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NCAD Spotlight: Understanding of Screen-Based Addiction Evolves as Society Leans More on Tech

June 04, 2020

Once considered an issue largely linked to young males playing video games, screen-based addiction today is recognized as a disorder that affects all populations. Technology is baked into many aspects of individuals’ day-to-day lives, but how do users strike a balance between healthy engagement and excessive, non-complementary use and abuse?

At the upcoming virtual National Conference on Addiction Disorders, Mari Swingle, PhD, LMHC, co-director of the Swingle Clinic in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and author of the book “i-Minds: How and Why Constant Connectivity is Changing Our Brains and What to Do About It,” will explore biological and physical bases of screen-based addictions, presenting a three-tiered system of classification: content addiction, process addiction, and combined and compounding crossover. She will also discuss symptoms and effective interventions, as well as the intervening factors that thwart successful outcomes.

Ahead of NCAD, she spoke with Addiction Professional about why screen-based addiction is misunderstood, why it’s not just young males playing video games who are at risk, and whether social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the potential for screen-based addiction.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is screen-based addiction so misunderstood, and what are the biggest misconceptions that you see?

It’s easy to confound because it’s based on a tool or technology that we all use all the time in modern society. When this first started to creep out, we had no idea what we were dealing with. It can be compounded with workaholism. It has even been condoned, with people believing that more time on screens means you’re being more productive and that’s positive. Early on, it was inversely related to age and education. In terms of profiling, we got it all wrong.

The other addictions, there are real negatives, whether you’re talking about cocaine, heroin, alcohol. There are certain lines people cross, and it’s black and white. At the beginning of all this, we had none of that to go on. A lot of early researchers were trying to figure out what was going on. Then the whole debate of “is it real?” started to come up. Then, the other issue at that time was young male children and gaming.

I was a practicing therapist working with a lot of children. Not to pound my chest, but I had a good reputation for quick and efficient treatment. All the sudden, there was a group of clients who wouldn’t get better or they would get better and then within three months be back to zero. The little epiphany bells went off. There was a connection between young male children and excessive gaming at the time, but there is mega-bucks in the industry so nobody wanted to look at it. That was how it came out: You had really intelligent university students, young male children gaming and predominantly male workaholics—three areas we weren’t looking at—and then all of the stereotypes started to break with fantasy games. There, we started to see more mature females going through transition—divorce and separation. That’s where the whole social concept started. That was where our new profile started, and that’s where I jumped in, starting to look at different niche profiles. We’re almost 15 or 20 years later, and it’s everywhere and everyone is at risk.

So, while this started being identified in young male children playing video games, it seems like now, there is an understanding that it affects many populations.

Yes. What we’ve figured out is that it treats the brain just like gambling. Everything we do on the screens is on a varied reinforcement schedule. It hijacks or piggybacks on our biology. That’s why it tends to turn bad. With regards to the brain science, there is an event-related potential wave where we are wired to respond to atypical sounds, sights and smells. The "dings" of our equipment hijack that wave. It hijacks the biology of children in terms of attentional process, developmental process. = But I have to qualify what I’m saying right now: I am not anti-technology by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I’m very pro-technology. And if we use it as the magnificent tool it was designed to be, we shouldn’t have any issues. The problem is we’re not, and it’s invading everywhere. It’s affecting all of our arousal cycles, and that’s why it has become an issue.

As a society, we’ve spent the past couple months social distancing and quarantining because of COVID-19. When you have that many people confined at home with not a lot going on for long periods, do you have concerns that these conditions could exacerbate issues around screen-based addiction?

Hugely so, but before we get into that, I was really positively surprised that there was a bifurcation—one of the things I’m always preaching is that technology should be a complement to what we provide each other. For example, if you have grandparents across the planet, please Skype them. But if you have grandparents around the corner, don’t Skype them. Go over for lunch and have that face-to-face contact. But when COVID came around, the way people embraced technology to not only stay in contact, but to do outreach was absolutely fantastic. It was quite positive. But the caveat of that is that it shouldn’t continue once COVID is over.

A good example is that sexuality is something everybody understands. If you watch a little porn or have a little cybersex, that’s for better or worse where the world is right now. But when pornography viewing starts to override sexual drive, meaning individuals are satisfied with masturbation and watching porn as opposed to person-to-person, interactive, physical touch, that’s when we start to have a problem.

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