There is no doubt that we are now deeply immersed in a digital world. But to what extent can we say that there is such a thing as ‘digital addiction’?
A generally accepted definition of addiction is: ‘Not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you’. Arguably, this definition could apply equally to a person’s use of digital devices (such as smartphones) as it does to a person’s use of drugs or alcohol. But others disagree. In an article in the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova points out that there is a distinction to be made between ‘substance addictions’ and other types of addiction, and the key difference is that ‘a substance affects a person physically’ because ‘something new’ has been introduced to your ‘bloodstream’ in a way that other behaviour does not.
Unlike addiction to substances, digital addiction is often categorised as a ‘behavioural addiction’, along with other types of behaviour such as gambling addiction. However, unlike gambling addiction, digital addiction was not included in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Some say that this is simply because we are in the early days of digital devices, and it is only a matter of time before we gather sufficient evidence to support its inclusion. But as Konnikova pointed out in her article, ‘there’s something different, and more complicated’ about digital addiction: ‘Unlike gambling’, the internet ‘is a medium, not an activity in and of itself. If you spend your time gambling online, maybe you have a gambling addiction, not an Internet addiction. If you spend your time shopping online, maybe it’s a shopping addiction’.
No matter what the conclusion of this debate, the job of the psychotherapist would be to work with a client to explore the following questions:
Often when these questions are explored, a key lightbulb moment is the realisation that the client is no longer in control of their behaviour. The harm is often obvious, and it is sometimes the reason they have come for psychotherapy, but it is only when they realise that they no longer have control over their behaviour that they accept that they are addicted.
So how can a psychotherapist help someone who is addicted?
A psychotherapist might explore with the client whether this is something that rings true, and if it is, the client can look at alternative ways to create that connection. This is likely to be an approach followed by a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist as they focus on a client’s thoughts or assumptions. Cognitive Behavioural Therapists offer their clients the opportunity to identity their thoughts or assumptions (for example, through Socratic questioning), and once these have been identified, they are able to challenge (and sometimes change) the unhelpful thoughts and assumptions.
Lazarus argued that this vicious cycle must be broken at several strategic points, and so he suggested the multimodal approach, which examines a client’s addiction from each of the following perspectives (BASIC ID): Behaviour, affect (feelings), sensations, imagery, cognition, interpersonal relationships and drugs.
They should ask the above questions at each of the three following stages –
Whether we like it or not, we are now immersed in a digital world, but that does not mean we have to drown. No matter what the official term for digital addiction, if this behaviour has become harmful, and we do not have control, we can take control by talking to a trained expert. We cannot change anything we are not aware of, so the first part of this will involve becoming fully aware of our behaviour, the underlying thoughts and assumptions that drive that behaviour, and the resulting feelings. Once we are fully aware of all of this, we can look at changing our thoughts and assumptions, our behaviour, and ultimately the feelings that flow from these.
Chris Warren-Dickins LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor in New Jersey.
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