INTERNET GAMING IS THE ONLY OFFICIALLY RECOGNIZED DIGITAL ADDICTION. COUNSELLORS AND PHYSICIANS ARE TREATING A HOST OF DIGITAL DEPENDENCY DISORDERS. INTERNET GAMBLING, PORNOGRAPHY, INFO-SURFING, TEXTING/SOCIAL MEDIA, AND EVEN POSSIBLY A DEVICE DISORDER (SMART PHONE), ARE GETTING LOTS OF RESEARCH ATTENTION. IT IS UNCLEAR IF THESE DEPENDENCIES ARE MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES IN THEIR OWN RIGHT, OR SYMPTOMS OF FUNDAMENTAL MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES, SUCH AS DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY.
How common are internet addictions? And just what is excessive use?
There are lots of studies on the prevalence (how common) of internet addictions and disorders. The results vary. One thing is certain: the incidence is going up. That is not surprising. Our array of devices has expanded and so has their addictive power. And, we are giving them to toddlers.
A reasonable estimate for internet dependency in Canada and the United States is about 8% of the population. It is highest among college students, as high as 18%. Prevalence among adolescents and teenagers is about in the middle. Children and teenagers are the fastest growing dependent population. Their young minds have fewer defences against impulsiveness and they have never known a time without a screen.
Internet Gambling Addiction
It is not surprising this digital disorder was recognized first. Gambling Addiction Disorder has been recognized for decades. So, why did psychologists not diagnose digital gamblers as simply gamblers? Why a new diagnosis for internet gambling? Because digital gambling has unique addictive features. Research shows that just the glowing screen itself can be addictive. Digital gambling is private and effortless. It is easier to hide. And, the ability to get a dose of dopamine with every click of the mouse means digital gambling is more easily addictive.
Excessive use is easiest to measure with gambling disorder. In addition to behavioural evidence, look at your bank account and credit card balances. If you are gambling more than before you began internet gambling or if you are losing more money, chances are the addictive digital lure has begun.
The reason streaming pornography is more addictive than static forms is the intensity of the stimuli. At a click you can have what you want. Click again to change the style. Run multiple windows. Digital porn is easy to access even for adolescents, private (no magazines or CDs to purchase or leave lying around) and nearly infinite in variety. Thanks to digital porn, according to one study, the number of pre-adolescents exposed to porn tripled between 2008 and 2011 to nearly 50%. Streaming pornography raises dopamine levels higher and for longer than any other digital activity. Young people are highly susceptible and they are engraving instant gratification pathways in their brains. Many pornography addicts eventually experience failure to get an erection. Their pleasure pathways are so burned out no image is novel enough to excite them.
Internet Gaming Dependency
This is the most commonly recognized disorder. It is the one many young people will admit to. Almost everyone knows someone who spends the majority of leisure time on the controls of a computer or gaming device. This disorder has high potential for psychological, social and cognitive harm. Boys and men are more than twice as likely to have gaming addictions than girls and women.
Gaming disorders are difficult to treat. Massively multi-player online games hook players into a competitive union with other players or into an alternative world in the case of MMO role playing games. The stimulation level is high, so the addiction can be strong. The world of violent games or the world of your avatar can become more important than your life with real people and real objects. You become a star in a make believe world, while relationships to parents and friends, all of your hopes and dreams, wither. Your physical health degenerates. Yet, thousands of addicted gamers have come out of their dark closets into the sunshine with the help of counselling and support from others.
Texting and Social Media Dependency
Girls and women are more likely than boys and men to have this dependency. It is not uncommon for a teen to exchange 200 text messages a day. Social media like SnapChat, Instagram and Facebook, along with chat apps, offer teens with social anxiety or self-worth issues a “safe,” substitute network of texting buddies and virtual friends. The signal that a new text or graph or like has come in triggers a dopamine rush that can become insatiable. It is tempting to engage with and live vicariously through the lives of beautiful people who help you decide what make-up to wear, where to travel and how to enjoy life. Adults are less likely to get hooked on social media, but they are not immune. Moderation, not abstinence, is the goal for people over 14, provided they can avoid relapse.
Smart Phone Dependency
Chances are someone who is using their phone excessively – can’t put it down, takes it to bed – has a texting/social media disorder or information surfing dependency. However, there is evidence that the phone itself is a source of addiction. The individual may use it for several activities and move from one to the other repeatedly. The glow of the screen may be addictive. Just holding the phone can trigger an anticipatory dopamine rush. The negative health, cognitive and social effects of living your life through a phone are enough to recommend moderation. That’s right, moderation. Used moderately, a smartphone makes life easier and connects you to real friends and loved ones.
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