Hi everyone, I’ve been asked to post here and I hope people find this post helpful. Due to its length, there’s a TL;DR. This post has two parts - first, “My Journey” (a story of passing through internet addiction) and secondly, a summary titled “The Realisation”. I’ve also edited this post a bit from the original Reddit one for brevity.
First, me - I’m 21 and studying my second degree. I’m also single, unemployed, and diagnosed with clinical depression, as well as anxiety. A fair few of you can relate to the latter, I’m sure - I’m the typical redditor.
I first noticed my problem when I got a laptop from high school back in 2012. As someone from a poor background and little access to the internet prior, of course I went nuts with my first reliable internet connection - consuming disturbing amounts of porn, dumb Flash games for hours, years worth of YouTube in the space of a few months - but when I discovered Reddit, I truly started to have life issues. I became defensive when my mother questioned my long hours on the computer - my grades fell from A+ to Bs and Cs, I would regularly go to school on five hours or less of sleep, napping in study rooms during breaks… but I insisted (like any in-denial addict) I was fine.
Two years later, r/nosurf woke me up to my shitty life. At that point I was spending upwards of 7 hours on the net a day, unable to remember the last book I read, exhausted, unfit, sick, and with strained family relationships because of how secretive I was about my internet consumpton. I could barely remember the last two years - just a blur of porn, memes and useless information. Most of all, I began to remember my internet-free childhood, with hours spent reading, writing, painting or playing music: and how much I missed it all. With that, I deleted most social media - including Reddit - then began seriously tracking my time. I scraped my grades back up to finish high school on a great note. However, with the holidays starting, you can guess what happened - I fell back into the same terrible routine.
From then on, I’d use the net less during uni, but in holidays or days off, I’d go wild. During uni time I had decent grades but I was also sleep-deprived, napping during the day or sleeping in and missing lectures, and drinking a lot of coffee just to get through the day. Then in 2016, the unthinkable happened: I fell in love. We dated seven months, and I’d often skip checking Tumblr or Reddit or (etc.) for days - using the internet less and less, but I felt fine about it. I could basically pin that to being… really happy, for the first time in a long time.
But it wasn’t perfect. My other life issues surfaced; my partner begged me to see a therapist, catching on - yet like before, when I was spending 8 hours online/day, I insisted there was nothing wrong with me. Eventually, however, I went to a doctor, got diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and went to therapy. We broke up, shattering me for a long time, and I fell into my old habits, but now I was different - I was self-aware from therapy, and knew what to do to improve.
Online studies frequently show the Internet makes you depressed - it rewires your brain so that without it you become upset and irrational; you crave it, like a drug addict. In 2014, I thought I could break Internet addiction through ‘less use’ - restricting my access, deleting social media apps… and thereby improve my life. People here talk about “downgrading” to worse phones or computers, or deleting apps. For some, this works - for the majority, it’s unfeasible long-term, because it relies on the addict having a happy or good life outside of the Internet. This relies on the false assumption that you can simply replace the Internet with reading, art, study, work, etc., and your sleep and health and life will automatically improve.
You want to know a harsh truth? If you’re spending the majority of your waking life online, you’re probably not mentally healthy in the first place, and your life won’t get better like you think it will.
My diagnosis took years: I was hopelessly depressed, even without the Internet. I needed to resolve deep issues; I was stuck engaging with people I didn’t like, things I didn’t enjoy, struggling to get out of bed, and terrified of being alone with my thoughts. I was a perfect candidate for Internet addiction - and for some of you, this may sound familiar.
Cause here’s the thing. After years of trying – and failing – to stop using the internet so much, it took therapy and a shitload of self-awareness to realise just what was happening:
The internet doesn’t make you depressed – it just makes it really, really easy to not realise how depressed you already are. It is literally the perfect tool for avoiding emotions that make you uncomfortable. Bored? Look at memes. Sad? Watch a funny video. Angry? Vent your frustration online or play games to calm down. Smartphones make this even worse – no matter where you are, whether on the train, or in a class, or waiting in line, the instant you feel an emotion that makes you uncomfortable, you can pick up your phone and distract yourself. Over time, this becomes a habit that is very hard to break. It gets to the point where when you feel even the slightest trace of boredom or sadness or whatever, you’re automatically reaching for the phone.
