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Internet and computer related technology (CRT) ‘abuse’ and ‘addiction’

What is Internet or computer related technology ‘abuse’ or ‘addiction’?

It is not possible to receive a diagnosis for Internet abuse or dependence/ addiction as there is no official diagnostic category. In general, however, someone has an unhelpful relationship with the Internet or computer related technologies (CRT) if it causes marked distress or interferes with daily life at home, work or school.  

Indicators of an unhelpful relationship with the Internet and CRT  

Computer related changes


Self related changes


Other related changes


Some of the behaviours outlined above are examples of ‘normal’ behaviour, which can make it hard to know if someone’s behaviour is problematic or not. A simple guide is that the more ‘evidence’ there is the more likely a difficulty is developing.

Why does Internet and computer related technology ‘abuse’ and ‘addiction’ occur*?

Principally, people repeat rewarding activities and CRT provide people with enjoyable, exciting experiences. A German study found teenagers enjoyed the flexibility of characters and the ease in which they could enter and exit games; this enables adolescents to explore different identities safely. There is evidence to suggest teenagers may engage in CRT to compensate for perceived deficiencies in their offline world, such as friendships or physical appearance. It is also a way of interacting with people without needing the same ‘thick skin’ that is required in the real world, and it can be an adolescent’s attempt to cope with difficult emotional experiences such as stress and frustration.

A UK study of adults’ use of the online game EverQuest found that adults experience a sense of achievement from progressing through a game, liberation due to the scope of the Internet and a sense of community through being able to form or maintain friendships (this is particularly relevant to expatriate communities).

More generally, there is evidence that mechanisms relevant to other dependencies are present in CRT ‘abuse/ dependence’, including (i) tolerance to the brain’s reward system which partly explains the need for more CRT activity, (ii) sensitivity to CRT cues (e.g., an advert for EverQuest will be noticed), (iii) expecting better outcomes from continued use (“just one more game!”), and (iv) expecting to feel relief from any agitation associated with a lack of CRT activity. There is currently no body of evidence to suggest that there may be a genetic component to ‘CRT dependence’, and there is mixed evidence about whether it is related to other forms of psychological distress (e.g., depression, OCD) or not.

More research is needed to better understand why and how often problems arise, however, what can be agreed is that some people do develop problematic relationships with CRT. There is hope, however, as research demonstrates that clinical interventions can be successful in helping people of all ages in managing their CRT relationships.

*Disclaimer: Please note that there is a limited research base into the phenomenon of Internet and CRT ‘abuse/ dependence’ and it has a number of problems, including using different criteria for ‘abuse’ and ‘dependence’ (e.g., alcohol versus gambling), varied CRT activities (e.g., gaming versus Internet activity), and diverse participant age range and culture. Please consider these methodological shortcomings when reading this article.


Someone has an unhelpful relationship with the Internet or computer related technologies if it causes marked distress or interferes with daily life...

Related articles written by Dr Justin and published in the South China Morning Post

There’s more to cyber dependency than meets the eye

A little guidance is worthwhile on cyber road