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What are behavioral addictions and why do they prey on adolescence?


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The Conversation

Gemma Mestre-Bach

Visiting Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society (ICS), The University of Navarra, Spain

More than 15 years ago, many experts began to suggest that some behaviors, such as gambling or playing video games, appeared to be addictive. Some people who engaged in these behaviors excessively showed symptoms similar to those experienced by people with substance addictions (alcohol, cannabis, etc.), and so the existence of so-called "behavioral addictions" began to be proposed.

To date, the major diagnostic manuals for mental disorders (the International Classification of Diseases and the guide of the American Psychiatric Association association ) have only recognized gambling disorder as a behavioral addiction.

Video game disorder, compulsive buying disorder and compulsive sexual behavior disorder have all been accepted as mental disorders, but at the moment they are not considered addictions, despite increasing empirical evidence supporting their addictive characteristics.

Adolescence: fertile ground

Adolescence is anextremely complex stage of development characterized, among other aspects, by biological, psychological and behavioral changes. Among these changes are physical maturation, the training of identity and increased responsibility, interest in social interactions and exploratory behavior.

To understand whether this vital stage is associated with a greater vulnerability to develop behavioral addictions, experts have put forward different theoretical models especially focused on the brain development of adolescents.

All these models are based on the fact that the brain systems in charge of cognitive control are still very immature (they will develop over the years), while the reward system is highly activated and developed.

In other words, adolescents exhibit greater impulsivity and a high tendency to seek immediate rewards, rather than exhibiting longer-term goal-oriented behaviors deadline. Adolescents, therefore, show a greater tendency to engage in impulsive and risky behaviors, including addictive behaviors.

Risk Factors

If we can find out why some adolescents are more vulnerable than others to developing these specific pathologies and, therefore, we can detect a profile of adolescents at higher risk, it will be easier to design prevention, detection and treatment plans focused especially on these adolescents.

In the case of gambling disorder, being a boy and younger, as well as presenting cognitive distortions and deficits in emotional regulation, depression or a high frequency of use of tobacco, alcohol and other substances are factors that predict a higher risk of developing the disorder.

Among the risk factors for an adolescent to develop video game disorder, family aspects, among others, have been highlighted. For example, those adolescents who have a poor quality or disruptive relationship with their family, or who have been victims of traumatic events within the family context are at greater risk of using video games as a maladaptive coping strategy and, consequently, are more likely to end up developing an addiction.

In other words, video games would be used by the adolescent as a "tool" that allows him/her to relieve intense negative emotions (in this case, in the family context) that he/she does not know how to regulate in a more adaptive way. Other risk factors include being a boy, reporting high levels of impulsivity and loneliness, as well as the presence of behavioral problems.

In the case of compulsive buying disorder, impulsivity associated with negative emotions has been described as one of the main risk factors, as well as being a girl.

It has also been suggested that those adolescents who report greater negative emotions and higher levels of impulsivity would be at greater risk of developing problematic pornography use compared to those who do not.

However, more programs of study is needed on these addictions to reach solid conclusions.

Vulnerable and impulsive

Although much more is required research, it appears that adolescents are a population particularly vulnerable to developing behavioral addictions. They are at a stage of emotional, psychological, physical and mental development that makes them present high levels of impulsivity.

Impulsivity and difficulties in emotional regulation (typical of adolescence) are some of the risk factors most commonly identified in these pathologies, so they should be taken into account when developing prevention plans, assessment and treatment of addictions in the adolescent population.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

The Conversation