Digital Addiction Fast Facts

Digital addiction is a harmful dependence on digital media and devices such as smartphones, video games, and computers.

Some psychologists believe that addiction to electronic devices and media should be classified similarly to substance abuse disorders.

Studies have found a strong correlation between high-frequency digital media use and mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

About 160 million American adults play some version of internet-based games. Gaming addiction is a condition recommended for further research by the psychology profession’s official diagnostic manual. Up to 1% of the general population might qualify for the diagnosis under the manual’s proposed criteria.

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Studies have found a strong correlation between the use of digital media and other disorders such as depression and anxiety.

What is Digital Addiction?

Digital addiction is a harmful dependence on digital media and high-tech devices. The condition is not a formally diagnosable disorder, but some psychologists believe addiction to digital devices and media is similar to substance addictions. Digital addiction occurs when technology harms the user’s life and is difficult to stop despite its harmful effects.

The topic of digital addiction is controversial within the fields of psychology and psychiatry. Some psychologists believe that digital technology abuse follows a pattern similar to that of substance abuse disorders. Others believe that frequent use of technology is normal in contemporary society, and misuse of the technology is a sign of other underlying disorders, not an addiction in itself.

Internet Gaming Disorder

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the official diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association, was updated in 2013 to include a description of internet gaming disorder. The disorder was included in a manual section devoted to proposed disorders, not as an officially recognized diagnosis. The DSM recommends that internet gaming disorder be studied further.

Internet gaming disorder is defined as online gaming behavior that negatively impacts the gamer’s life, causing impairment or distress. To be diagnosed, the gamer would have to exhibit at least five symptoms within a year.

Possible symptoms of the disorder include:

  • An intense preoccupation with gaming
  • Withdrawal symptoms when the user is not able to play games. These symptoms can include sadness, irritability, anxiety, or depression.
  • A need for increasing amounts of gaming to satisfy the urge to play
  • Unsuccessful attempts to stop playing
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities in preference for gaming
  • Continuing to play despite the harmful effects of gaming on the user’s life
  • Hiding or lying about the amount of time spent gaming
  • Using gaming to cope with negative emotions or moods

The DSM’s definition only applies to gaming, although it includes playing games on any electronic device, not just on internet-connected devices. It does not include electronic devices for other purposes, such as social media, video viewing, gambling, or general internet use.

Some psychologists argue that future versions of the DSM should expand definitions of this disorder to include other media or other proposed conditions such as internet addiction disorder (IAD).

What Causes Digital Addiction?

Scientists believe that people sometimes become addicted to drugs and other substances because they manipulate how our brains respond to pleasurable stimuli. Certain drugs trigger the release of a brain chemical called dopamine, which gives us a good feeling. Over time and with continued use, we associate the drug with the dopamine-induced good feeling. In some people, the brain’s pleasure circuitry is eventually rewired so that the user needs the drug to feel good.

Some scientists believe that digital media affects users’ brains in a very similar way. Digital media triggers dopamine-induced good feelings, and some people can eventually only feel good when they are engaged with the media.

Social media and other digital media forms are intentionally designed to take advantage of the brain’s pleasure circuitry. Users are given dopamine-producing rewards at a pace optimized to keep them engaged with the media for long periods.  

Link to Depression and Anxiety

Studies have found a strong correlation between the use of digital media and other disorders such as depression and anxiety. Users who engage with many different social media platforms, for example, have been shown to have higher levels of depressive symptoms than those who don’t use as many platforms.

However, it is still unclear whether digital media causes depression and anxiety or whether the reverse is true. Some scientists argue that people who suffer from depression may be more inclined to turn to digital media to relieve their depressive symptoms. In this case, the media abuse is a symptom of depression, not vice versa. A counterargument points out that self-medication of depressive symptoms is also a common component of substance abuse disorders.

Is Digital Addiction Hereditary?

No research has yet shown a link between digital addiction and family history. However, studies have suggested that some people are at higher risk for substance abuse disorders because of inherited traits. Suppose research confirms that digital addiction develops, in terms of brain chemistry, in the same way that substance addiction does. In that case, future research may eventually identify potential inherited risks for digital addiction, as well.

How Is Digital Addiction Detected?

Psychologists caution loved ones, when looking for early signs of digital addiction, to take care to distinguish between normal (even if frequent) use of digital media and potentially abusive behavior. The key to identifying internet gaming disorder and other possible digital addictions is the presence of harmful effects.

Possible early signs of negative impact may include:

  • Withdrawal from previously pleasurable activities in favor of using digital media
  • Behavior that gets in the way of daily functioning
  • Sleep disruptions
  • Behavior that causes conflict in relationships
  • Behavior that interferes with school or work performance
  • Lying about or hiding digital media use

How Is Digital Addiction Diagnosed?

Digital addiction is not a formally recognized disorder, so no doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist can officially diagnose it. According to the DSM, Internet gaming disorder is only a proposed disorder, so it does not qualify for an official diagnosis.

The proposed diagnostic criteria focus on behavior that impairs the user’s functioning or causes distress. To meet the requirements for a diagnosis (if the disorder is accepted in future versions of the DSM), a user would have to exhibit at least five of the following symptoms within a year:

  • Preoccupation with the digital media use
  • Withdrawal symptoms that occur when digital media use is not possible
  • Build up of a tolerance that requires increasing amounts of digital media use to satisfy cravings
  • Unsuccessful attempts to stop or limit digital media use
  • Replacement of previously pleasurable activities with digital media use
  • Unwillingness to stop digital media use despite its negative consequences
  • Being deceptive about digital media use
  • Using digital media use as a coping mechanism


How Is Digital Addiction Treated?

