Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Addictions Du Jour – What’s Yours?

There was a time not long ago when we assumed that someone who was labeled an “addict” was, by default, a drug abuser. If the addict’s drug of choice was alcohol, we labeled them “alcoholics.” But lately, a whole new class of behaviors are getting classified as “addictions,” and, though they have nothing to do with drug and/or alcohol abuse–indeed, they might be things you think are harmless–they are in fact serious conditions which may require professional help.

Substance Abuse vs. Addictive Behaviors

The definition of “addiction” has always been somewhat of a moving target. Today, the dictionary tells us that an addiction is “the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity: he committed the theft to finance his drug addiction | an addiction to gambling.”

Physical addictions to drugs and alcohol have always seemed relatively clear-cut: the body becomes dependent and goes into withdrawal (fatigue, DTs, stomach upset etc.) without the substance. Psychological addictions, which are usually precursors to physical addictions when substances are involved, include a much broader range of behaviors from sex to gambling to texting.  When such behaviors become so all-consuming that they result in a physical, mental, and/or social withdrawal from “normal” life, they’re considered addictions.

Some of the behaviors that can be addicting have been around forever, it seems–sex, gambling, and of course Freud’s primal addiction: masturbation. Other common behaviors, like shopping, watching TV and playing video games, have only been recognized as addicting relatively recently.

Smartphones, Texting and Email

Enter the digital age of on-demand. Now that smart devices have proliferated in developed countries to the point where they’re unavoidable, new behaviors are surfacing that show all the signs of classic addictions. That is, the new behaviors trigger the same rush of dopamine to the brain as drugs and alcohol. That’s not to say that everybody you see walking, or driving, around with their faces buried in their smartphones are riding a dopamine curiosity high.  But if you see someone having a breakdown because they’ve been separated from their device (a not uncommon sight), you might be witnessing real withdrawal symptoms. "When you start seeing that people have to text when they're driving, even though they clearly know that they're endangering their lives and the lives of others, we really have to ask what is so compelling about this new medium?" says Peter DeLisi, academic dean of the information technology leadership program at Santa Clara University.

Of course, when we talk about smartphone addictions, we’re not talking about the device itself but the experience the device enables. The same could be said for PCs. Email, for example, can be like playing slot machines. We’re waiting to hit the jackpot. Not necessarily a monetary jackpot, but delivery of some variation of satisfying information (aka “variable ratio reinforcement”). When our desktop or mobile device buzzes, beeps, or plays the 1812 Overture, we’re about as powerful as Pavlov’s dog. That is, the sound triggers the dopamine curiosity loop, and, even if the actual reward may be infrequent, all it takes is one hit to hook us.

Online Gambling

While email and texting (while not driving) addictions can seriously disrupt lives, they are perhaps not as ruinous as other addictions fueled by the Internet and the “always-on” digital culture. The online gaming industry, fueled in part “pathological” gamblers, generated almost $40 billion in revenue in 2014. One of the more disturbing stats indicates that 4% of teens have developed gambling problems as a result.


Addictions to cybersex are rampant. For many, cybersex addictions have resulted in job loss, divorce and a complete inability to have a “normal” relationship. According to, 60 percent of all visits on the Internet are sex-related, making it the number one topic researched online – that’s almost 40 million people. Of those 40 million internet users, 8-10% of males and 3% of female Internet users are hooked on cybersex.

Online Shopping and eBay

eBay is also in the category of internet-related addictions because of the excitement (and dopamine) associated with bidding and winning. Online shopping in general can become addicting, even without the thrill of the auction. Shopping 24-7 in the comfort of one’s home, without the aching feet and the pressure of salespeople, makes it that much easier to buy unneeded and unwanted stuff, just for the reward of purchasing something. As a result, online shopping addicts can get into serious financial straits by the time a problem is recognized.  

New Addictions, New Treatments

Fortunately, the support community has kept pace with the explosion of new internet-related addictions. Some traditional drug and alcohol abuse treatment organizations are expanding their capabilities and applying some of the tried and true methods to the psychological, behavioral addictions of Internet junkies. While such addictions may seem less severe than addictions to drugs or alcohol, recovery can be just as difficult.  If you have an acquaintance, friend or loved-one who appears to be struggling with one or several of the new, digital addictions, there are many online resources that can help diagnose and treat the problem. Keep in mind that, while such behaviors may appear trivial to unaffected onloookers, they are serious problems and should be treated as such.