When you think about addiction, technology might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But studies have shown that many in the modern day spend an unhealthy amount of time on their phones and computers.
Intuitively, the most obvious example of the internet’s contribution to our addictive tendencies is the way in which it can complement established dependencies. Today, you can order alcohol and cigarettes for under-an-hour delivery with a few taps on your phone. It’s also easier than you might think to find illegal marketplaces selling illicit substances, prescription medications, and various black-market items delivered right to your door. And despite Backpage.com and the Craig’s List personals being shut down, sexual connectivity is still incredibly high. Placing bets couldn’t be easier either thanks to the wide variety of online gambling.
But perhaps the addiction to technology itself is the standout problem of post-modern addiction, if for no other reason than it wouldn’t be possible without today’s digital outlets.
A New Era of Addiction
With the rise of smartphones and personal computers in recent years, almost 290 million Americans are now connected to the internet, and recent studies in the U.S. and U.K. show that more than 8% of the general population is addicted to it. That’s more than 2.32 million people.
Internet addiction is particularly unique because, unlike with drugs or alcohol, there is no physical dependency, which makes it difficult for researchers to classify. They settled on the terminology ‘Internet Addictive Disorder,’ or IAD for short.
IAD is an umbrella term that covers five subtypes of impulsive online behaviors, including cybersex addiction (the compulsive viewing of internet pornography), cyber-relationship addiction (an obsession with online relationships), Information Overload (obsessive web browsing), and general computer addiction.
IAD can cause significant problems when a preoccupation with being online interferes with a person’s existing relationships and real-life responsibilities, but the negative effects aren’t exclusively external. IAD has been shown to alter the composition of your brain, shrinking the white and grey matter in ways similar to alcohol abuse and cocaine addiction, and causing changes to brain function and emotional processing.
Social media addiction has also been shown to have a significant impact on the brain, with the positive and the negative interactions online causing very real physical effects. Positive social interaction triggers dopamine release by the Ventral Tegmental Area of the brain, which is what makes gaining likes and followers so appealing to some. Negative interactions have an equally strong effect, with your brain perceiving them as legitimate threats and triggering a stress response.
Those struggling with IAD or social media addiction are also more likely to have comorbid mental health conditions; suffering from depression, anxiety, and other addictions at a higher rate than the general population. They frequently report having poor social support systems and the feeling of loneliness, and it’s common for them to turn to the internet for support. This makes those experiencing a major life change that affects social activity, such as welcoming a baby or moving a long distance, extremely susceptible to IAD. If you know someone who is going through a life change, reaching out can make a real difference.
Luckily, with new problems come new solutions. Despite the addictive potential of the internet, it has done a lot to further how we deal with addiction and mental health as a society. Fear of judgment and feelings of embarrassment or shame can prevent people from seeking help for their problems. But digital support outlets do make it possible (and even likely) for anyone to find reputable and helpful information on addiction, join an online support community, speak with a well-reviewed therapist online, and connect with resources like an addiction rehab center; all anonymously, and all online.