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The difficulties of digital addiction


 What is digital addiction?

The Hazelden Betty Ford Organization defines digital addiction as a behavioral addiction (i.e., non-substance addiction) that involves frequent and obsessive technology-related behavior practiced despite negative consequences. It is a compulsive behavior someone does for a reward or a feeling of pleasure. When someone gets a “high” from performing the behavior, cravings may result. 

Not everyone, however, recognizes digital addiction as a behavioral addiction. The American Psychiatric Association currently only recognizes gambling as a behavioral addiction in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases recently included gaming disorder as a mental health condition1.

 What causes digital addiction?

Neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin, are among the chemicals that release pleasurable feelings. For example, when someone obsessed with technology searches the internet or when their smartphone pings, the unpredictable results can build excitement. If the user likes what they receive, they can feel euphoria or a high.2 Data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that brain activity in people who engage in addictive behaviors is similar to those who misuse substances.3  

People become addicted to certain behaviors for many reasons. They can seek to replace negative emotions with more positive ones, or as a means of coping with stress. According to Net Addictions, online gambling, porn, and other behavioral addictions can be addictive for three reasons: accessibility, control, and excitement (ACE).

Smartphones, social media, and other technologies can feed different insecurities. Often, users may crave more social interaction.4 For instance, on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms, users may feel FOMO (fear of missing out) when a friend posts a picture of themselves doing something fun without them. When friends join online video gamers, the connection can enhance their desire to keep playing.

Some of the things screen users may become obsessed with, and perhaps addicted to, are:

  • Smartphones
  • Social media
  • Video games
  • Online gambling
  • Cyberporn

Digital addiction warning signs and treatment

A digital addiction can harm a user’s life. The particular behavior may be hard to stop and lead to damaged relationships, sleep loss and poor performance at school or work. It can also have physical effects from sitting for too long, such as contributing to obesity and joint pain. 

Like with other addictions, the digital user can deny or hide the problem.  Things to look for though are whether the user is spending enough time with people, getting enough exercise, or eating well. Basically, is the behavior significantly interfering with their life.   

Several screening tools are available for behavioral addiction self-evaluations, including:

Treatments available for technology addiction include medication, psychotherapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help people change how they think and behave to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

At Citizens Advocates, we assess patients to tailor a treatment program to their needs. Our services include tele-mental health and addiction therapy. If you think you have a digital or other behavioral addiction, contact us today.