Associate Professor Mariana Todorova, PhD
Online addiction, also known as internet addiction, can be classified a behavioral disorder characterized by excessive and compulsive use of the Internet and digital devices. It can have a profound impact on individuals’ lives, affecting their physical, mental, and social well-being.
What are the Reasons and Causes of Internet/ Online Addiction:
Biological – Releasing of Dopamine (associated with the sense of pleasure and reward)
The connection between dopamine and online addiction lies in the brain’s reward system, which plays a crucial role in reinforcing addictive behaviors. When individuals engage in online activities, such as social media interactions, gaming, or receiving virtual rewards, their brain releases dopamine—a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. The surge of dopamine creates a feeling of euphoria and reinforces the association between the online activity and the pleasurable sensation. As online addiction progresses, individuals seek out more of these rewarding experiences, leading to compulsive and excessive internet use. The constant pursuit of virtual gratification perpetuates the addictive cycle, as the brain becomes conditioned to crave and seek the dopamine release associated with online interactions. This powerful link between dopamine and online addiction underscores the neurological basis of the behavior, making it challenging for individuals to break free from the allure of the digital realm.
1) An Escape from Reality and from Assuming Social Responsibility
Escapism and Instant Gratification: The online world offers an escape from real-life problems and stress. Engaging in any kind of digital activities provides immediate pleasure and gratification, reinforcing the behavior.
2) Social Connection and Loneliness: For some individuals, online platforms serve as the primary means of social interaction, especially when they feel lonely or socially isolated in their offline lives.
1) Fear of Missing Out (FOMO): Constant access to social media feeds can create a fear of missing out on events, news, or experiences, leading to compulsive checking and browsing.
2) Fear of Better Option (FOBO): Individuals experience anxiety or hesitation when making decisions due to the fear that there might be a superior alternative they are missing out on. This fear can lead to decision paralysis, causing individuals to delay or avoid making choices altogether, as they become overwhelmed by the abundance of possibilities in the Internet and the fear of making the wrong decision. Therefore, they are more and more addicted in seeking the information.
3) Reward Mechanisms: Online activities, such as receiving likes, comments, or virtual rewards, trigger the brain’s reward centers, encouraging repetitive behavior.
1) Unlimited Content: The vast amount of content available online can lead to excessive browsing and consumption, as users become engrossed in an endless stream of information, entertainment, and distractions.
2) Gaming and Gambling: Some (not all – using neurosciences) of the online gaming and gambling platforms are designed with addictive elements, such as leveling up, rewards, and in-app purchases, leading to compulsive behaviors.
Physical Health Impact: Excessive screen time can lead to various health issues, including eye strain, headaches, sleep disturbances, and musculoskeletal problems.
Mental Health Consequences: Online addiction is associated with anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. Comparing oneself to others on social media can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.
Education and Career
Academic and Occupational Impairment: Online addiction can result in poor academic or job performance due to distraction and decreased focus on responsibilities.e
Social Isolation: Paradoxically, excessive internet use can lead to social isolation, as individuals prioritize online interactions over face-to-face relationships.
Neglected Responsibilities: Online addicts may neglect household chores, family, or social commitments, leading to strained relationships and increased stress.
Financial Problems: Online shopping addiction and excessive spending in virtual environments can lead to financial strain and debt.
Risk of Cyberbullying and Predators: Spending extensive time online increases the risk of encountering cyberbullying, online harassment, and potential exposure to online predators.
Increased Dependence on AI and Automation: Internet addiction might contribute to a growing reliance on artificial intelligence and automation for daily tasks. As individuals prioritize virtual interactions over real ones, AI-powered personal assistants, chatbots, and virtual companions could become central to people’s lives, further perpetuating the cycle of addiction.
Information Polarization: The echo chamber effect, where individuals are exposed only to information that aligns with their existing beliefs, could be exacerbated by online addiction. This may lead to increased political and societal polarization, limiting exposure to diverse perspectives and hindering critical thinking. This also brings to institutional and political erosion.
How to Overcome Online Addiction with New Unconventional Methods?
Practice shows that the traditional methods of combating addictions are no longer effective, therefore completely new and unusual approaches resulting from digital technologies are needed:
- AI-Powered Digital Wellness Assistants: Integrated into our devices and apps, AI-powered digital wellness assistants may act as empathetic guides, analyzing our online behavior and providing real-time insights. They offer personalized suggestions to balance screen time, set digital boundaries, and encourage healthy habits to prevent addiction.
- Virtual Reality Therapy: Employing the very technology that can lead to addiction, virtual reality therapy offers immersive experiences to help individuals confront and manage their addictive tendencies. Guided therapeutic sessions within virtual environments help users rewire their responses to online triggers and develop coping strategies.
- Mindfulness Wearables: Future wearables equipped with advanced biosensors can monitor users’ stress levels, heart rate, and other physiological indicators. When detecting signs of online addiction or heightened stress, these wearables prompt users to take breaks, practice mindfulness, or engage in calming activities to break the addictive cycle.
- Gamified Digital Detox Challenges: To incentivize reducing screen time, gamified digital detox challenges can become a popular trend. Individuals can participate in online communities where they compete, earn rewards, and celebrate achievements related to cutting back on their online usage.
- AR/VR Social Connection: Augmented and virtual reality technologies can facilitate meaningful social interactions, bridging the gap between the online and offline worlds. Users can connect in immersive environments, making digital interactions feel more human and fostering genuine connections.
- Digital Education and Empowerment: A future-focused education system will prioritize digital literacy, educating individuals from a young age about the potential risks of online addiction. Empowering individuals with knowledge and critical thinking skills will help them make conscious choices and navigate the digital landscape responsibly.
- Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs): BCIs can assist in monitoring brain activity patterns associated with online addiction. By detecting early signs of compulsive behavior, BCIs can trigger personalized interventions, such as notifications to take breaks or engage in offline activities.
- Virtual Retreats and Nature Simulations: Virtual retreats and nature simulations can provide a calming escape for individuals seeking respite from the online world. These immersive experiences can be designed to emulate the therapeutic benefits of spending time in nature, helping to break the cycle of constant digital engagement.
- Community Support Networks: Futuristic platforms can create community-driven support networks for individuals struggling with online addiction. Through virtual group therapy sessions, peer mentoring, and shared experiences, users can find understanding and encouragement on their journey to overcome addiction.
- Responsible Tech Design and Regulation: Tech companies of the future will prioritize responsible design principles, focusing on user well-being and offering tools for self-regulation.
- Stricter regulations may also emerge to ensure ethical practices regarding data collection and user privacy.
- Of course, we must be careful not to fall too much into positive digital addiction, because sometimes the counterpoint of online addiction is a mere return to humanity and nature.