How Much Is Too Much Internet Use?

Stanford Medical Center

It is a helpful tool for many of us, essential for some. But can our use of the Internet be hazardous to our health?

Stanford researchers have just taken the first step toward answering that question. In a first-of-its-kind, nationwide telephone survey of 2,513 adults, researchers found that more than one in eight Americans reported at least one possible sign of problematic Internet use.

The impetus for the study was an increase in patients coming to Stanford during the past three or four years, asking for treatment for their attachment to the Internet. The research was conducted by Elias Aboujaoude, MA ’98, MD ’98, director of Stanford’s Impulse Control Disorders Clinic, Lorrin Koran, a professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and Nona Gamel, ’67, a licensed clinical social worker. Their findings were published in the October issue of CNS Spectrums: The International Journal of Neuropsychiatric Medicine.

The researchers found that 68.9 percent were regular Internet users and that:

  • 13.7 percent found it hard to stay away from the Internet for several days at a time;
  • 12.4 percent stayed online longer than intended very often or often;
  • 12.3 percent had seen a need to cut back on Internet use at some point;
  • 8.7 percent tried to hide nonessential Internet use from family, friends and employers;
  • 8.2 percent used the Internet as a way to escape problems or relieve negative moods;
  • 5.9 percent felt their relationships suffered as a result of excessive Internet use.

Aboujaoude admits that he and his colleagues were surprised that no one had already done a large-scale study of nonessential Internet use. “The media is way ahead of science on this,” he says.

But media may overstate the extent to which compulsive Internet use involves gambling or pornography. Survey respondents also indicated that they visit chat rooms and blogs, check e-mail, read special-interest websites and buy from auction houses. “For something that has only been around for 10 years or so, it is amazing how much it affects our lives,” Aboujaoude says.

Another surprise was that those affected weren’t just young, wired professionals. The survey included subjects from all 50 states with an average age of 48 years.

Aboujaoude and his colleagues say it is premature to call problematic Internet use an “addiction.” It may turn out, Aboujaoude says, to be another manifestation of existing diagnoses like obsessive-compulsive disorder or social anxiety disorder. Still, what they found is not dissimilar from what alcoholics or other addicts experience: an irresistible urge to perform an act that may be pleasurable in the moment but that can lead to significant problems personally and professionally. The next step: another large-scale study with face-to-face interviews.