Digital Addiction Disorder
Time to Log Off?
Technology addiction, electronic addiction, digital addiction, social media addiction, internet addiction, mobile phone addiction…. No matter the name, the common thread in these addictions is that they’re all impulse control disorders that involve the obsessive use of mobile phones, internet, and/or video games, despite the negative consequences to the user of the technology. For simplicity, I’ll combine all of the above names together and refer to the phenomena as a digital addiction.
*** A new special called “Digital Addiction” will air on the A&E Network (Comcast HD ch 410 / SD ch 54) on Tuesday, September 17th at 9pm. There will be stories of people addicted to video games and social media and discussion on how people are trying to recover from digital addiction. It should be very interesting, so check it out.
Do you play video games in excess? Are you compulsively shopping or gambling online? Do you spend hours taking the perfect picture to post or ‘Gram or tweet? Do you feel a need to constantly monitor all of your social media outlets to look for likes and loves and to track people to see what they’re up to? Is your excessive use of all of these things interfering with your daily life- family, relationships, work, school? If you answered yes to any of these questions above, you may be suffering from a digital addiction disorder. These disorders have been rapidly gaining ground as they are more recognized as truly debilitating, and as a result, they are recently receiving serious attention from many researchers, mental health counselors and doctors. The prevalence statistics vary wildly, with some reports stating that the addiction disorder affects up to 8.2% of the general population, but others state it affects up to a whopping 38%. In my opinion, it affects far more than 8.2%, but not quite 38%, so my educated guess is about 20%. That’s one-fifth of the population… a staggering number of people. And we have the explosion of the digital age to thank. Advancing technology is the ultimate double-edged sword. One of the most troubling things about this disorder is that we are endlessly surrounded by technology. Most of what we do is done through the internet. And we’re enticed to do things online. Take Papa John’s as an example- if you place your order online, you get an extra discount or a free small pizza. Lots of company sites offer similar discounts. And if you do buy online, most companies then include you in their email blasts with info on sales and discounts. Even if you’re just doing research on something online, not shopping, you’ll get little photo pop-ups from online stores you’ve ordered from before. Gamers make up a huge subset of the digitally addicted. Ask any mother of a male child aged 10 and up if she and her son argue about his spending too much time playing games, and chances are she’ll tell you that it happens all the time. Of course, to the developers of these games, that’s a total eargasm! These game developers have a strategy to keep people, especially kids, glued to their seats with eyes on the screen. Many games, especially the huge multiplayer roleplaying games like World of Warcraft and Everquest, may lead to a gaming addiction because as players play together, they spur each other on. In addition, these games have limitless levels, so in effect, they never end.
Just because you use the internet a lot, watch a lot of YouTube videos, shop online frequently, or like to check social media often does not mean you suffer from a digital addiction disorder. It only crosses over into the trouble zone when these digital activities start to interfere with, or even negate, your daily life activities. Every tweet, every phone alert DING! is an interruption in your thoughts, your psyche, and your day. I have a handful of patients that struggle with just turning their phones off during a session with me. They literally get anxious being without it, being unable to check it. They have to hold it, have it in their hands. I have one patient that couldn’t turn it off but agreed to put it in her purse. That stupid thing dinged and blipped and bleated every freaking 5 – 10 minutes, I swear. And every time, I could see her leave the appointment….it interrupted her train of thought with every stupid, annoying noise it made. I told her that next time, and for every time thereafter, the phone would be off and in my drawer. She grudgingly agreed, but she regularly panicked without it, so I had to begin every session by talking her off the edge.
Like many disorders, it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact cause of digital addiction disorder, but there have been some risk factors identified. These include physical impairments, social impairments, functional impairments, emotional impairments, impulsive internet use, and dependence on the internet. The digital world can be an escape for people with various impairments, so they are at higher risk.
Digital addiction disorder has multiple contributing factors. Some evidence suggests that if you have it, your brain makeup may be similar to those of people that have a chemical dependency, such as drugs or alcohol. Some studies even report a potential link between digital addiction disorder and brain structure- that the disorder may physically change the amount of gray and white matter in a region of the brain associated with attention, remembering details, and planning and prioritizing tasks. As a result, the affected person is rendered unable to prioritize their life, so the digital technology takes precedence over necessary life tasks.