This isn’t just for depressed people: the healthy can have a bad breakup and start late-night YouTube binges from loneliness. Maybe class is boring - so you browse Reddit. Maybe you have no job, so you use your spare time on the Internet. Before long, it can become a habit that saturates your life - when you do something like reading, you could put it aside for your accustomed instant online gratification. For some, this habit is so ingrained we don’t even register the cycle: I only realized this in therapy. My recovery from depression and anxiety came from recognition, reframing, and dealing: recognizing ‘negative emotions’, reframing them in a less scary way, then using healthy ways to conquer, not cope with them.
A review of my addiction made it clear it was worst in rough times - when my best friend moved in 2012, when my dog passed away a few years back, during my first breakup, or when I was really stressed or depressed. The thing is, actually feeling and processing those emotions is an incredibly important thing to do. Studies have shown that being bored is important because it allows your brain to start thinking and daydreaming, which boosts creativity. Emotions like anger and sadness are so important to recognise and deal with healthily because otherwise they can seriously impact your wellbeing. And if you’re depressed or anxious or chronically stressed, that is also an enormously important thing to realise because then you can take steps to improve your mental health. The emotional reactions you have to a situation are vital to realise because it tells you exactly what might be wrong with that situation.
The Internet stops you from doing any of that: for example, thoughtlessly indulging the urge to scroll Reddit at 2 AM makes you feel short-term better, but hurts sleep and mood - making you feel long-term worse. That bad state repeats the cycle. Whatever your reason: because you hate your job - or being alone with your thoughts - feel you can’t sleep for hours if you put down the phone - are lonely - or just sheer boredom - without idle time to ask the critical question: “wait, why am I feeling so crap?”, we can easily spend years stuck in jobs we hate, forgetting our passions, being surrounded by people we don’t like, not indulging in hobbies that enrich your life, even being clinically depressed without treating it, until one day you wake up and wonder where your life went. I count myself so fortunate, losing only the tail end of being a teenager - it took a long time to break habits, but I’m now aware of my thoughts, my weaknesses, and self-aware of my cycle of Internet addiction.
So how do you get better? Well, every time you start reaching for your phone automatically, you pause, you breathe, you take notice of what you’re feeling, and then you sit with the emotion for a little while. More often than not, especially at the beginning, you will feel something like boredom, and it’ll be uncomfortable. Focus on the emotion and give yourself enough time to recognise what you’re feeling, to recognise why you’re feeling that way, to accept it, and then to decide how you want to deal with it. It could be “I feel bored” -> “I feel bored because I’ve been in this lecture for ten minutes and haven’t checked my phone yet” -> “Recognising my boredom, I’ll consciously accept it: I’ll check my phone in half an hour and focus on the lecture in the meantime." This process will get easier - I started off hopeless at recognising my emotions, but after months I have the experience to know my feelings, and why they happen, and can think of a healthy solution. Doing this helps break Internet addiction, because you’re not instantly caving to boredom by checking your phone.
To summarise, realising why I had Internet addiction helped so much more than time-tracking tools, turning off wi-fi, or just going cold turkey did. I’m sharing this because I feel like a lot of people can relate - whether you’re unaware you’re mentally ill, like me, or cave easily to distraction, or just get bored and browse, there are solutions. For some, improvement will involve therapy, medication and taking steps to improve - for others, it involves practising the above. Over time it’ll get easier (and you’ll find it easier to break the cycle).
I know this was long, but I really hope by telling my story you’ll be helped. I know I wish someone had told me this years ago. Lastly, please seek professional help if you’re clinically depressed, because I cannot emphasise how much it improved my life. This is what helped me the most in my struggle to beat Internet addiction: I hope it helped you too.
Thank you for reading.
TL;DR - My best attempts never stuck, and I failed to beat Internet addiction: until I went to therapy and realised “cold turkey” won’t work for most. This is because for many of us, whether you’re clinically depressed or a bored office worker, the internet itself isn’t the problem - but it is the perfect tool for avoiding “negative” or “uncomfortable” emotions like boredom or sadness, and distracting you from issues in your life. The key to beating internet addiction involves pausing when you feel the urge to be online, becoming aware of what you’re really feeling and/or avoiding, accepting that emotion for what it is, and then deciding on a healthy way to deal with it. Over time this process will get easier, the habit of mindlessly browsing the internet will weaken, and you’ll find yourself automatically reaching for your phone a lot less. Let yourself be bored. Let yourself be sad. Replace ignoring the emotion through the internet with something healthier, like writing about it in a journal, talking to someone you trust, or getting professional help (if you need it). This is what’s helped me most in my journey to beat internet addiction, and I hope it helps you too.