Help! My Kid Is Addicted to His Laptop!
Sometimes I think my son is addicted to online games. I can't seem to pry him away from the computer in his room, even by offering my car keys. What teenaged boy would rather sit at his computer playing World of Warcraft than go out joyriding in the family car? And lately he's stopped doing his homework and spending time with his friends from school.
-- Joanna, distraught mother of a 17-year-old online gamer, asking for help
In the past, I have occasionally written about behavioral addictions (also called process addictions), primarily discussing the fact that numerous pleasurable behaviors can indeed become addictions, and those addictions can be every bit as insidious and destructive as alcoholism or drug abuse. Until now, however, I have not expended much energy discussing the various types of behavioral addiction or the ways in which digital technology is driving them. I shall attempt to remedy that here.
The "Triple-A Engine"
I don't know if I'm addicted to online porn, or if it's just a bad habit. I do know that I spend at least a few hours every day on porn sites. This is time I could be spending with my family or just getting some work done, but that darn computer calls out to me 24/7.
-- Jack, a 37-year-old married father of three, now in therapy
With behavioral addictions, the Internet's "Triple-A Engine" of accessibility, affordability and anonymity is a driving force. In short, as discussed in my book Closer Together, Further Apart, coauthored with Dr. Jennifer Schneider, Internet-accessible digital devices have dramatically increased the average person's ability to affordably and anonymously access endless quantities of highly pleasurable games, material, and activity, and this proliferation of access has caused tremendous problems for a whole lot of people, especially those with preexisting addictive disorders, social inhibition, unresolved childhood or severe adult trauma, mood disorders, attachment deficit disorders, and similar issues -- any of which may contribute to the development and maintenance of a behavioral addiction (or, similarly, a substance abuse problem).
In essence, whenever intensely-pleasurable and arousing substances, like cocaine and crystal meth, or experiences, like shopping, video-gaming, gambling and sex, become more readily affordable and accessible, the potential for addiction rears its ugly head. This is especially true when these substances or experiences are highly refined and amplified, as is the case with "designer" drugs and Internet porn. So perhaps it is not surprising that as digital technology has advanced, bringing with it affordable, easy, relatively anonymous links to intensely pleasurable content and activity, addiction and mental health professionals are seeing a corresponding increase in the number of people struggling with tech-driven behavioral addictions.
Common Tech-Driven Behavioral Compulsions
Before I got into Groupon, Amazon, eBay, and all the other online shopping sites, I was pretty good at making and keeping a budget. These days, however, the boxes seem to stack up outside my door while I go on just paying the minimum on my credit cards.
-- Suzanne, a 54-year-old divorced legal secretary, now in bankruptcy
• Compulsive Spending, also called oniomania, shopping addiction, and compulsive buying disorder, occurs when people spend obsessively despite the damage this does to their finances and even their relationships. Spending addicts often buy things they neither want nor care about once the transaction is complete. They hang new clothes in the closet without ever wearing them or even removing the tags, and they stash fancy electronic toys, unopened, on shelves in their garage. They lie about and cover up their behavior, and they learn to shop in secret (much like alcoholics and drug addicts learn to be secretive about their substance abuse). Digital technology, offering 24/7 access to goods and services, aids and abets them in this endeavor, allowing them to avoid malls and other brick-and-mortar stores where friends or family members might spot them making unnecessary purchases. The finances of compulsive spenders are nearly always strained, often past the breaking point.
• Digital and Online Gaming Addiction is the extreme use of computer and video games. Typically, gaming addicts play for at least two hours daily; sometimes they play four or five times that amount. They often neglect sleep, personal hygiene and diet, possibly gaining or losing significant weight because of their gaming addiction. They avoid friends and family, fail to meet their obligations, and slowly lose interest in formerly enjoyable activities such as going out with friends, team sports and other hobbies. Studies on the prevalence of digital gaming addiction are all over the board, but one thing is clear: Digital natives -- younger individuals who've grown up almost constantly exposed to this form of entertainment -- are most at risk. Anecdotal evidence suggests that military veterans, especially those who've seen action and are used to the heart-pounding terror of war, are also more likely than most to get hooked on interactive video games, especially war-oriented games.
