Digital Addiction; The World’s Next Great Health Crisis

We began a series of articles about "Mastering Our Digital; Recovering the Real World." this month. This is the first of four topics dealing with areas of concern in our cyber-age.

It is reported by the American Psychological Association that 11 million people suffer from some form of Digital Addiction.

We use the word 'addiction' to describe all kinds of repetitive behavior nowadays.  Likewise, there are so many 'syndromes' floating around that most of us should probably be seeing a therapist.  I hope we are not as sick as we think.  However, we do live in trying times. It's hard, if not impossible, to diagnose anything from a remote armchair or laptop. But after four decades as a behavioral health professional, I can confidently say this; There is a boatload of pain out there. People are trying to escape in greater numbers and in more ways than ever. It is no wonder that there is a rise in digital addiction in adults and  Electronic Screen Syndrome in children.

This is especially important to understand when 25 percent of kids under six have a smartphone and 91 percent of teenagers, ages 13 to 17 have the internet on cell phones.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine has short and long versions of a definition of addiction. Even the short one is pretty heady. But I encourage you to read their explanation at the above-captioned site.

As exhaustingly thorough as doctors and psychologists can be in explaining addiction to us, it all comes down to the fact that there is too much pain to bear. People are trying to find a place from which they cannot see or feel their wounds anymore and the digital world provides a perfect escape from the reality of woundedness.

Somewhere beyond our flat screens is another in which we are in control of where we go, what we do, and who we are.  There is no need to fantasize about being another person or in different circumstances.  You are there in an instant.  And none of the pain has to follow. This relief from the agony of loneliness, fear, sadness, anxiety, guilt, and shame is so powerful, and the hiding place so sublime that going back to it is irresistible. There are also countless positive reinforcers in the imaginary world.

Three Big Digital Addictions

  1. Internet gaming and gambling disorders are becoming a big concern.  The 'high' associated with winning, accomplishing and overcoming difficult problems followed by subsequent payoffs is very intense. Baylor University professor Earl Grinols estimates that addicted gamblers and stock traders cost the U.S. between $32.4 billion and $53.8 billion a year. Where normal gamers play online for six hours a week, addicted gamers play as much as 80 and 100 hours per week. Increasing numbers of children and adolescents are becoming addicted to video games. Studies show that they have, poorer mental health, cognitive functioning, decreasing impulse control and ADHD symptoms.
  2. Online Pornography or cybersex is addictive behavior referred to by health professionals as Problematic Online Pornography Use (POPU).  People, especially young males, are spending alarming amounts of time combing the internet for images and videos to provide sexual satisfaction. POPU also has very damaging psychological and spiritual effects.  The significant distress and feelings of shame following cybersex are unique.  I have treated young men and boys who have even considered suicide because of their inability to stop hypersexual behavior online. Those who have strong or rigid religious backgrounds seem to suffer the most. They believe that their behavior has cast them into the depths of sin.  But despite promises to never do it again, they find themselves back at the same sites over and over.
  3. Online Shopping Addiction has become a financial nightmare for families. Pathological buying on the internet is destroying relationships, not unlike substance abuse disorders.  Cell phones and other mobile devices have markedly increased the ability for people to shop from anywhere and for longer periods of time while buying more and more things.  There is quite a buzz associated with this and no sense of accumulating massive debt.  According to an inpatient treatment center that treats shopping compulsions, "The impulse or trigger to this addiction is right at your fingertips most of the day making it harder to find other ways to avoid this addictive behavior." 

It is also important to note that studies are being done and treatment protocols developed for cyber-relationship addiction in which people compulsively engage in social networking, chat rooms and social messaging.  Another addiction under scrutiny involves compulsively surfing the web, browsing, and researching to a point that it interferes with normal routines and daily life.

Help Mastering Digital/Screen Addictions and Syndromes
The good news is that help is available for this growing addiction problem.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other forms of behavior intervention are proving to be an extremely effective treatment.  Good outpatient and inpatient strategies for healthy recovery involve discovering better ways to cope with underlying feelings and triggers that drive the addictions.  In addition, there are several web monitoring and browsing software applications and tools used in concert with therapy to provide content-control and time-limitation. The nation's oldest inpatient addiction treatment provider, Caron Foundation, makes itself available to lead folks in the right direction for finding internet addiction assistance.

We cannot afford to minimize the urgency of this growing problem which affects us all.