By John Salak –
Spotting digital addiction is obvious to many but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to quantify or measure. It is little wonder then why estimates on the number of people who are dangerously glued to various forms of social media or the Internet in general vary so widely.
The United Brain Association (UBA), for example, estimates that about one percent of the 160 million online gamers are addicted, which it describes as a harmful dependence on digital media and devices such as smartphones, video games and computers. Other research has placed the level of moderate addiction at about 36 percent of the general popular with severe internet addiction set at 3 percent.
Regardless of the exact level, the UBA and other organizations note that there is a strong correlation between the high frequency of digital media and mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. This potential risk means it is essential for medical professionals to be able to accurately measure addiction levels if they are to effectively treat it, especially as the impact of new social media outlets grows.
Fortunately, a tool recently developed by researchers at the State University of New York, Binghamton called the Digital Media Overuse Scale may now make it easier for clinicians and researchers to get an accurate handle on this addiction.
“We wanted to create a tool that was immediately useful in the clinic and lab, that reflects current understandings about how digital addiction works, that wouldn’t go obsolete once the next big tech change hits,” explained Daniel Hipp, Ph.D., who co-led the study.
He added that the current tools used for measuring the relationship between psychology and technology are not only outdated, but they are also often written with specific antiquated technology questions in mind.
The tool built by the Binghamton team is designed to overcome this by allowing clinicians and researchers to make their investigations as broad or as granular as they want.
“Rather than focusing on the tech, we built into the scale a set of ‘skeletal’ questions that focus on psychology,” Hipp explained. “For example, one question type is ‘I have trouble stopping myself from using X even when I know I should.’ Replacing X with a tech domain, such as social media or gaming, we can ask the same question about several different tech domains. And we can replace X in future studies with new technology domains, i.e., TikTok-style ‘shorts’, as they emerge.”
The researchers tested their scale through an anonymous survey of over 1,000 college students to investigate clinically relevant behaviors and attitudes as they relate to five digital media domains: general smartphone use, internet video consumption, social media use, gaming and pornography use.
They found that a majority of students demonstrate few indicators of addiction or overuse. In addition, use patterns were highly targeted to specific domains for specific users. Finally, a select set of students’ responses indicated attitudes and behaviors around digital media use that, if they were derived from drug use or sex, would be deemed clinically problematic.
“Overall, the outcome reveals that overuse is not a general thing; respondents typically reported overuse in one or a few domains only, such as social media,” noted Peter Gerhardstein, Ph.D., a professor who collaborated on the Binghamton study.
“More broadly, the data paint a picture of a population using digital media substantially, and social media in particular, to a level that increases concern regarding overuse issues,” he said.
The Binghamton team noted that initial indications are that the Digital Media Overuse Scale is a reliable, valid and extendible clinical instrument capable of providing clinically relevant scores within and across digital media domains.