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Explained: Is screen addiction real?


From smartphones to tablets, from computers to televisions to connected watches, screens and digital are an integral part of our daily lives. Although they provide us with significant benefits, this “cohabitation” has also given rise to difficulties, and excessive use can lead to sleep problems, poor school results, relationship problems, etc.

As a result, the term screen addiction (also known as screen use disorder, or ScUD) has found its way into the realm of public debate.

The topic has already received a lot of airtime, especially during and after COVID-19 lockdowns, but what does scientific research say? Our recently published research sheds light on the facts.

What exactly is addiction?

Whatever its form, addiction is defined as a loss of control over an object (a substance or a behavior) which was initially a source of gratification for the user.

It is a chronic, debilitating disease and a source of great distress that damages the person over time. Relapses following attempts to reduce or quit addiction are common. The main predictor of relapse is what we call craving, that is to say a persistent and involuntary desire to use the object in question.

These basic principles of addictology make it possible to distinguish essentially three types of use: non-problematic uses, problematic uses (i.e. causing different damage, but not leading to lasting loss of control) and addictive uses (ie illness with loss of control, cravings and relapses).

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) medical classification system, all addictions are diagnosed using the same set of basic criteria, while allowing some adjustments for behavioral addictions (e.g., gambling and Games).

The study found that such addiction was relatively rare among adolescents and adults. Image used for representational purposes/Pixabay

As we approach this controversial debate, it is important to remember that there is, to date, no recognized diagnosis of screen addiction.

Obtain reliable data

Our laboratory has been studying addictions since 1994, in particular through the work of the Aquitaine dependency research cohort, in collaboration with Charles Perrens Hospital in Bordeaux, France.

In 2015, residents and elected officials of the French town of Martignas-sur-Jalle joined forces with scientists (University of Bordeaux and Center National de la Recherche Scientifique, CNRS) and Charles Perrens Hospital (namely, the Addictology Unit and the Addiction Care Center Accompaniment and Prevention or CSAPA) to examine the different forms of use of screens, problematic and innocuous, on a city scale.

When questioned, our laboratory jumped at the chance to study the addiction criteria according to the DSM-5 applied to screening habits, with an emphasis on the general population.

The study looked at the screen habits of different age groups over the past 12 months. A total of 401 people responded to the 1,200 surveys we distributed, and we used data from 300 teens and adults aged 11 to 84 for our analysis.

This study used an adapted version of the DSM-5 Criteria for Internet Gaming Disorder to define screen addiction, categorizing it as persistent and recurrent use of screens (e.g., televisions, computers, smartphones , tablets, and wearable devices) that leads to clinically meaningful effects. impairment or distress, manifested by at least five of the following signs during 12 months:

  • Concern: Do you spend a lot of time thinking about screens, even when you’re not using them, or planning when you can use them next?
  • Withdrawal: Do you feel restless, irritable, moody, angry, anxious, or sad when you try to cut down or stop using screens, or when you can’t use screens?
  • Tolerance: Do you feel the need to use longer and longer screens, use more exciting screens or use more powerful equipment to get the same level of excitement you used to get?
  • Loss of control: Do you think you should use screens less, but you can’t reduce the time you spend using them?
  • Loss of interest: Do you lose interest or reduce participation in other recreational activities, for example, hobbies or meetings with friends, because of screens?
  • Carry on despite the problems: Do you continue to use screens even though you are aware of the negative consequences, such as not getting enough sleep, being late for school/work, spending too much money, arguing with others, or neglecting important tasks ?
  • deceive/cover: Do you lie to family, friends or others about your use of screens, or do you try to keep your family or friends from knowing how much you use them?
  • Escape negative mood: Do you use screens to escape or forget personal problems, or to relieve uncomfortable feelings such as guilt, anxiety, helplessness or depression?
  • Risk/loss/opportunity relationship: Are you risking or losing important relationships or job, education or career opportunities because of screen use?

True screen addiction is rare

For a condition to be medically defined as “screen addiction”, affected individuals must meet at least five of the nine criteria above. The first important finding of our study was that such addiction was relatively rare among the teens and adults in the sample, accounting for only 1.7% of the total 300 participants. The lowering of this threshold to four criteria did not give rise to notable differences either.

This disproves the oft-repeated claim that the majority of screen users suffer from “addiction”. This value was consistent with the prevalence of gambling addiction, which is currently the only behavioral addiction recognized by the DSM-5.

Another important finding from our study is that 44.7% of people met at least one of the nine criteria. In other words, the percentage of people experiencing various screen-related problems is far greater than those whose habit could be medically labeled as “addiction”.

Controlling for age and gender, most of the relevant participants cited the computer as their primary screen, while gaming, social media and communication, news browsing and information seeking were their main activities.

This large prevalence gap makes it difficult to draw a clear distinction between the ‘addict’ group and the ‘troubled but non-addictive users’ group within the public, thus perpetuating the misconception that ‘we are all addicted to screens’. .

Relevant criteria

But are we sure that the “classic” criteria of addiction (traditionally adapted to substances, alcohol, etc.) can even be applied to screens? To verify this, SANPSY conducted a second wave of analyzes in collaboration with the teams of Dr Deborah Hasin and Dr Dvora Shmulewitz from Columbia University.

Together, we applied the Item Response Theory method, which is the gold standard for validating diagnostic criteria in DSM-5. The criteria showed unidimensionality, that is, they measured a single diagnosis (addiction screen) on a severity continuum.

In addition, they were independent of each other and did not “overlap”. These parameters are essential to ensure valid diagnostic criteria; we considered that ours had the right properties to measure screen addiction.

It should be noted that the most discriminating criteria for our diagnosis were:

  • loss of interest in non-screen-related recreational activities
  • preoccupation (i.e. obsessing over screens even when not using them)
  • lying or concealing screen habits
  • risking/losing important relationships or opportunities due to screen use

New avenues opened up by research

By associating scientific and medical partners with the general public, the SANPSY study aims to enable better integration of behavioral addictions into medical classifications and to improve the treatments available for these diseases. It presented three important results:

  • Screen addiction appears to be less prevalent than previously thought (with 1.7% of participants affected).
  • Outside of addiction, a very large portion (i.e. nearly 45%) of the population struggles with screen-related issues.
  • The diagnostic criteria tested appeared to be effective in measuring screen addiction. In particular, they can help to clearly identify the two aforementioned categories, allowing experts to intervene appropriately and as quickly as possible in an early detection and rapid response approach. In this regard, chronic cases of loss of control, cumulative attacks, food cravings and relapses should be interpreted as warning signals, encouraging the people concerned to seek advice from a health professional and/or an addiction specialist.Is screen addiction real?

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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