• Gambling Addiction, also called compulsive gambling, is an uncontrollable urge to gamble despite profound, directly related negative consequences and a desire to quit. Typically, gambling addicts will play whatever game is available, though their preference is fast-paced games like video poker, slots, blackjack and roulette, where rounds end quickly and there is an immediate opportunity to play again. Digital technology offers these games in abundance. Additionally, online gambling eliminates the need for traveling to a casino, dog track, horse track, or any other betting venue. Instead, gamblers can simply log on to a gambling website or smartphone app -- from work, home, or anywhere else -- load some funds into their account (using a credit card), and start wagering. Most gambling addicts report a compulsion to keep playing in an effort to regain past losses. Consequently, many rack up tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Gambling addicts sometimes steal or embezzle from work, deal drugs, or engage in prostitution to pay for their gambling. Many end up losing their families, their jobs, and even their freedom.
• Online Romantic/Love/Intimacy Obsession is the compulsive search for romantic attachment. Individuals dealing with this issue live in a chaotic, sometimes desperate world of need and emotional despair. Perpetually fearful of being alone and/or rejected, they endlessly search for that one special relationship. They sacrifice time, health, money, self-esteem and more in pursuit of the perfect partner (even though a perfect partner's perfection never lasts). In today's world, this obsessive search for love is almost entirely digital. Dating sites, text and video chat rooms, hookup apps, and even social media sites can fan the flames of these unhealthy relationships. Social media sites in particular have become a new and socially acceptable place for love addicts to "lose themselves" in the endless search for romantic intensity.
• Sex and/or Porn Addiction, also known as hypersexuality and sexual compulsion, is a dysfunctional, maladaptive preoccupation with sexual fantasy and behavior, usually involving the obsessive pursuit of non-intimate sex via pornography, compulsive masturbation, and/or objectified partner sex. Online porn addiction, with or without masturbation, is now the most common form of sexual addiction. Research suggests that porn addicts spend at least 11 or 12 hours per week viewing digital porn -- sometimes double or even triple that amount. This is hardly a surprise, considering that pornography of every ilk imaginable is now anonymously available to anyone, anytime, on almost any digital device, and more often than not it's free. And it's not just porn addicts who find digital technology irresistible. Sex addicts who prefer in-person encounters are equally vulnerable, abusing dating sites and apps, hookup sites and apps, video chat, sexting, and more in their pursuit of escapist sexual activity.
• Social Media Obsession is the quest to have the most friends or followers on sites/apps like Facebook and Twitter, to have one's lovingly constructed posts and tweets responded to in positive ways, and to "look good" through an endless series of narcissistic posts about how exciting your life is, all the great places you go, and all of the incredibly interesting things you do and thoughts you have. Obviously, social media is an entirely digital phenomenon. In fact, this addiction -- a quick and easy substitute for true self-esteem, real-world relationships and genuine intimate connection -- did not exist until just a few years ago. Social media addicts often choose to bypass real world relationships, recreation and social engagement for their online life, and their moods can become dependent on whether they have gained or lost any online followers/friends that day.
Tech-Driven Problems Are About the Person, Not the Device
The deeper one looks at digital technology, the more obvious it becomes that anyone seeking pleasurable content and activities can find an unending supply. It is also obvious, especially to those of us working in the addiction and mental health field, that this can become incredibly problematic for individuals predisposed to addiction. These folks can easily find themselves lost in an escalating, obsessive, escapist search for "more, different, better." Rather than using technology for fun and amusement, these unfortunate individuals end up using the emotional intensity the Internet provides as a way to escape and dissociate from uncomfortable emotions, life stressors and the pain of underlying psychological conditions.
That said, most people do not become obsessive or addicted simply because they occasionally play with emotionally arousing and pleasurable technologies -- just as most people who drink alcohol don't become alcoholics. For the most part, digital technology expands our world, our horizons, our dating pond, our potential for social and intimate interactions, and our opportunity to enjoy life. The vast majority of people are able to successfully and healthfully integrate things like Internet gambling, video-gaming, shopping and interpersonal interactions into their day-to-day real-world lives, just as most people are able to successfully and healthfully integrate the occasional cocktail into their lives. And for those who cannot adapt and end up developing a tech-driven behavioral addiction, treatment is always available.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters.