Behavioural Addiction – A 21st Century Threat

Diseases come and go and epidemics are often linked to trends in human behaviour. In the 19th century it was syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases, while the 20th century brought us addiction to mood altering drugs and AIDS. What was not foreseen was that the 21st century would give us so much addiction directly linked to behaviour itself; in other words, as far as addiction goes, we seem to be gradually moving away from the ‘highs’ that come from the ingestion of chemicals towards a purer, though perhaps more dangerous, fixation with a virtual world which is now so readily available to us.

Examples of such addictive behaviours are gambling, gaming (especially mmorpgs), pornography viewing and shopping. Another emerging addiction is social networking where people can spend many hours a day fixated on the likes of Facebook or Twitter. It is no surprise that all of these can be done, though not exclusively, in the home. The provider of these behaviours is the computer which is linked to the Internet. In this way, Joe Public’s home is not only his castle but has become his virtual brothel, casino, department store and battlefield where he can spend, gamble, campaign and generally  rape and pillage, worldwide and 24/7, according to his tastes.

Illusions perhaps create other illusions. It may be a comfort for Joe Public to think that he is simply moving with the times, that any communication cannot be bad, that his brain is getting a healthy workout with all those games and that there is something a bit backward about going into a real shop with cash in hand and talking to real people; the click of the mouse and the credit card are so much more cool. 

But, in fact, there are many adverse consequences — there always are with addictions. Leave aside the likelihood that regular long hours immobile in front of a screen are likely to make you overweight, the real damage is social and psychological. Isolation, loss of friends, family breakdown and financial disaster are common. Depression and even suicide are not uncommon.

Hospitals and clinics are already treating increasing numbers of behavioural addicts. Here at Castle Craig those attending the “Gambling and Compulsive Behaviours” Course is divided roughly three to one between gamblers and other compulsions, mainly gaming.

Although the American Psychiatric Association (who produce the diagnostic bible known as the DSM IV, soon to be DSM V) have not yet recognised many compulsive behaviours as addictive diseases, they are certainly moving that way and will in their  next update (DSM V) classify compulsive gambling as such. As most other compulsive behaviours follow the same classic diagnostic criteria (tolerance, withdrawals, obsession, inability to control, loss of other interests, dishonesty, return to behaviour persistently), no doubt their classification will come soon.

Nobody really knows the extent of this behavioural addiction problem, perhaps it is too early to get reliable statistics. However, taking just gambling and gaming together,  one could estimate that at least twenty million people in the UK do one or the other regularly. Assuming that 5% of them have a serious problem, one may say that at least one million people in the UK have a serious behavioural addiction.

If you want to read more about behavioural addiction, visit our dedicated section