Pandemic Lockdowns Led to Spike in Behavioral Addictions

Gambling, pornography, social media, and shopping addictions all increased during the pandemic, according to researchers.

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According to a new textbook chapter, online behavioral addictions increased during the pandemic as people were forced to engage with digital technologies that were designed to be addictive in order to deal with the stress and isolation of COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Addictive behaviors are seen as a form of coping process used by people in order to divert their focus away from COVID-19-related dread, anxiety, and/or concern and towards other pursuits,” the researchers write.

The chapter appears in the textbook Behavioral Addiction: A Comprehensive Perspective. It was written by Prerna Sharma at Lok Nayak Hospital, Delhi, India, with Sneha Das.

The authors document a rise in gambling, internet gaming, pornography, social media, online dating, shopping, and food addictions, and address each individual topic by providing context for its use and abuse.

concept photo of internet addiction. man plunging into computer

COVID-19 & Gambling Addiction

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on gambling addiction, exacerbating an already concerning issue. The closure of physical casinos and the cancellation of sporting events led to a significant shift toward online gambling, making it more accessible and enticing than ever before,” Sharma and Das write.

As Dr. Gerda Reith has been describing for some time, gambling addiction has become an increasingly problematic behavior, especially around younger men. Even before the pandemic, online gambling was an exploding market, with competitors arising around the globe. In one of the most popular sports leagues in the world, many of the participating clubs have major sponsorships with online gambling platforms.

These platforms allow for an accessibility of the world, and the ability to gamble on that world, that escapes space and time. For example, a gambler in England could be live betting on the events of a cricket match in Jamaica, while watching the match on their phone. When the lockdowns of COVID came, “the convenience and anonymity of online gambling platforms, combined with the allure of potential financial gains, proved to be a dangerous combination for those prone to addiction.”

COVID-19 & Internet Gaming Addiction

Video games have been coming under scrutiny for possible addiction issues for some time. However, “[t]he COVID-19 pandemic significantly intensified the issue of internet gaming addiction as people around the world turned to video games as a source of entertainment, social connection, and distraction during lockdowns and social distancing measures.” Internet games, as opposed to older non-networked console video games, allow for social interaction while existing within the digital space. This digital space was, for a large chunk of the pandemic, considered the only space safe for everyone to congregate.

Online games, such as Animal Crossing¸ were used to meet basic psychological needs, especially in people who were living alone during the pandemic. Yet, these games, and the possibility of infinite interactions and experiences, “can have detrimental effects on mental health, physical wellbeing, and [the completion of] daily responsibilities.” This means that, while the games can have beneficial impacts, especially decreasing isolation, the authors point to the need for promoting balanced, moderated approaches to these games.

COVID-19 & Porn Addiction

The authors state that “online pornography consumption on the current scale is a risk for personal and social health.” They also point out that many health authorities are acknowledging these issues. As with other digital consumption addictions, people turned to pornography to help with anxiety, depression, and loneliness that occurred during the pandemic. There are specific concerns about pornography with children, as the consumption of the material can lead to such outcomes as “humiliation, extortion, victimization, segregation…emotional problems” amongst others.

What is missing, as there is still a lack of research into the matter, is how the accessibility of pornography, especially if that consumption turns into an addiction, alters people’s sexual behaviors. This is especially important for teenagers, as there is the possibility that they may not have counternarratives to the behaviors that are often displayed in porn. Mainstream pornography, the most accessible form of pornography, has been shown to increase and reify dangerous and misogynistic ideals and behaviors. This addiction then has the double-edged danger of health impacts from addiction in general, and the health and behavioral concerns that are expressed outside of the addictive behavior, in the form of misogynistic sexual expectations and behaviors.

COVID-19 & Smartphone, Social-Media, and Online Dating Addictions
“The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the indispensable role of smartphones in our lives, serving as lifelines to information, communication, and entertainment during lockdowns and social distancing measures. However, this increased reliance on smartphones also exacerbated the issue of smartphone addiction,” Sharma and Das write.

This reliance has also led to increased concerns around addiction to social media and online dating.

The author described how smartphone usage was shown to effects grades in children, create sleeping issues, and even physical and mental health concerns in adolescents. The usage of smartphones, especially without access to in-person communication, also led to an increase in social media usage. This usage included interaction and communication with friends and loved ones, but also existed as an important platform for information during a confusing and frightening time. However, a reality of infinitely available content, streaming endlessly on the phone with just a swipe, exists due to the “infinite scrolling” built into social media platforms. This infinite nature led to attempts of communing and information gathering crossing the line into addictions.

Just as social media helped to connect people, while informing them of the world as it experienced the pandemic, online dating apps were used increasingly during the pandemic to deal with the mental health concerns they were facing. These platforms helped people connect during the pandemic, but in this case, for specifically romantic interests. These platforms have been used increasingly due to the way they can “screen” possible partners for what are known as “red flags,” leading many to believe the apps create a safer and more satisfying dating experience. However, as with social media, the infinite nature of accessible partners, coupled with the usual rejection that occurs during dating, multiplied the negative experiences of the apps. Much like gambling, it created a situation in which the possible “jackpot” of love led to an increasing addiction to the application and the allure of “more fish in the sea.” Additionally, there have been cases of fake profiles being created by the application developers, or allowed by the creators, in order to keep people using their apps, furthering the danger of addiction.

COVID-19 & Shopping and Food Addictions
“Consumer behaviour towards online shopping has changed dramatically during COVID-19. The convenience, accessibility, and the allure of online sales and promotions became irresistible for some, leading to compulsive and excessive spending. The constant browsing, clicking, and purchasing provided a temporary sense of control and comfort during a time of uncertainty,” the researchers write.

As people were isolated and unable to shop in regular patterns, shopping online became the norm. However, online shipping comes with the risk, similar to social media and other applications, of infinite scrolling of goods. Infinite scrolling can lead to unintended purchases, and this can cause financial strain which multiplied the existing anxiety and stress from the pandemic.

Binge eating, and other associated food related issues, also increased during the pandemic. The binge eating issue followed a similar pattern to social media and shopping (isolation and anxiety creating a need for coping, and then using digital services with near infinite supply to meet that need, leading to an over attachment to food as a coping mechanism). Interestingly, exercise also saw increased rates, with the authors pointing to exercise addiction being a mirroring phenomenon to food addiction during the pandemic. Fears of sedentary lifestyles, during an increase in consumption, led to fears of appearance issues (exacerbated by self-reflection in cameras while participating in online meetings), which combined to lead to an explosion of overexercise during the pandemic.

Conclusion
“The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a spotlight on the intricate relationship between public health crises and behaviour addiction. It has underscored the need for a nuanced understanding of how stressors, isolation, and the digital age intersect to foster addiction in various forms, from smartphone and social media addiction to pornography and food addiction,” Sharma and Das write.

The increased acknowledgement of behavioral addictions has also brought into question the etiological assumptions around addiction, especially as substance use issues are compared to experiences like gambling addiction. The authors point to an increased need for research regarding the phenomena of behavioral addictions in general, while also understanding how these addictions that were formed during the pandemic may play a role in future public health concerns. They also point to the increasing need to understand the nature of technology, addiction, consumerism, and the digital self.

 

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Sharma, P. & Das, S. (2023). COVID-19 and Behavioral Addiction. In A. Dubey and A. Gaur (Eds.) Behavioral addiction: A comprehensive perspective (pp. 232-243). Nikhil Publishers & Distributors. (Link)

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