Adult ADHD and Internet Addiction

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 14, 2022
5 min read

It’s possible to get addicted to all sorts of things, from shopping to tanning to gambling. Some people become addicted to the internet, too, including adults with ADHD.

About 20% of young adults with the disorder have an internet addiction, and men and women are equally likely to have it, says the nonprofit group CHADD.

Some research suggests that having severe ADHD is linked to higher odds of being addicted to the internet and to your addiction being worse. But treatment and lifestyle changes can help you take charge of both your ADHD and internet addiction.

An addictive behavior is anything you do over and over so much that it interferes with your life in ways that you or others around you notice, says David W. Goodman, MD. He’s the director of the Adult Attention Deficit Disorder Center of Maryland.

If you have an internet addiction, you might spend way too much time using sites or apps for things like:

  • Gaming
  • Gambling
  • Social media
  • Shopping
  • Pornography

Goodman says that if you have ADHD -- especially if you’re not getting treatment for it -- you’re prone to use the internet too much. Online gaming is a particular issue for people with ADHD, he says. That’s because it can be so engaging, and it gives you a chance to talk with people while you’re playing.

Russell A. Barkley, PhD, is a retired clinical neuropsychologist and the author of Taking Charge of Adult ADHD. He says some signs of an internet addiction are:

  • You find it very hard to stop using the internet when it’s time to move on to more important demands, tasks, or commitments that are right around the corner.
  • You get irritated, hostile, or aggressive if you lose internet access or someone says they’re going to take it away from you.
  • You feel unhappy, uneasy, dissatisfied, sad, or even depressed when you’re not online.
  • Your favorite internet activities dominate your thoughts when you unplug.
  • You find ways to get out of doing other activities that are more appropriate or social in order to use the internet.
  • You hide your internet usage from other people, minimizing or denying that you’re online a lot.

People with untreated ADHD tend to spend a lot of time on things that engage them, Goodman says. If the activity has a lot of stimulation, they’ll stick with it. The internet, he says, is built on the fact that’s highly stimulating and that it keeps people engaged.

Barkley also says the brains of people with ADHD appear to be governed by reward seeking and related behaviors. That might be due to having less dopamine (a chemical messenger in the brain), or neurons that are less sensitive to it, especially in the reward centers of your brain.

So people with ADHD look for more immediate rewards and do other forms of sensation seeking in order to stimulate those parts of their brain, he says. Smart technology, social media, and gaming apps offer those types of instant rewards.

Along with looking for quick satisfaction, there’s also an issue with the executive parts of your brain that control your self-regulation, Barkley says. That’s a skill that lets you manage your emotions, behavior, and body movements during a tough situation while also allowing you to stay focused and pay attention.

The parts of your brain that control self-regulation are less mature or well developed in people with ADHD, Barkley says. That leaves you more likely to have impulsive behavior that can be harmful.

No. That’s a myth.

Experts don’t know the exact causes of ADHD. But they think that your genes play a key role.

Along with genetics, scientists are also looking into possible causes and risk factors like:

  • Brain injury
  • Being exposed to lead, alcohol, or tobacco while you’re in the womb before you’re born
  • Being born premature
  • Low birth weight

These tips can help you power down an internet addiction if you have adult ADHD:

Get treatment for ADHD. If you’re already getting treatment, tell your doctor or mental health specialist that you’re struggling to keep your internet use in check. If you haven’t gotten treatment yet, find an ADHD professional in your area.

It helps to take ADHD medications that lessen your impulsivity and reward seeking and boost your ability to self-regulate, Barkley says.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (also called CBT or talk therapy) and a mindfulness practice might help you, too.

Also let your doctor or specialist know if you’ve been feeling sad or anxious. Emotions like these that don’t go away or keep coming back could be symptoms of mood disorders like depression and anxiety. People with ADHD and internet addiction are more likely to have one of these mental health conditions. Doctors have treatments for both.

Cut back on internet games with help from an app. Some apps let you set a certain amount of time to play online games before they shut the game off and block your access, Goodman says. This also helps you schedule times you’ll use the internet, rather than getting lost in a rabbit hole of free time.

Use two computers if you can afford it. You could use one computer for work and the other for play, Barkley says. That way, the apps you’re hooked on are less likely to get in the way of your job.

Set a bedtime and stick to it. Lots of people get sucked into the internet at night, Goodman says. Set an alarm or timer to go off at a reasonable bedtime. If you’re using the net when the timer goes off, unglue yourself from the screen and get ready for bed.

Swap in healthy habits. For example, instead of gaming online when you come home from work, go out for a 30-minute walk. That way you get some exercise and your urge to play the game may pass, Goodman says.

Reach out for support. Ask a friend or relative to help you embrace healthy habits by holding you accountable, Barkley says.

Think about hiring an ADHD coach. This is a trained professional who can show you ways to take charge of your ADHD. They might also be able to help you recover from internet addiction.