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How is the digital age contributing to addictive behaviours?

By Jeff van Reenen, Addiction Treatment Programme Manager at Priory Hospital Chelmsford.

The digital age has interconnected much of the world. It has given many of us access to almost any form of information, at any time, with a mere swipe of a touch screen, or click of a button. It has allowed us to venture into the lives of the rich and famous, to shop at any hour, and to commentate and have our voices heard on topics at a potential national or even international level.

Seemingly, we have never been as connected to each other as we are in this day and age. However our ever-increasing participation within the fast-changing digital age is not without its consequences:

  • Smartphone use has enabled easier access to porn sites, gambling and shopping and thus, we have seen an increase in these types of behavioural addictions
  • The ‘dark web’ has enabled easier access to illegal and prescription drugs
  • Social media has links to mental health issues

Smartphones, shopping and gambling addiction

Smartphones have become a ubiquitous part of modern life, and our increasing use and reliance on our hand-held devices has had an impact on the behavioural addiction landscape.

People are now able to shop and gamble anywhere, at any time, which has further fuelled the prevalence of these forms of addictions. The impact of this ‘ultra-accessibility’ is evolving, and we are already seeing people in treatment for shopping and gambling addictions, that have been exacerbated by digital accessibility. 

David Greenfield PhD, wrote for Psychology Today that “the internet and particularly the smartphone appear to hamper our ability to manage and balance time, energy, and attention – and they can be addictive”.

  • Dubbed ‘retail therapy’, shopping can lead to the release of endorphins and dopamine – chemicals which are known to result in feelings of happiness and pleasure, which can become addictive to some people. Referring to online shopping, Rose and Dhandayudham found evidence to suggest that “this new shopping experience may lead to problematic online shopping behaviour”
  • The UK Gambling Commission’s research into online gambling found that “50% of 25 – 34 year olds who have gambled online, have done so using their mobile or tablet devices”

The underbelly of the web and drug addiction

As well as making online shopping and gambling more accessible, the web, or rather its sinister cousin, known as the ‘dark web’, is allowing people to buy and sell drugs with the click of a button. However, the dark web is not as easy to navigate as conventional ‘www’ websites.

One of the more well-known dark web sites, ‘The Silk Road’, which has since been shut down, turned over $22 million in annual sales in its first year (2011-2012), according to an article by Forbes.

More recently, The Economist reported that, between December 2013 and July 2015, $50 million worth of deals were completed on the dark web sites, ‘Agora’, ‘Evolution’ and ‘Silk Road 2’.

While it is still early days in terms of measuring the dark web’s impact on drug addiction in general, an article in The Independent from the beginning of 2017 exposed the increasing prevalence of drugs being purchased via the dark web at university campuses.

Speaking to The Independent, one student described: “All it took was five minutes, one quick download, an encrypted URL… and I had accessed the famous 'Ebay for drugs' – hidden deep in the recesses of the dark net. Within moments I was plunged into a veritable cornucopia of contraband; every type of drug under the sun was just a click away…”

Social media and mental health

The social media ethos is almost in direct opposition to the hidden and underground nature of the dark web. In its most positive form, it promotes social connectedness, openness and sharing. It can be a source of entertainment, a great tool for businesses and people to promote themselves and their services, and can allow families and friends to communicate with each other across the globe.

This year, the BBC will be launching a new programme titled #LikeMinded, which will explore social media’s impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

Whilst technologies that facilitate social connectedness can have a positive impact on people’s lives, researchers from the University of Melbourne have noted the potential for the following negative impacts of social media use:

Cyberbullying has also been an ever-increasing issue for our younger population, which can have very severe consequences. A study by the Royal Society for Public Health found that 7 in 10 young people reported that they had experienced cyberbullying. The same study also found that:

  • 91% of 16 - 24 year olds use the internet for social networking
  • Rates of anxiety and depression in young people have risen by 70% in the past 25 years

However, on a positive note, the study also found that those who use social media report being more emotionally supported through their contacts.

Wellbeing in the digital age

The digital age has changed the landscape of society in terms of how we interact with each other, and has enabled access to shopping (including for illicit materials) and gambling more easily than ever before. Whilst the exact nature and impact of the digital age are still unfolding, we do know that both positive and negative consequences are being felt – with particular respect to the negative impacts on addictive behaviours and mental health.

The Addiction Treatment Programme team at Priory Hospital Chelmsford continues to offer support to people who are facing addiction and mental health issues. As part of our Addiction Treatment Programme, we provide a bespoke digital detox, allowing patients a break from the digital world whilst they are undergoing treatment, whether their addiction was primarily facilitated through online mediums or not.

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