Is addiction on the rise?
Added by: seyit.yilmz | useradded
Video games, TV series and social media - it seems that many of us are hooked on something, but are things as bad as they appear? The media is full of reports of addiction to pornography, gambling, video games, phones and even the internet. Parents are concerned that they can’t drag their kids away from their tablets, while on any bus journey you can see dozens of people mindlessly scrolling. But are we as hooked on these behaviours as the stories make out? And most importantly: are levels of addiction on the rise, as technological advances put these enjoyable temptations in our pockets? Certainly, data collected by government body the Gambling Commission suggests that problem gambling behaviours are on the rise, estimating in 2017 that approximately 430,000 individuals in the UK had a serious gambling problem, a rise of more than one-third over the previous three years. It’s perhaps not surprising: whereas once you’d have to go down the betting shop or off to a bingo hall if you fancied a flutter, now you can simply download an app. Defining addiction Addiction is a term that we hear all the time, but it’s a surprisingly tricky concept to pin down. Colloquially, we might say things like: “Oh, I downloaded this new game on my phone and I’m totally addicted to it”. But from a clinical perspective, we think of addiction as occurring when someone has found that their life – whether it’s their relationships with friends or family, their ability to perform their job, or something else – has been knocked off-kilter by a compulsion to perform a behaviour. In the past, the perception has been that addiction only occurs due to regular heavy use of a substance, like tobacco, alcohol or an illegal drug. But a lot of what causes dependence to a drug is psychological rather than biological. Prof Robert West, director of tobacco studies at UCL and editor-in-chief of the journal Addiction, defines addiction as “a psychological condition that involves repeated powerful motivation to engage in a behaviour that’s learnt through experience, and that has either actual or potential harmful consequences”. Under this definition, it is possible to be addicted to anything – not just substances – if it turns from a want for it to a need for it, and it puts a person at risk of harm. Yet much like with substance use, the vast majority of people who play games online, watch pornography, or use the internet will not experience problems from doing so. Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a consultant psychiatrist and researcher based at Imperial College London, highlights how little we know about the prevalence of behavioural addictions – in particular, gaming. So how do we tell the difference between just really liking something – what we might colloquially call addiction – and a behaviour that is becoming problematic? For Bowden-Jones it’s about loss of control. She mentions a colleague of hers who regularly binge watches Netflix, for hours at a time. But his Netflix binging doesn’t impact his work, or his relationship – he is choosing to do it. And Bowden-Jones sees nothing wrong with this. “If there’s no harm to us or to others, we should be free to choose how to spend our time,” she says. It becomes a problem, however, when someone tells themselves they will stop at midnight, but finds they’re still watching when the Sun rises, and starts missing work or school, or isolates themselves from friends or family. She also suggests that the joy from the behaviour reduces. “It’s not fun any more, it’s not pleasant, and it leaves them distressed,” she says of people she has treated for behavioural addiction. If someone struggles to control their impulses, they might find it harder to resist temptation, making them more vulnerable to addition. An inability to limit themselves could make a person more likely to constantly reach for their phone, or place another bet when they know they should stop. All of this could lead to dependence. Addiction problems also seem to run in families, which might indicate the involvement of genetics. But genetic variants alone don’t cause addiction, though they might tip the scales. West points out the importance of society and culture, highlighting smoking prevalence in China. “In China, 60 per cent of men smoke, and about 3 per cent of women,” he says. “There’s nothing different about those Chinese women than British women to make them less susceptible, it’s just taboo [for women to smoke in China]”. A person’s support network, their upbringing, the level of deprivation in which they live and a host of other social and cultural factors will also strongly predict whether a person is at risk of developing addiction. Body and brain There’s also the question of whether addiction leads to changes in the brain. The neurotransmitter dopamine has long been implicated in addiction. But it’s implicated in pleasure generally, from the feeling of winning on a scratchcard, to enjoying a delicious piece of chocolate cake. How taking pleasure from something can lead to dependence is less well understood, though there is some evidence that dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter in the brain called glutamate, which can lead to a growing feeling of needing something, rather than wanting it. Over time, sensitisation to dopamine might develop, reducing the feeling of pleasure that something brings. While using substances like drugs or alcohol will directly alter brain chemistry – at least during intoxication – behaviours can also induce pleasure (and therefore dopamine) in much the same way, so the processes of developing addiction to a behaviour are likely to be broadly the same as for a substance.