Digital Addiction: This Is Your Brain Online

“Digital” addictions—to things like the Internet, video games, social media and smartphones or other technology—are increasingly common but widely misunderstood. Despite not yet being recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM), experts are increasingly warning of the risks of various types of technology addiction. The claim that things like the Internet or Facebook can be genuinely addictive—in the same way as drugs, alcohol or gambling—is often met with suspicion. After all, you can’t just say that somebody who uses something a lot is addicted to it on that basis alone. However, the more you find out about digital addictions, and how addiction works on the whole, the less easy it is to ignore suggestions that we’re moving toward a new type of addiction epidemic.

What Is Digital Addiction?

The term “digital addiction” is fairly broad, but it covers video games, the Internet, social media, technology and other addictions, as well as having some overlap with pornography addiction. Generally, it can be understood on the same behavioral basis as most other addictions—when you continue using a piece of digital-age technology to the point that it causes problems in your day-to-day life, you can’t stop even if you try and you feel agitated or uncomfortable when you can’t use it (for example, experiencing anxiety when you forget or misplace your smartphone), there are obvious parallels with drug and alcohol addiction. Much like with gambling addiction—a more widely accepted non-substance addiction—the compulsion to continue playing or continue browsing can have pronounced negative effects. The idea gets a lot harder to disagree with when you consider the issue from a neurological perspective. Addictive substances can be essentially thought of as substances with the potential to impact the levels of brain chemicals, particularly dopamine and chemicals in the opioid system. When the substances are consumed, levels of these chemicals are affected, leading to feelings of euphoria and a desire to repeat the experience. Over time, the brain becomes tolerant to the effects of these chemicals and dependent on artificially boosted levels to maintain normal functioning. This is where addiction really comes from. But it isn’t only drugs and alcohol that have this effect in the brain: in fact, sex, food, gambling and many other activities can do the same thing, and therefore can be addictive. Research might be limited, but similar brain changes have been observed in Internet addicts, leading to increased dopamine in the brain and boosted blood flow to reward and pleasure centers. The main thing science needs to do now, according to Dr. Andrew Doan (of the U.S. Naval Substance Abuse and Recovery Program) is classify different stimuli according to their “digital potency”—or potential for addiction. In his words, “You don’t see people getting addicted to PowerPoint. Our challenge is to figure out how potent something like Facebook is compared to something like gaming.”

How Common Is Digital Addiction?

Since it’s hard to deny that digital addictions are real, in the light of the evidence, the next step is working out how common they are. This is challenging, though, because there are many specific addictions contained within the general term and they aren’t often clearly and rigidly defined. However, there is evidence from specific studies that give some indication. An American study focusing on gaming addiction found that among kids between the ages of 8 and 18, around 8 percent could be classified as addicted. Other research from the U.S. and Europe has suggested that rates of Internet addiction range from 1.5 to 8.2 percent (although estimates vary due to unclear definitions). In some parts of Asia, the rate may be as high as 26 percent, and China has identified Internet addiction as one of its main public health risks.

Getting Help for Digital Addictions

For those struggling with digital addictions, getting help isn’t always easy. While treatment is relatively similar to that for other addictions, only limited options exist for addressing things like social media, Internet or gaming addictions. Matt McKenna was addicted to an online game for three years, playing for 30 hours straight on many occasions, losing his girlfriend and flunking out of school as a result. He wanted to avoid the Internet, but that’s where many support groups are based. At one point, he attended Alcoholics Anonymous to see if group members there could help, but he explained, “You can’t go in there and say you’re addicted to gaming. They don’t understand it. They look at you like you’re some sort of alien.” Thankfully, there are increasing numbers of dedicated treatment programs available for people like McKenna that don’t require using the Internet and work much like traditional programs. However, he also hints at another issue for those struggling with digital addictions: “I can’t choose to not see gaming ads ever again. All it takes is one click and I’m back into gaming.” Abstinence or avoidance of triggers is difficult for digital addictions, given that most people are expected (or required) to use the Internet, cell phones and social media, and—as McKenna pointed out—avoiding temptation can be next to impossible. Realistically, the abstinence-based approach used for drugs and alcohol has to become a little more nuanced when dealing with digital addictions.

A 21st Century Addiction

There’s one thing we can be sure of: digital addictions will likely become more of a problem as technology progresses and is increasingly interwoven into our lives. That’s why it’s essential that we recognize that addictions to gaming, the Internet, social media and technology are every bit as serious as drug or alcohol addictions from a psychological and social perspective. Tailored treatments, preventive actions, official recognition and much more research on the issues are increasingly becoming a priority. As well as taking the issue seriously, we need to be on the lookout for warning signs in our loved ones and be pro-active in helping those who are struggling to find the support they need.

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