Digital addiction disorder, as in other dependency disorders, affects the pleasure center of the brain. The addictive behavior triggers a release of dopamine, which is the happy, feel good chemical. Note the name dopamine. Drugs of all sorts are often referred to as dope, and this is not happenstance; they are called dope because drugs elicit the release of dopamine as well, causing the pleasurable high. So chemically speaking, the high that gamers or internet surfers or Facebook hyper-checkers get from indulging their addiction is exactly the same as when a drug addict takes drugs. Win a game or get a like or love on Fakebook, get a dopamine hit. And, just like with drugs, people develop a tolerance over time, so more and more of the activity is needed to induce the same pleasurable response that they had in the beginning. Ultimately, this creates a dependency.
There are also some biological predispositions to digital addiction disorder. If you have this disorder, your levels of dopamine and serotonin may be naturally deficient as compared to the general population. This chemical deficiency may require you to engage in more behaviors to receive the same pleasurable response that individuals without the addiction have naturally.
Another predisposition to digital addiction disorder is anxiety and/or depression. If you already have anxiety or depression, you may turn to the internet or social media to fill a void or find relief, maybe in the form of online retail therapy for example. In the same way, people who are very shy or socially awkward may turn to the internet to make electronic friends because it doesn’t require actual personal interaction.
The signs and symptoms of digital addiction disorder can present themselves in both physical and emotional manifestations.
Emotional symptoms may include:
Feelings of guilt
Feelings of euphoria when indulging
Inability to prioritize tasks
Problems with keeping schedules
No sense of time
Avoidance of work
Boredom with routine tasks
Physical symptoms may include:
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Poor nutrition: not eating or junk food
Poor or zero personal hygiene
Dry eyes and other vision problems
Weight gain or loss
Digital addiction disorder impacts life in many ways. It affects personal relationships, work life, finances, and school life. Individuals with it often hide themselves away from others and spend a long time in this self-imposed social isolation, and this negatively impacts all personal relationships. Trust issues may also come up due to the addicts trying to hide, or lying to deny, the amount of time they spend online. Sometimes, these individuals may create alternate personas online in an attempt to mask their online behaviors. Serious financial troubles may also result from the avoidance of work, as well as bankruptcy due to continued online shopping, online gaming, or online gambling. They may also have trouble developing new relationships, and they often withdraw socially, because they feel more at ease in an online environment than an actual physical one.
One of the overarching problems with the internet is that there is often no accountability and no limits. You are hidden behind a screen, so you may say or do some things online that you would never consider doing in person. To some, that can be a very attractive proposition. One iissue that happens in digital addiction is that people who may be shy or awkward or lonely may create a new identity for themselves. They find that on the internet, they can be the person that they can’t be in real life. They develop this perfect fantasy world where everything goes their way. The problem is that the more they get into that fantasy wotld, the more distant they become from the real world. The results can be a disaster emotionally when they’re forced into the real world; they find they can’t function there and desperately need help. There’s a flip side to a created persona, where it’s done to intentionally hurt others. By now, I’m sure most people are familiar with “catfishing” from the eponymous movie and television program. For those who are not familiar, catfishing is the purposeful act of luring someone into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona. Catfish steal pictures of an attractive person, usually from that person’s social media, and they create a fictional persona and post it online with the stolen pictures to see who bites. If they get an attractive bite, they message that target to begin a relationship for their own devious purposes, which is usually just to get their rocks off, to hurt someone because they hurt, to get nude pictures, or to weasel people out of money. Catfish often do this with multiple people, leading them on, and are usually pretty proud of themselves for it. I think they’re lowlife cowards. My point is that the internet is full of people that feel brave online but who cower in real life. Online and social media digital addicts are more likely to be targeted, simply because they spend so much time on their devices, on the internet, or monitoring their social media.
As for diagnosis, because it was only very recently added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a disorder that needs more research, a standardized diagnosis of digital addiction disorder has not been developed. This is likely due to the variability of the different digital applications that people may become addicted to, as well as the fact that digital addicts can have anxiety and/or depression as well, and therefore would have difficulty, or may be averse to, seeking help.
As to treatment options for digital addiction disorder, the first step in treatment is the recognition that a problem exists. If you don’t believe you have a problem, you’re not likely to seek treatment.
Developing a compulsive need to use digital devices, to the extent that it interferes with your life and stops you from doing things you need to do, is the hallmark of an addiction. If you think you or a loved one may have a digital addiction, you should definitely see a psychiatrist, because there may be an underlying issue like anxiety and/or depression that is treatable with talk therapy and/or medication. I specialize in addiction, and I work with many patients with digital addiction with a great deal of success. There is a right way to utilize technology without it running and ruining your life, so please seek help.
Digital addiction disorder has become such a common theme in my practice that I cover this topic in several stories in my book, so check out Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com if you’d like to read patient stories and get more information on the digital addiction phenomenon.