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Are Gaming, ‘Selfitis’ And Social Media Real Addictions?

January 2, 2018 | By Alice G. Walton

At this time of year, many of us are trying to rethink old habits and behaviors that aren’t serving us so well. One of these, which seems to be increasingly common, is the excessive use of screens, in all its iterations. The end of last year brought some interesting revelations about the allure, and even the addictiveness, of screen time. And researchers, psychologists, and even tech developers are starting to acknowledge this reality more and more.

Last month alone brought a couple of noteworthy developments: the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it will now recognize excessive gaming as a mental health disorder. And two researchers developed a psychometric measure for “selfitis”—the addiction to taking and posting selfies online. Excessive social media and smartphone use are others that have been gaining steam as bona fide addictions. Though there’s not a lot of consensus about how to conceptualize these behaviors, perhaps it will develop in the coming months or years. Here’s a bit more about the most recent developments.

Gaming as a mental health disorder

Last week, the WHO announced that it will include gaming as an official mental health disorder in its 2018 update to the International Classification of Diseases. Previously, the only acknowledged behavioral (as opposed to substance) addiction was gambling, which is also the case as per U.S. guidelines. Here are some of the symptoms of excessive gaming, as the WHO defines it:

1) impaired control over gaming (e.g., onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context); 2) increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities; and 3) continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. The behaviour pattern is of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.

Not everyone agrees that this move from the WHO was warranted, arguing that it’s fundamentally different from other types of addiction, which can wreak havoc on people’s lives in a way that they say gaming can’t. So some critics have said that the designation is too specific, and it would make more sense to keep it to a more general “behavioral addiction.” On the other hand, there have been reports of serious consequences, including deaths from days-long video game marathons—and some researchers who have studied gaming behavior for years say it certainly fits into addiction. Time will tell how this new designation changes how gaming is handled, clinically, socially and politically.

‘Selfitis’

This is another brand new proposal—it’s not an acknowledged disorder by any organization, but there’s now a way to measure it. A team of researchers in India and the U.K. has developed a psychometric measure, the Selfitis Behavior Scale, to determine whether a person suffers from selfitis, or an addiction to taking and posting selfies on social media. The researchers had a group of college students rate a number of statements to test certain motivations for and consequences of taking selfies, like social competition, mood modification, and attention seeking. A few examples are:

  • “I feel I am lost when my friends get more likes and comments for selfies than me”
  • “I spend at least twenty minutes editing and grooming the picture before uploading it in social media”
  • “Sometimes taking selfies helps me to come out of any depressive thoughts”
  • “When people like and comment on my selfie postings, my self-confidence rises greatly”
  • “I feel detached from my group if I don’t take and pose frequent selfies”

Depending on a person’s score, he or she may be classified as having borderline, acute, or chronic selfitis. The team was able to test the scale’s validity and reliability as a diagnostic tool, and found it pretty accurate, though they say more studies are needed to verify it. Though many people would agree from anecdotal evidence that something along the lines of selfitis does exist, and carries certain psychological features with it, it’s not clear how it fits into our larger understanding of mental health issues. It may be more a symptom of an underlying problem than a diagnosis in itself. Again, time will tell.

Social Media and Smartphones

Social media and phone addictions are still up for debate, but based on the mounting research, it seems like there might be something to them. A new study by researcher Jean Twenge found that spending more time on smartphones and social media, particularly several hours per day, had a strong link to the disturbing rise of mental health disorders like depression and suicidality among young people in recent years, especially teenage girls. Twenge, who’s been studying this connection for years, has said that the day she looked at the data and saw the connection was the day she put her kids’ devices in a drawer.

Other research has hinted that social media has some real psychological risks, including depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of isolation, and can even activate areas of the brain that are affected in true addition.

Anecdotally, more people seem to be aware of their problematic use than they were a few years ago, and some people are consciously cutting back. Research has suggested people check their phones many more times per day than they think they do (the average number seems to be somewhere between 47 and 150 times/day, depending on whether you’re a Millennial or not). What’s especially telling is that some of the developers of the more “enticing” features of social media are coming forward to speak up about their concerns about addictiveness, and even their regret in developing them in the first place. More rigorous studies are needed to understand these issues more fully, since they’re really just in their infancy (see here and here for more on this).

* * *

The writers of the U.S. “bible” of mental health disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) haven’t acknowledged any of these disorders yet. But they have put “internet use disorder” on the list of potential disorders to be included in the next edition, saying it deserves more research before a determination is reached. Given all the conflicting opinions, it may be a while before decisions are reached about these various forms of tech addiction.

But whether true addiction or not, these behaviors definitely have psychological consequences—so it might be smart to keep tabs on them, and cut back if you feel like they’re infringing on your life, or on your real-life connections to other people. And these are definitely messages we’ll want to share with our kids, whether they’re old enough to “use” yet or not.

forbes.com

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