Is Internet Addiction A Thing? : Shots - Health News What started out as web surfing by a healthy teen descended into online obsession and isolation. Was it depression, internet addiction or both? Whatever you call it, rehab is now part of the answer.
NPR logo

Is 'Internet Addiction' Real?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Is 'Internet Addiction' Real?

Is 'Internet Addiction' Real?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


And on this week's All Tech Considered, we know about alcohol and drug addiction, but what about internet addiction?


MCEVERS: Many of us feel like we spend too much time online. Some people, though, cannot unplug. Lesley McClurg of KQED in San Francisco introduces us to a teenager who sought rehab for obsessively watching YouTube.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: When her daughter Naomi was in middle school, Ellen watched her disappear behind a screen.

ELLEN: Before, she was pretty bubbly and outgoing. And then she started just laying there, not moving and just being on the phone.

MCCLURG: The family asked we use middle names and no last names to protect their medical privacy. Naomi had always been kind of a nerd with a few close friends, a straight-A student in a competitive choir. But she desperately wanted to be popular, and the cool kids talked a lot about YouTube.

NAOMI: I started trying to watch, like, as many videos as I could so, like, I knew as much as they did.

MCCLURG: After school, she'd race home and curl up for hours, watching video after video. Ellen says her daughter would often emerge for dinner in a foul mood.

ELLEN: She was quick to anger, very contrary and oppositional.

MCCLURG: Naomi had started watching violent videos.

NAOMI: Girls just fighting each other, pulling each other by the hair. And it was just something that everybody was watching.

MCCLURG: And how did they make you feel?

NAOMI: I think it was just fun to watch 'cause they would, like, make me laugh. And at that time, I was having a pretty hard time dealing with depression and anxiety.

MCCLURG: For the first time in her life, it was tough to keep up with school.

NAOMI: And then it just got worse and worse. I was researching how many pills I had to take to die.

MCCLURG: Naomi downed a bottle of Tylenol. It shattered her mother, Ellen.

ELLEN: (Crying) And I wasn't home. She got ahold of the medicine, and she was home alone. And we'd been told to lock it up, but we just didn't think this would ever happen.

MCCLURG: Her family checked her into an addiction recovery center for teenagers called Paradigm. Naomi was treated for depression but also a substance use disorder - in this case, compulsively watching YouTube. The facility, north of San Francisco, offers group classes like music therapy.


MCCLURG: Naomi sits in a circle with other teens, tentatively drumming, shaking rattles, ringing triangles. The goal is to help students release pent-up feelings in a safe space.


MCCLURG: Jeff Nalin is Paradigm's co-founder and head psychologist. He says more and more teens are using the Internet to cope.

JEFF NALIN: I think in the last year or two, people have really come to identify that as the issue.

MCCLURG: Nalin says teens use smartphones and iPads to cork the volcano of emotions brewing inside.

NALIN: But it just rumbles and rumbles until it blows. And it blows with the emergence of a depression, or it emerges with a suicide attempt.

MCCLURG: Researchers are studying people's brains while they're online. Among them are Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist at Stanford University.

ELIAS ABOUJAOUDE: And their brains start looking like those of someone who has a substance use disorder. Similar pathways seem activated.

MCCLURG: Aboujaoude says the Internet is stimulating the feel-good brain chemical dopamine. Tolerance to the Internet builds just like it would to hard drugs.

ABOUJAOUDE: People needing more and more time on a particular online video game, for example, to get the same kind of euphoric feeling.

MCCLURG: Which triggers insomnia, dysfunctional relationships and absent days at school, all the classic signs of a true addiction. But some psychologists argue it's just too soon to say. They believe the digital world is likely just an overindulgence. However, an emerging consensus is pushing for a technical diagnosis so kids get the resources they need to kick the digital habit. For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in San Francisco.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.