Project Description

Digital Addiction Fast Facts

Digital addiction is a harmful dependence on digital media and devices such as smart phones, 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.

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 that addiction to digital devices and media is similar to substance addictions. Digital addiction occurs when the use of technology has a negative impact on 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 the abuse of digital technology 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 section of the manual 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 has a significant negative impact on the gamer’s life, causing impairment or distress. To be diagnosable, the gamer would have to exhibit at least five symptoms within a period of a year.

Possible symptoms of the disorder include:

  • A strong 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 the use of 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 include 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 the drugs manipulate the way that 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 use of the drug with the dopamine-induced good feeling. In some people, the pleasure circuitry of the brain is eventually rewired so that the user needs the drug in order to feel good.

Some scientists believe that digital media affects users’ brains in a very similar way. The 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 forms of digital media 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 of time.  

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.

It is still unclear, however, 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 for relief from their depressive symptoms. In this case, the media abuse is a symptom of depression, not vice versa. A counter argument points out that self-medication of depressive symptoms is also a common component of other substance abuse disorders.

Is Digital Addiction Hereditary?

No research has yet shown a link between digital addiction and family history. Studies have suggested, however, that some people are at higher risk for substance abuse disorders because of inherited traits. If research confirms that digital addiction develops, in terms of brain chemistry, in the same way that substance addiction does, future research may eventually identify a potential inherited risk 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 is able to officially diagnose it. Internet gaming disorder is only a proposed disorder according to the DSM, so it also 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 criteria 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 the period of 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, as well. 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 to develop strategies for avoiding 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 symptoms of digital addiction 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 help to improve the symptoms of digital addiction, as well.

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. Acknowledge that your child or loved one’s use of technology 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. Make sure 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.

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. The biological point of this process is to make us 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 having a positive social interaction or a 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.) in order to trigger the release of dopamine. 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 that manipulates the brain’s pleasure-reward reactions and potentially reinforces abusive behavior.

Digital Addiction Research

Title: Reducing Internet Gaming

Stage: Recruiting

Principal Investigator: Kristyn Zajac, PhD

UConn Health

Farmington, CT 

The fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders includes in its research appendix a potential new diagnosis—Internet gaming disorder. This condition primarily affects adolescent boys and young adult men, who rarely seek treatment on their own. More often, parents express concerns about their child’s game playing behaviors. This psychotherapy development study will evaluate feasibility and effect sizes of an intervention designed to help parents reduce their child’s gaming problems; the intervention allows for child participation, but it is geared toward parents, regardless of whether or not their child is willing to participate. A total of 40 parents concerned about their child’s gaming behaviors will complete self and parental report inventories and structured diagnostic interviews regarding gaming, substance use and psychosocial functioning. Children who elect to participate will complete parallel versions of the instruments. Participants will be randomized to a control condition consisting of referral for mental health issues and family support services or to a 6-week behavioral intervention designed to assist with better monitoring and regulating the child’s game playing behaviors. Gaming and other problems will be assessed pre-treatment, at the end of treatment and at a 4-month follow-up. This study will be the first to evaluate the reliability and validity of a parental version of the fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders criteria for internet gaming disorder in a clinical sample, and it will assess associations of internet gaming disorder with substance use, mental health conditions, and family functioning as well. This study will be the first randomized trial of an intervention designed to assist parents in reducing their child’s gaming problems, and results will help guide future development of interventions for Internet gaming disorder. To evaluate the feasibility and acceptability of this intervention, the proportion of parents assigned to the intervention who complete 6 sessions will be examined, as will the proportion of youth who attend the sessions. Parent and child ratings of satisfaction with the intervention will be assessed. To examine the effect size of the intervention on reducing gaming, parental reports of proportion of days on which their child played games and durations of game playing will be compared between conditions, controlling for baseline indices.


Title: A Psychotherapy Development Study for Internet Gaming

Stage: Recruiting

Principal Investigator: Kristyn Zajac, PhD

UConn Health

Farmington, CT

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5) introduces Internet Gaming disorder (IGD) as a Substance-Related and Addictive Disorder in Section 3, Conditions for Further Study. Although research is in the nascent stages, existing studies demonstrate that IGD is associated with psychosocial distress including suicidality, and adverse vocational and educational outcomes in youth. Internet gaming disorder also shares substantial overlap with substance use, and it primarily affects adolescents, who rarely seek treatment on their own. Parents more often express concerns about their child’s game playing behaviors, and data suggest that parents can have strong influences on it. This psychotherapy development study will evaluate feasibility, acceptability, and effect sizes of a behavioral intervention designed to help parents reduce gaming problems in their children. Sixty concerned parents and their children will complete parental and self-report inventories and structured diagnostic interviews regarding the child’s gaming behaviors, substance use and psychosocial functioning. Participants will be randomized to either a control condition consisting of referral for mental health issues and family support services or to the same plus a 6-week family-based behavioral intervention designed to assist with better monitoring and regulating the child’s game playing behaviors and encouraging and rewarding alternatives to game playing. Gaming and other problems will be assessed pre-treatment, mid-treatment, at the end of treatment, and at a 4-month follow-up. This study is unique in evaluating initial psychometric properties of a parental version of a measure that uses the DSM-5 criteria for IGD in a clinical sample, and it will also assess associations of IGD with substance use, psychological symptoms, and family functioning over time. Most importantly, this study will be the first randomized trial of an intervention designed to reduce gambling problems, and results are likely to guide future research and treatment efforts related to this condition.


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 the positive effects of social media.

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