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Technology Addictions: Social Media, Online Gaming, and More

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Technology is an integral and growing part of our lives. It is key for efficient functioning in many aspects of our lives and vital for social connection for many. Our smartphones are constant companions for many of us. However, excessive, compulsive or out-of-control use of various types of technologies is an increasing area of concern.

Excessive and compulsive use of the internet or online activities can lead to negative consequences in various aspects of an individual's life. Technology addiction can potentially involve various forms of online activity including social media, gaming, gambling, problematic use of online pornography, and others.

  • Social media addiction involves problematic and compulsive use of social media; an obsessive need to check and update social media platforms, often resulting in problems in functioning and disrupted real-world relationships.1
  • Internet gaming disorder refers to excessive use of online or video games, leading to neglect of responsibilities and physical health. (Read more about Internet Gaming.)
  • Online gambling is another area of growing concern. A wide variety of games and sports betting apps are increasingly readily available. Gambling functions are also incorporated into other online activities such as within online gaming activities. While gambling disorder is not new, the increased availability and easy access via phone or computer are raising new concerns. (Read more about Gambling Disorder.)
  • Online shopping or auction addiction involves an impulse, drive, or temptation to shop online and repeatedly acting on the impulse in a way that is harmful and leads to disruption in various areas of a person’s life.1
  • Problematic use of online pornography involves compulsive use of online sexual content, impacting personal relationships and mental well-being.

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Expert Q&A: Technology Addiction

Technology addiction involves excessive use of technology that leads to problems and distress. When a person is addicted to technology, these activities are done to avoid or alleviate feelings of anxiety or irritability, rather than for fun and recreation. People with technology addiction can experience symptoms of tolerance and withdrawal similar to people with substance use disorders. Technology addiction is increasing across diverse populations.

Yes. Some of the common types of technology addiction include:

  • Internet gaming
  • Social media
  • Internet surfing
  • Online shopping and auctions
  • Cybersex and/or pornography Technologies are continually changing, and our understanding of those addictions is evolving.

These addictions are not currently included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). Internet gaming is listed in the DSM appendix where it is identified as requiring further study. (Gambling disorder is the only behavior addiction currently included in the DSM.)

The amount of time alone might not indicate a mental health problem, but here are some key behaviors that might raise concerns about technology addiction.

  • Continuing to use technology despite knowing it can have adverse consequences, such as relationship problems or medical/physical problems (like sleep deprivation).
  • Lying to friends, family or loved ones about their frequency of using technology.
  • Constantly thinking about technological use, having cravings, and/or spending tremendous amounts of time engaging with a technology.

Treatment and prevention of problematic technology use can involve a range of approaches. A first step is assessment and counseling from a mental health professional. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is commonly used to address the underlying psychological factors contributing to addiction. Therapy can help individuals understand their behaviors and develop healthy coping mechanisms and positive behaviors.

Support groups (including 12-step programs) for technology addictions and family therapy are helpful for recovery for many individuals. The availability of online peer support and recovery groups makes connecting with others and getting support easily accessible and it can be anonymous. In some situations, medications can be helpful.

It is also important to work with a mental health clinician to identify and treat any other mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety.

Depending on the type of technology addiction that is being treated, there is some early evidence that medications can help as well. For example, naltrexone may be effective to reduce problematic online gambling, and antidepressants or ADHD medications may be helpful in treating internet gaming disorder.

This is a difficult but common question. The first thing to do is be non-judgmental and curious about your child's use of any technology. Consider why they're using that technology. What is the draw? Is the draw something social? Are they using the game or the social media application because all of their friends are? Also consider whether the use of that technology is leading to significant functional impairment. Is it impacting your child's grades or are they giving up activities that they used to enjoy?

Learn about the technology they are using. If it's a game, offer to play with them. If it's a social media app offer to make an account yourself. Approach it first with a sense of curiousness, and open-mindedness. Try to create a space where the child feels comfortable discussing their concerns and experiences using technology and talk about the balance between online time and other activities.

However, if there are warning signs that you notice, it may be time to take action. You can begin by taking a look at the usage statistics on the phone to see exactly how much time your child is spending on an application. You can also use parental controls on the phone (e.g., restricting the amount of time on specific apps.)

There is no specific number of hours that is problematic. It might sound like a lot for a child to spend 2 or 3 hours a night playing. If that child is also getting good grades, participating in sports, getting together with friends and getting along at home, it may not be a concern. But for other kids, a couple of hours a night might mean that their grades are slipping, they are giving up other activities, and that they're becoming moodier at home. That's when you might seek out help from a mental health professional. They can help identify any potential underlying psychiatric concerns and help you consider treatment options.

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James Sherer, M.D.

Medical Director of Addiction Psychiatry
Overlook Medical Center, Atlantic Health System, Summit New Jersy

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