Treatment for problems associated with digital media use usually follows treatment models used to treat substance abuse disorders. Psychotherapy treatments are often applied to digital addiction cases in the same way they’re used to treat substance abuse disorders. Medications may also be used to treat underlying conditions associated with digital media abuse.


Psychosocial therapy techniques commonly used to treat substance abuse disorders are often used to treat digital addictions. Very little reliable research is available to confirm the effectiveness of these therapies in treating digital addiction.

Commonly used therapeutic approaches include:

    • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This approach focuses on teaching the patient to recognize problematic behaviors and develop strategies to avoid the behaviors.
    • Motivational interviewing. This approach is most commonly used to treat alcoholism. It is focused on giving the patient motivation to change problematic behaviors.
  • Family therapy
  • Group therapy


The majority of people who exhibit digital addiction symptoms also suffer from one or more other psychiatric disorders such as depression or anxiety. Medications are often prescribed to treat these disorders, and the treatments may improve the symptoms of digital addiction.

Commonly used medications include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants (SSRIs) such as escitalopram
  • Non-tricyclic antidepressants such as bupropion
  • Methylphenidate, a psychostimulant

How Does Digital Addiction Progress?

In severe cases that go unaddressed, internet addiction can lead to a range of social and physical consequences, including:

  • Difficulties at school
  • Loss of a job
  • Disruption of relationships
  • Sleep disruptions
  • Poor cardiovascular health from lack of exercise
  • Weakened immune system
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Eye strain or vision difficulties
  • Repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Muscle strains or injuries

How Is Digital Addiction Prevented?

Without a clear definition of digital addictive or a complete understanding of its status as an addiction disorder, it is difficult to know if the problem is preventable. Prevention strategies are likely to be most effective if they focus on managing risk factors.

  • Treat underlying conditions such as depression, anxiety, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) promptly.
  • Address interpersonal conflicts in a healthy, supportive way.
  • Watch for early warning signs, and address them openly.

Digital Addiction Caregiver Tips

If your child or loved one is struggling with digital addiction, keep these tips in mind:

  • React reasonably. Removing all access to digital media or taking away devices as punishment rarely has a positive outcome. Instead, acknowledge that your child or loved one’s technology use may be necessary and may even have some positive effects. Set limits within reason, and don’t overreact.
  • Learn more about technology. If you know more about digital media yourself, you’ll be better able to understand when your loved one’s digital behavior is inappropriate or harmful and when it isn’t.
  • Be supportive. Ensure your loved one knows that you’re acting out of love and not out of frustration or anger. Make it clear that your only goal is to be sure that they are happy and healthy.

Many people with internet addiction disorder (IAD) also suffer from other brain and mental health-related issues, a situation called co-morbidity. Here are a few of the disorders commonly associated with IAD:

Digital Addiction Brain Science

When something pleasant happens to us, our brains release neurotransmitter chemicals that make us feel good. One of these chemicals is called dopamine. This process’s biological point is to associate the positive event with a pleasant feeling, thereby motivating us to seek out that event in the future. This pleasure-reward reaction can be triggered by a positive physical experience such as eating, exercising, or having sex. It can also be triggered by more complex psychological events such as positive social interaction or positive interaction with digital media.

Over time, the brain builds connections that reinforce the association between a stimulus and its pleasurable effects. In the case of addiction, these connections become dysfunctional. The brain needs more and more of the stimulus (a drug, social media interaction, etc.) to trigger dopamine release. And when the stimulus is missing, the addict experiences symptoms of withdrawal.

A key component in some kinds of digital addiction is a phenomenon called reward prediction error coding. The term refers to our perception of the rewards we get from engaging in potentially pleasurable activities. If we think we will get a reward from an activity (such as playing a slot machine or an internet game), we will keep playing. But if the interval between rewards is too predictable, we’re likely to lose interest and stop. We’ll also stop if the rewards are too infrequent.

The ideal way to keep us engaged indefinitely is to dole out rewards frequently but at unpredictable intervals. The designers of internet games and social media platforms intentionally build their software to take advantage of this phenomenon. The result is, digital media manipulates the brain’s pleasure-reward reactions and potentially reinforces abusive behavior.

Digital Addiction Research

Title: Social Media Use in Adolescents Admitted to a Psychiatric Unit

Stage: Not Yet Recruiting

Contact:  Muniza Siddiqui  

Canyon Ridge Hospital

Chino, CA

We will investigate the association between social media use and depression in adolescents admitted to a psychiatric unit and continue to follow their progress after discharge in outpatient clinic services. We expect improvement in their depressive symptoms by modifying social media use and adding a mental health app to further encourage social media’s positive effects.


Title: Relationship Between Academic Achievement, Musculoskeletal System, Quality of Life and Technology Addiction

Stage: Recruiting

Contact:  Ayse Unal, PhD

Pamukkale University

Denizli, Turkey

The increasing use of technological devices such as mobile phones and computers has become an indispensable element of daily life. Students are one of the groups that use communication tools most thanks to developing technology. This study was conducted to investigate the effect of technology addiction on academic achievement, the musculoskeletal system, and quality of life in young people.

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