What is the relationship between media and behavioral addictions?

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Behavioral addictions are complex mental disorders that stem from physiological, emotional, social, and mental factors. Research has shown that many behavioral addictions can be attributed to media and media technologies.
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The Influence of Media

Just as controversy continues over a link between video games and violent behavior, so too is society divided over the role of media in behavioral addictions. The only certainty is that Internet addictions did not exist before the invention of the Internet and television addictions did not exist before television.

An increasing number of health professionals believe that behavioral addictions are caused by a combination of social, physiological, mental, and emotional factors. Media is now implicated as a contributing factor and, in some cases, a primary influence. In response to such research, broadcast, print, and digital media have been using their roles as the purveyors of information, commentary, and entertainment to educate and shape public attitudes while opening up a national dialogue about behavioral addictions.

While the general public and the medical community have grappled with the exact definitions of sex addiction and other types of behavioral addictions, talk-show hosts have been featuring therapists discussing the behavior of celebrities, including professional golfer Tiger Woods and actor David Duchovny, who had checked into sex addiction rehabilitation clinics after their sexual behaviors became public knowledge. Sexual addictions are acknowledged and discussed in popular media, but have not been officially recognized by the medical community. Popular news shows have been featuring neurobiologists and other scientists discussing the relationship of behavioral addictions to brain chemistry and the genetic link to addictions.

Television shows such as Lifetime’s Love Sick: Secrets of a Sex Addict (2008) and Logo’s reality show Bad Sex use sex addictions as fodder for entertainment while also enlightening viewers about twelve-step programs and other types of therapy. Other television shows, such as A&E's Intervention showcases the destructive effects of substance abuse on the lives and families of addicts. Others, like TLC's My Strange Addiction chronicles the lives of various people who exhibit unusual compulsive behaviors, such as eating couch cushions. Memoirs, such as Ryan G. Van Cleave’s Unplugged: My Journey into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction (2010) or Peach Friedman’s Diary of an Exercise Addict (2009), and articles in Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, and other publications examine the personal costs of addiction and offer caution to readers who spend too much time jogging or playing computer games, for example. The result of all this attention has been increased awareness of the potentially devastating effects of behavioral addictions, while addictive behavior has been destigmatized.

However, the mass media’s tendency to confuse mental health terminology or to overuse words, such as addict, has led to misunderstandings about behavioral addictions. For example, when journalists write about “dark chocolate addiction” or “golf addiction” they are referring not to clinical addictions but to activities or objects that give people enormous pleasure and might not be easily substituted. Such activities would become genuine eating or exercise addictions only when consuming dark chocolate or playing golf interferes with work or important relationships, or when the tolerance level changes so that more and more chocolate or golf is required to maintain the same level of pleasure, or when the activity is continued despite repeated or prolonged health issues caused by the activity, or when withdrawal causes emotional, physical, and mental harm.

Some of this confusion is directly related to the need to attract readers and viewers. Sensationalism, including sex addiction, sells. Hence, perhaps the most glaring misuse of the term addict came during the sensational coverage of sex scandals involving Jesse James, Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and others. Little consensus exists among journalists and the general public as to whether the behavior of these men constituted a sex addiction or represented immoral behavior. Also, their motives for checking into sex addiction rehab clinics raised additional questions. And, while the humanization of addicts through television shows such as Intervention can help alleviate the stigmas around addiction, many forms of media can still enforce or proliferate stigmas, such as the negative treatment of recovering addict Lindsay Lohan in popular media. The general media can also glamorize addictions, such as with Amy Winehouse, which can also have negative effects on the public's perception of living with addiction.

Images in the Media

Numerous studies have shown that children and young adults in particular are especially vulnerable to what they see on television, read in print, and view on the Internet. The link between smoking and drinking alcohol and the promotion of those activities in the media was established decades ago, and government policies were established to keep young people from smoking and drinking.

Although not as much research has been conducted on the effect of media on behavioral addictions, the evidence has been pointing in the same direction. Despite research findings, the US Supreme Court lifted restrictions on gambling advertisements, and few policies are in place to limit other types of potentially influential media.

Just as an increase in anorexia nervosa has been linked to the pervasive portrayal of ultrathin women and slim, muscular men in advertising and film, so too is the increase in exercise addictions being linked to this objectification of men and women. While running, cycling, bodybuilding, and other sports are often started with good intentions, a person can become addicted to that sport if he or she begins to question how they appear and perform.

The constant attention given to the rich, beautiful, and famous is playing a role in shopping and gambling addictions. In addition, advertisements for credit cards can operate as powerful lures to a shopping addict in need of more money, while the proliferation of televised blackjack tournaments and lottery games, which often feature sexy, powerful players, can be influential among young adults and others who might be vulnerable to gambling addictions for other reasons. Young adults also are especially vulnerable to sexually oriented advertisements and to the depiction of sex in film and on television.

Addictions to Media and Media Technologies

Compulsive television watching, the first behavioral addiction to be identified in the age of modern technology, continues to be problematic. The availability of online video and streaming through sites such as Netflix enables binge watching and can exacerbate the problem. Television addicts often become compulsive eaters too. With the addition of online shopping and mobile shopping applications, as well as shopping television channels such as QVC and the Home Shopping Network, compulsive shoppers can obtain instant gratification. DVD and video players have allowed closet pornography addicts to watch in their own homes, and now the availability of streaming video on the Internet provides pornography on demand.

The Internet has made many other addictions possible, including cybersex, computer gaming, social media, and online shopping. People who are already dealing with low self-esteem, anxiety, or depression are especially vulnerable to the anonymity offered by the Internet, to the opportunity to create an alternative persona, or to the sense of belonging or instant gratification offered by social media. Internet addictions are increasing at an alarming rate, especially among college-aged students and adult men, as smartphones and tablet computers make it easy and convenient to access email and websites everywhere and at any time.


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