Tech Addiction Is Real; Doctors Begin to Identify Symptoms, Behaviors

Lilo H. Stainton | November 12, 2019 | Health Care
Little data is currently available about addiction to social media or online shopping, but medical providers are mapping out parameters, experimenting with treatments
Credit: @pepereca/Twenty20
Doctor says that screen time alone cannot be the sole metric for gauging addictive behavior.

The internet has many benefits, but it has also led to full-blown addictions for a small number of users who have allowed social media, videogaming and other online activities to shred the fabric of their daily lives, according to mental health experts.

A growing concern nationwide and in New Jersey, technological addiction was the focus of the Urban Mental Health Conference held earlier this month at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) in Newark. More study is needed, participants agreed, but the issue is real and needs to be taken seriously — and properly treated.

“Technological addiction is emerging as a new frontier in our field,” said Dr. Petros Levounis, NJMS professor and chair of the psychiatry department. “Most people do not know, or believe, that an all-encompassing obsessive use of social media, texting, sexting, emailing, gaming, gambling or e-baying can lead to a bona fide addiction,” he said.

While most Americans spend a significant amount of time online every day, some individuals become obsessed with social media or other online activities, escalating their use and often lying about the habit even as it causes problems for them at work, home or financially, Levounis explained. There is little empirical data available on the problem, he said, but in his experience it impacts people of all ages and races, not just young, tech-savvy individuals.

“That is absolutely not the case” that young people are the only ones subject to tech addiction, Levounis said. “Elderly people often have significant problems, especially when it comes to online shopping or e-baying,” he added.

Levounis helped organize the Nov. 1 conference in Newark that brought together some 150 medical professionals, students, advocates and community leaders to discuss various aspects of tech addiction. “This conference creates opportunities for experts to develop new solutions to treat these emerging psychiatric conditions,” he said of the event, the seventh annual gathering held by NJMS psychiatry department.

Gaming disorder — a recognized disease

In 2018, the World Health Organization added gaming disorder to its list of classified diseases. In July, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced federal legislation that would impose limits on social media use in an effort to reduce potential addiction; it has yet to attract co-sponsors or generate momentum. Recently the issue also caught the attention of some technology leaders, including Google, some of whom are starting to explore potential solutions.

“We’re at the beginning stages of looking at this,” Levounis said. “What we’re talking about here is really a small subset of people who have ruined their lives because of tech abuse.”

Findings released in late October by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on families and media, found that children ages 8 to 12 spend nearly five hours a day on their phones or computers — more time than they spend in the classroom or on homework. For teenagers, screen time is nearly 7 1/2 hours daily. Adults spend an average of 11 hours a day (including at work) using all kinds of media, including television and radio, according to the Nielsen Co. Nearly 40% involves online activities, with computers, smartphones or internet-connected TVs.

Screen time — the new normal

“The signs of a technological addiction may be difficult to identify, especially in young people. After all, spending hours in front of screens every day is quickly becoming the norm,” said Dr. James Sherer, an NJMS psychiatry resident who spoke about videogaming at the conference.  “Knowing when to treat technological addictions, and when not to treat them, will be a point of discussion in the mental health community for years to come.”

Levounis agreed screen time alone cannot be the sole metric for gauging addictive behavior, although he joked that some parents may want to blame all their teens’ problems on these devices. In truth, clinicians must assess these patterns and rule out other diagnoses, like anxiety or depression, before settling on tech addiction as a problem.

Some addictions, like substance-use disorders or smoking can be easier to spot, Levounis said. “But when it comes to behavioral addictions in general” — like shopping (offline) or overeating — “things get a little murkier,” he said.

Generally speaking, for tech use to be considered an addiction it must result in certain symptoms that are fairly  common for problematic compulsive behaviors, experts agreed. These include the need to repeat the activity more frequently to achieve the same feeling; an intense discomfort resulting from not engaging in the activity; and a complete preoccupation with the activity, even when it results in financial loss, family problems or health or legal issues. Lying about the behavior is also a common symptom of addiction.

In an op-ed published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in September, Levounis and Sherer described several cases they had seen, including a 25-year-old man whose virtual dating life destroyed his ability to connect with women in reality. A veteran in his 20s racked up significant debt and ended up homeless as a result of an obsession with online gaming. Another vet suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after becoming obsessed with internet war games.

There is not currently any pharmacological treatment, Levounis said, but psychotherapy, behavioral therapy and occupational therapy can help address tech addiction. He doesn’t call for those in treatment to go cold turkey without their technology of choice, but he does work with patients and their families to set healthy boundaries around the use of their devices.

“There’s not a blanket treatment” for all cases, he said. “But we involve families a lot,” he added, stressing the importance for adults to lead by example when it comes to limiting their tech use.