Digital Media Overuse: Myths and Misnomers

July 07, 2023

Written by Eric Beaudoin, Psy.D., Clinical Director 

Digital media overuse (DMO) is an exploding phenomenon in the clinical arena. With personal screens more prolific than ever before, researchers are truly laying the track as we go. As we strain to comprehend this rapidly expanding reality, there has developed some misconceptualization of the problem. We often utilize blanket terminology when referring to DMO. Gaming addiction, technology addiction, or social media addiction are terms you might frequently hear when the topic arises. While certainly relevant, these expressions convey more than the individuals using them intend. Because this growing cultural context is still a new frontier, the need for conceptual precision is essential.

Preoccupation with Instagram might symbolize an infatuation with the comparison of personal worth and perhaps a subsequent deficit in self-esteem. Distinct from this is a pattern of compulsivity with dating apps which may point us toward an individual’s externalized strategy for validation. Distinct from that is a person’s excessive consumption of Twitch streams which might be an approximation of interpersonal interaction for an individual who struggles to connect. TikTok, Snapchat, Reels, and other short-form media may indicate habitual dopamine seeking akin to chemical dependence. Getting lost in an endless rabbithole of YouTube videos might allude to a maladaptive strategy of detachment. The category of gaming deserves its own set of denominations. Candy Crush, Fortnite, and Minecraft all represent distinct mechanisms of satisfaction-seeking or simulated productivity.

Each of these specific stimuli has specific behavioral qualifiers and precipitating beliefs that fuel them. Whether we’re considering abstinence, harm-reduction, or integration, we won’t maximize our chances of sustainable success without being surgical in our understanding of these dynamic variables.

So what are effective approaches to treating DMO?

Armed with a sound conceptualization of the issue, treatment professionals are equipped to design interventions that fit the mechanism of dysfunction. Often, an approach that produces a sustainable outcome will go beyond a salient behavioral intervention. Environmental control is a piece of the pie, but not all of it. Lasting, internalized change is a product of addressing both the habit, as well as the underlying variables. Focused individual psychotherapy provides opportunities for insight building, intrinsic motivation, and targeting adjacent clinical predicates. Family work is also highly indicated due to the oft-systemic nature of DMO. Family therapy and parent coaching provide venues for augmenting mutual understanding and repairing ruptures which might be occluding the alignment necessary for collaboration. Because DMO treatment often necessitates behavioral intervention, a semi-controlled physical environment provides footing for withdrawal management, incentive economies, and lapses in self-discipline. Lastly, integration and automation are key. Abstinence from digital media has its utility, but almost exclusively on a temporary basis. Treatment must eventually center on internalizing the value of moderation. This is not a strictly intellectual task. It means helping clients to see first-hand the merit of diversifying their interactions. In lieu of social bids that risk rejection, disappointment, and shame, digital media can be a tantalizing facsimile for achievement or connection.

However we approach DMO, we have a responsibility to respect the details. Doomscrolling, Reddit lurking, Discord chatting, Tinder baiting, and a hundred other seemingly esoteric phenomena are actually exceedingly common. Further, these pastimes are often equal parts adaptive and maladaptive. In our careless moments, we might make statements that imply digital hobbies aren’t ‘real life.’ or digital interaction isn’t ‘real’ connection. This only further alienates an individual desperately wishing to feel understood. As a start, we should instead look closely at the perspective of our clients, if not only to communicate that they’re worth seeing.