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Digital Addiction

LAKSHMI on March 30, 2017

Internet Addiction

At Mobicip, we have been studying the various aspects of our technological society, with particular reference to youth, for a couple of years now.  Our research has been largely spurred by personal experience – many of us at Mobicip are parents of digital natives –  and augmented by extensive net search and survey of published literature in various areas of technological sociology. Our stat-counter shows us that many people are interested in understanding the relationship between human life and technology and a few posts have been consistently read, the most popular being the one on the biological effects of technology on the human brain. A recent reader, Nicole Clarke, had the following feedback about the post, to share and discuss:

[…]have you ever seen this page about “Glow Kids” ? The article focuses on the effects that digital addiction has on children’s brains.

“Addiction” is a fuzzy term; the scientifically-oriented would require the attribute of “biological withdrawal” to be associated with any addiction, and such clear-cut withdrawal symptoms have not yet been officially established for compulsive use of technology. However, a habit is said to become an addiction, when it is associated with “salience, compulsive use (loss of control), mood modification and the alleviation of distress, tolerance and withdrawal, and the continuation despite negative consequences”. The above definition indicates that technology overuse can be considered digital addiction.  Indeed, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)’s recent  definition of addiction as a chronic brain disorder, officially proposing that addiction is not limited to substance use, confirms digital overuse as as addiction.

Digital addiction is an umbrella term that includes compulsive indulgence in Internet surfing, social media overuse, continuous texting, uncontrolled e-shopping, excessive participation in or audience of cybersex and online porn, video gaming, and repetitive online gambling. A research paper in The International Journal of Neuropsychiatric Medicine, declares that one in eight Americans suffers from problematic Internet use, and this rate is even higher in some Asian countries -  an estimated 30 percent or more of the Chinese population is classified as highly addicted to the Web. China has identified Internet addiction as one of its main public health risks. Kids between the ages of 8 and 18, around 8 percent in US have been found to be addicted to online gaming.

A few demographic factors have been identified as being closely related to digital addiction, gender and age being the predominant ones.  Men are apparently more inclined to be digital addicts than women, perhaps because men are more likely to play online games and engage in cyberporn. In terms of age, as expected, adolescents and young adults are more likely to become internet addicts than other age groups because of the tremulous stages of psychological development associated with adolescence. It is also believed that there could be a genetic predisposition to digital addiction.  Predisposed individuals have fewer dopamine receptors or have an insufficient amount of serotonin/dopamine, necessitating indulgence in activities that will artificially spike their feeling of “pleasure”. Indeed, digital addiction has been found in many cases to accompany mental disorders such as neurosis. There continue to be contradictory viewpoints on whether or not digital addiction should be classified as an (behavioral) addiction, an impulse-control disorder or even an obsessive compulsive disorder.

Social Media Addiction

So, what are the symptoms of digital addiction? Dr. Kimberly S. Young developed an eight-item questionnaire to provide a screening instrument for addictive Internet use, and these items may be adapted/adopted to assess and/or identify digital addiction in general:

1. Do you feel preoccupied with the any digital tool (internet on the computer, smart phone, texting, gaming, cyber porn, and cyber sex)?

2. Do you feel the need to use any digital tool (smart phone, computer/laptop for non-work purposes, digital tablet) with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?

3. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop digital tool (smart phone, laptop for non-work purposes, digital tablet etc.) use?

4. Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop digital tool use?

5. Do you use digital tools for longer than originally intended?

6. Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of any form of digital tool?

7. Have you lied to family members, therapist, or others to conceal the extent of use of any digital tool?

8. Do you uses the digital tools as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)?

(The more I research on this topic, the more I realise that I answer ‘yes’ to more than four questions on the above list – blog hopping and information harvesting, I realise, are my weakness and addiction in the digital domain, thanks to the information overload of the era)

What are the treatment options for digital addiction?  The obvious path would be to shut down the tool (smart phone, laptop etc.) for a few hours every day and smell the blooming spring flowers out there in the real world.  But solutions are rarely that easy, are they? Multimodal treatment approaches that implement different types of treatment such as pharmacology, psychotherapy and family counseling simultaneously or sequentially may be required for treating intense forms of digital addiction. Such approaches obviously require self-discipline, which may be elusive to the addict. Availing of the assistance of a loved one, or a professional therapist/doctor may be essential to kick-start the process. Personal cognitive-behavioral approaches would include:

(a)   Development of alternate schedules that exclude digital devices. 

(b)  Employment of external triggers such as reminders on devices to power down, or using timers to restrict use. 

(c)   Availing of support from groups such as Internet & Tech Addiction Anonymous (ITAA)

(d)  Engagement in family therapy to address relational problems in the family that could trigger digital overuse

Pharmacological interventions for digital addiction are currently not stand-alone and treat underlying psychiatric conditions. Selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be prescribed when digital addiction accompanies main-stream psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression. Drugs such as escitalopram, bupropion, methylphenidate etc. have been reported to be effective for treatment of digital addiction, when accompanied by conditions such as anxiety and attention deficit disorders.

Psychological approaches to treating digital addition include motivational interviewing, community reinforcement and family training, reality therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy.

With technology increasingly interweaving into the web of life, digital addictions can become a pandemic unless recognized and handled carefully. The handling of digital addiction, or even overuse, if we do not yet want to consider it addiction, must include conscientious living, development and adoption of holistic and tailored treatment methods, and avoidance of negative connotations associated with any form of addiction that make identification and treatment difficult. We are still in the nascent stages of digital integration and now would be the best time to tackle the bull by its emerging horns to make the digital age safe for the future.

Digital Addiction


Writing credit: Authored by Lakshmi, a Mobicip researcher & parent unique insights on the psychological effects of exposure to technology.

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