Are you addicted? Frequent web users suffer withdrawal symptoms after signing off, study finds

SWANSEA, Wales — The time we spend online may seem like harmless fun. But for those with an “internet addiction,” ending an online session may cause measurable increases in heart rate and blood pressure that mimic what addicts experience during withdrawal.

Scientists from Swansea University and Milan University had previously studied anxiety levels in people who overuse the internet. This time, they set out to determine what happens to people physically when they have an unhealthy attachment to their online time.

Woman using iPhone and laptop
Struggling to disconnect? A new study finds that people with internet addiction suffer common withdrawal symptoms when they can’t log back on.

“We have known for some time that people who are over-dependent on digital devices report feelings of anxiety when they are stopped from using them,” explains Professor Phil Reed of Swansea University and the study’s lead author. “But now we can see that these psychological effects are accompanied by actual physiological changes.”

A cross-section of typical internet users — men and women ranging in age from 18 to 33 years of age — participated in the study. Most of the 144 individuals used the internet an average of five hours a day and spent the majority of that time on social media and shopping. Their heart rate and blood pressure were checked before and after a short online session.

Participants assessed their own anxiety and level of internet addiction. Those who admitted to spending too much time online (40%) had higher heart rates and blood pressure — and a matching anxiety level — following the end of the internet session.

Those with internet-usage problems had an increase of 3 to 4 percent in heart rate and blood pressure, with some as high as 6 to 8 percent, right after stopping their online session. Although not considered a life-threatening increase, these levels go hand-in-hand with a feeling of anxiety and can also affect hormones and the immune system.

The physical symptoms, along with the accompanying anxiety, mean that these problem online users are having the same sort of withdrawal symptoms as those who uses alcohol, cannabis or heroin. The study suggests that too much time online may cause symptoms like a higher heart rate that confuse those with internet-usage issues into feeling like they are under some sort of physical threat. For people already prone to anxiety, this ups the anxiety level and creates a vicious cycle of needing to reduce those feelings–by going back online.

Scientists caution that we do not know whether these problem behaviors amount to a true addiction, complete with psychological and physiological withdrawal, or whether these are  something more akin to compulsive behaviors.

“But these results seem to show that, for some people, it is likely to be an addiction,” explains study coauthor Professor Robert Truzoli of Milan University.

The scientists believe that the results of this study are fairly representative of most internet users. They noted that participants in this study who felt that they used the internet in a normal way showed no increase in heart rate or blood pressure when they ended their online session. There was no difference between men and women as far as reported internet overuse.

The scientists would like to study certain subgroups, like gamers, in the future.

In the meantime, this new information adds fuel to concerns about time spent online. “There is now a large amount of evidence documenting the negative effects of overuse on people’s psychology, neurology, and now, in this study, on their physiology,” Reed points out. “Given this, we have to see a more responsible attitude to the marketing of these products by firms–like we have seen for alcohol and gambling.”

The full study was published earlier this year in the international peer-reviewed journal, PLOS ONE.