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Harvard Medical School
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General Medical Questions
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Question : Is Internet addiction a mental disorder?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is Senior Editor of Mental Health Publishing at Harvard Health Publications. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller is in clinical practice at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he has been on staff for more than 25 years.

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October 19, 2012
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A:

“Internet addiction” is not a defined mental disorder. The evidence does not yet support its being included in diagnostic manuals.

Several behaviors can be acted out through the Internet. Some popular ones, like gambling, gaming, chat and sex are pretty engaging. So people can and do develop problems if they have trouble controlling their appetites.

We have come to depend on the Internet. Heavy web use is often a sign of being deeply engaged at work or having fun. The Internet does deliver rewards and pleasures easily. And in high doses. But it is not a sign of addiction.

Internet-based activity can pull vulnerable people away from their home and work lives. They may lose track of time or get depressed. The result can be relationship trouble, academic failure, job loss or a financial mess.

There is a blurry boundary between pleasures and problems. People chatting online may be making social connections. Or finding personal support they can’t find elsewhere. A person may be avoiding a higher-risk behavior (cruising for sex) by substituting one that carries less risk (viewing pornography).

People who run into trouble don’t need a new label to get help. In fact, arguing over labels can become a needless distraction.

If you feel you’re having a hard time controlling your screen time, ask yourself: “How is Internet use functioning in my life?”

The Internet may be a pipeline for delivering rewarding, positive experiences. But if your Internet use — whatever the activity — is causing conflict, distress or loss, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.

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