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May 10, 2024

How to Know If You’re Addicted to Your Phone with Rob Garland, LCSW, LCAS

by Rob Garland, LCSW, LCAS

We all know a much more screen-oriented world than we did 20 years ago. We use computers for work and personal business, phones for just about everything, and more and more we use screens for recreation and relaxing. Especially since the pandemic, we’ve traded in-person meetings and appointments for virtual options- maybe entirely, if you work from home.

However, this isn’t a new concern.

The late Dr. Kimberly Young began researching compulsive internet use back in the early 1990’s (Young, 1998).  As we live in an increasingly virtual world, the vulnerability to compulsive and addictive internet behaviors increases as well. Statistics show that, in fact, there is a growing concern for internet addiction (Poli, 2017).

5 Major Types of Internet Addiction (Young, 1998):

Gaming: can be online or offline, on a phone or console, gaming addiction is sometimes considered to be its own, independent concern. Continuing to play games at a rate and frequency despite consequences in other areas of life.

Relationships: online relationships on various platforms can become addicting and compulsive, often at the expense of social functioning in-person. This is often seen in compulsive checking and updating of social media, which can be distressing and disruptive to our daily functioning, as well as impacting mood, anxiety, and self-image.

Cyber sexual: referring to many areas including pornography, sexual fantasy chatrooms or sites, and webcam services. Again, these behaviors can become compulsive despite consequences, and/or at the expense of one’s in-person relationships. This can sometimes impact adultery, sleep, work, etc., and even sexual functioning like erectile dysfunction; some people become unable to achieve arousal without virtual stimuli.

Information seeking: obsessively seeking out information without feeling able to remove yourself from the “rabbit-hole.” This can also look like compulsive video watching.

Net compulsions: Various activities such as online shopping, gambling, eBay, trading stocks, etc. The consequences depend, but are commonly financial, social, and loss of functioning in other areas of life.

“Well, how do I know if my internet use is addictive or not?”

Though we may want a convenient, objective measure of addiction, such as hours per day or week, Dr. Young and other experts have made it very clear that the real measure of addiction is more subjective. That is, better understood by how we feel as a result of frequent use, and how it impacts our functioning, sometimes in subtle ways.

Characteristics of an Individual with an Internet Addiction (Beard 2005):

  • Thinking about being online almost constantly.
  • Needing to be online longer and longer until feeling satisfied.
  • Unsuccessful attempts to control, reduce, or stop internet use.
  • Feeling irritable or depressed when trying to reduce the amount of time online, or when you can’t get online.
  • The way you use the internet has threatened relationship with people, job, or school.
  • Losing track of time when online.
  • Sometimes lying to important people about the amount of time spent online.
  • Being online helps to forget about problems or improve mood when feeling sad, anxious, or lonely.

The consequences can be mild to severe, just as they might with alcohol or gambling. For example, we may find the burden of resisting our phone while we work as especially draining, with greater difficulty concentrating. We might spend less time studying or engaging with meaningful friends. It can impact the quality of our parenting (Poli, 2017). We may lose sleep because we can’t peel our eyes away from the next video. We may lose our ability to perform sexually or fail to develop good social skills outside of virtual arenas. We may see financial strain or ruin, and we can even ruin marriages and lose jobs, all due to compulsive internet use.

Whether internet addiction is a consequence of other mental health concerns, or simply contributes to others, it is a serious circumstance and requires intentional effort. Cognitive behavioral therapy and other approaches to addiction are considering the leading treatment options for internet addiction.

Treatment for Internet Addiction

If you are not ready to seek professional therapy, here are some ideas of where to begin to overcome internet addiction.
First, build your awareness of when you are engaging in these activities. You have to “name it to tame it,” and this begins with recognizing when you are engaging in these behaviors. Think of this as “calibrating your radar” or becoming very good at catching yourself “in the act.”

Next, re-label or begin to name the behavior as what it is: compulsive and unintentional use of the internet. An important part of this step is having a sense of understanding of yourself for why this is so difficult, rather than shaming or feeling the need to hide this part of yourself.

The final, and crucial part, is the emotion regulation to resist and disconnect. Noticing how intense the desire to continue or start in the first place is challenging enough. Take a moment to distract yourself, talk to someone you trust about what you’re experiencing, go do something else for several minutes, etc. Therapists often talk about urge-surfing, which is a technique that involves recognizing how an urge presents itself physically, taking a curious, observational approach to focusing on that feeling, and letting the feeling rise and fall like a wave you are surfing, staying above it the whole time. Have a plan for what you will do instead of the internet use. Don’t just plan to “not do” something. Plan to do something instead.

If you find yourself continuing to struggle, seek therapy with a licensed addiction specialist at Avance Care Behavioral Health.


Beard, K. W. (2005). Internet addiction: a review of current assessment techniques and potential assessment questions. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 7(14). doi: 10.1089/cpb.2005.8.7. PMID: 15738688.

Poli, R. (2017). Internet addiction update: Diagnostic criteria, assessment and prevalence. Neuropsychiatry, 7(1). Retrieved from

Young, K. S. (1998). Internet addiction: The emergence of a new clinical disorder. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 1(3), 237–244.

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