Digital Dependency

Rehab is no longer reserved for lost souls addicted to substances or alcohol. A new addiction may have been developing over the last few years with serious ramifications for its victims and those close to them — addiction to the internet.

It has been only a recent trend in psychology to concede that behavioral addiction can be as potent as chemical addiction. This shift in the modern psychological landscape was marked by the introduction of gambling into the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM).

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While the technology subsection of behavioral addiction is a relatively new one for experts to explore, and research is still in its nascent stages, some specialists believe that the condition effects as many as one to 13 percent of the U.S. population — as many as 40 million people. Most of this number is accounted for by young adults, 20 percent of whom suffer from some form of internet addiction.

The majority of technology addiction in young men involves gaming, and a common factor in the addiction is the escapism it provides — experts, like those at the reStart Life clinic, have named this "internet gaming disorder." Alex, an addict who attended the clinic, said in an interview with The Guardian that he felt a sense of worth being Zelda “instead of being the depressed piece of s*** I was in real life.”

reStart Life is one of a growing number of clinics that help patients deal with their dependence on technology, which can cause mental and physical damage on par with drug use and withdrawal. Hilarie Cash, the Chief Clinical Officer at reStart, directly likened it to substance abuse, telling The Guardian, "The way a gamer’s brain lights up in euphoria and builds up a tolerance to the rewards, distorting the neuro pleasure pathways over time, is similar to a cocaine addict.”

Internet addiction does not affect just male gamers, however — there is a growing trend of younger women getting hooked on social media. Psychologists today report that young women have begun chasing likes on social media, a fixation that can have a serious impact on their development of self esteem, social skills, and authentic identity. In a study, scientists found that after just five days without smartphone use, young girls were already better at reading facial expressions and engaging emotionally.

The Debate and the Disease

One of the main issues concerning internet addiction is that technology has become almost impossible to hide oneself from in our increasingly digital world. Jeff Nalin, head psychologist of Paradigm, another clinic specializing in internet addiction, said in an interview with NPR that "the best analogy is when you have something like an eating disorder [...] You cannot be clean and sober from food. So, you have to learn the skills to deal with it."

As the world becomes more and more digital, programs such as Paradigm and reStart are vital to providing support for people who's lives have been impacted by tech addiction. However, progress in treating internet addiction is being hindered by psychologists who do not accept it as a disorder. Patrick Markey, a psychologist at Villanova University, is one of these deniers.

Markey says that the increased use of the internet is attributable to a behavioral shift across generations rather than being a psychosis: "We might want them to be outside playing baseball or something, but for that generation that's their pixelated playground," He said in an interview with NPR. "It might not be a sign of a pathological behavior."

In contrast, Anna Lembke, assistant professor in addiction medicine at Stanford, argued to NPR that internet addiction follows "the natural narrative arc of any addiction." This debate is fueled by the lack of studies ion this topic, and ambiguity concerning its causes mean that the nature of the beast remains an enigma. Internet addiction did not make it into the fifth edition of the DSM on the basis that there had not been sufficient research — gambling itself took several decades to make the cut.

This is not an indication, though, that there is not a problem: an unhealthy dependence on the internet is clearly having a negative impact on some people's lives. Due to this, it is crucial that research continue so that we are prepared to deal with a potential disease that could become an epidemic given the increasing prevalence of the internet in our society. It is better to prepare and not need, than to need and not have prepared.

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