body hurt, I didn’t drink water, I ate only ice cream and chips.’
At college, Toby once stayed up for three nights gaming, then showed up to a coursework presentation and blacked out. Any relationships he started didn’t last because he was always making excuses to play games in his room.
Eventually, he reached his ‘rock bottom’. ‘I crossed the country to go home and celebrate my birthday with my family,’ he says. ‘But when I got back, I binged for 24 hours, fell asleep, and missed the entire day. Hating myself, I continued to disappear into 36-, 48-hour binges. I tried setting myself limits, buying software to block my internet, taking trips, but nothing worked.’
Toby was so desperate to ‘get off the self-lacerating cycle’ that he started thinking about suicide. ‘I knew this couldn’t go on,’ he says. ‘Then, in May 2017, after an all-night binge, I discovered Gaming Addicts Anonymous. I connected with the members, and started the long, slow process of recovery.’
Toby became a founding member of ITAA, where Harriet also eventually found solace, in June 2017. Like Gaming Addicts Anonymous, ITAA is a 12-step ‘fellowship’, based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. Step one is an admission that you have become ‘powerless’ over whatever your poison happens to be, and your life has ‘become unmanageable’.
The remaining steps chart a path to ‘spiritual awakening’ – the language is somewhat religious in tone – via actions that include making amends to those you have harmed. According to people who have benefited, just as powerful is the sense of support from others who have faced similar struggles. ‘The main thing for me was that I no longer felt alone,’ says Toby.
ITAA now holds almost 100 online meetings a week – as well as a dozen in-person meetings in various cities, including London – in languages from English to Spanish, Russian and Arabic. And while thousands say they’re benefiting from this, internet addiction is also being treated in other settings around the world.
China has long taken a tough approach, having become the first country to officially recognise it as a clinical disorder in 2008. Hundreds of military-style boot camps have opened, designed to address the addiction, with Tao Ran, the director of the Internet Addiction Clinic at Beijing Military General Hospital, describing the internet as ‘electronic heroin’.
Some practices have been inhumane and extreme: at the Addiction Treatment Center in eastern China, more than 6,000 people, a majority teenagers, were treated with electroshock therapy before the government promised to crack down on such methods in 2017.
In the UK, private clinics such as the Priory chain have begun to treat internet addiction. Others, including the Schoen Clinic in Chelsea, also see outpatients who present with compulsive technology behaviours.
Dr James Woolley is a consultant psychiatrist at the Schoen Clinic. ‘In the past 10 years or so, we have definitely started seeing dysfunctional coping strategies including the use of the internet,’ he says. ‘However, in my experience, this excessive use is a symptom of something else: depression, anxiety, OCD or ADHD – people with these conditions often have a problem with impulse control.’
In Woolley’s view, the best strategy is to treat the underlying condition: with appropriate therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, or possibly medication. So he doesn’t believe that internet addiction is a diagnosis in its own right? ‘The jury is out,’ he says. ‘The picture is a bit muddled.’
Dr Petros Levounis has a pragmatic view of the addiction model. ‘There’s no hard evidence that the 12-step approach works for technology, but there’s much that is positive about the idea of mutual help,’ he says. ‘It’s not as clear-cut as with tobacco addiction, where for most people either you smoke, or you don’t. The problem is, with the internet – as with food, or sex – you can’t abstain completely. You need to have the internet in your life, with text, and work emails.’
Harriet found her solution through ITAA, and another group called Media Addicts Anonymous – places she discovered online. ‘I moved back in with my parents, and learned to deal with my emotions more healthily. Mostly, I feel serene,’ she says. ‘I cry when I feel sad rather than using technology, and meditate.’ Harriet also found the ‘self-limiting’ cinema a joy, a way of losing herself in happy films rather than endless episodes.
She sees the online meetings as a continuing lifeline, as does Toby, who has been ‘internet sober’ since December 2019 and is also thriving. He works from his laptop daily, but has not been sucked back into the rabbit hole of online gaming.
‘I felt so much grief about losing the internet, the beauty and richness of games and films,’ he says. ‘But eventually, my eyes adjusted to the colours around me. I thought my life would get smaller. But now – for the first time since I was a kid – it is unimaginably bigger.’