It's not like I'm out on the street getting high, or living life inside a bottle.
That is the rationale I hear most when people begin treatment for internet addiction or gaming addiction. There is some truth in it. A few studies show excessive online time correlates with being overweight. There is also the occasional story about someone who dies from binge-playing for days without food or sleep. However, those things are rare in light of the number of people using technology for entertainment.
Nonetheless, addiction to the internet or gaming can be very destructive, and can result in the same types of losses that people experience with drug or alcohol addiction. Losses such as family, friends, and job or school performance, and above all a loss of well-being and enjoyment of life.
What is Internet Addiction
Internet (and gaming) addictions are process-based. In other words, a person isn't addicted to a specific game or a particular form of social media. Instead, they are addicted to the way that those types of stimuli function in their life. For example, a person struggling with gaming addiction might only play for a few hours after work. However, during the day, he might find himself preoccupied with anticipation. Likewise, he may notice that he avoids other activities or obligations to preserve the time set aside for gaming. He might also notice that when the time to play finally arrives, he can feel the tension and stress of the day melt away as he gets deeper into the game. Over time, as other forms of stress reduction get ignored, gaming becomes the only tool in the stress management toolbox. At that point, asking someone to stop or cut down is just like asking them to feel more stress and anxiety!
A similar type of dynamic arises when someone is dealing with social media addiction. People describe obsessing about something they wrote, or could have written. When there is no access to The Internet, there may be a sense of loss or anxiety about all of the things being missed. When there is positive feedback from others online, there may be a feeling of well-being and accomplishment out of proportion to the actual achievement. In contrast, when a comment goes unnoticed or condemned it can bring on strong feelings of failure or embarrassment.
Social media addiction helps to create an alternate social landscape. For some people, that means a sense of connection to others is maintained at all times, allowing for a perpetual feeling of being "on the scene." For others, it serves as a low-risk way of simulating social interactions that might be avoided in the offline world. In either case, online activity helps to avoid the stresses of life in the offline world.
How Internet and Gaming Addiction Do Harm
Even though the details of everyone's story are unique, an overuse of technology tends to affect everyone in similar ways. It takes someone away from themselves, their obligations, and their relationships with others. This happens because, at its core, process addiction is a self-sustaining cycle of avoidance.
At first, the overused behavior was a safe way of avoiding difficult situations, thoughts, and feelings. For example, everyone has had a bad experience and chosen to watch TV, play a game, or have a glass of wine rather than spend another minute thinking about it. Usually, within a few days, we are either ready to move on, or begin to formulate a plan to help remedy the situation. That is a healthy use of avoidance.
Process addictions usually start very slowly (often over years). In that time, healthy avoidance becomes overused until new problems are created because so much time was spent avoiding the existing ones. A classic (somewhat oversimplified) example might be someone who starts by playing games to avoid doing homework. Not keeping up in class causes her to do badly on tests. More gaming time helps to manage the stress of poor grades. The increased gaming time and bad grades cause her parents to notice and try to intervene. Now there is the stress of undone homework, poor grades, and angry parents.
Next comes the panic from feeling like there is no way to catch-up. Those feelings often lead to embarrassment and shame about being in the situation at all. How are the embarrassment, shame, and panic handled? More gaming, which of course leads to an even stronger sense of hopelessness. Eventually, the cycle is being fueled by itself - shame and hopelessness are triggering the avoidance behavior which reinforces the negative feelings.
It isn't so hard to see how behavior-avoidance can compound into process addiction until a person feels trapped. Once there, social isolation, anxiety, and depression become much more likely. The combination of those secondary symptoms, combined with the consequences of avoided situations can lead to the worst types of outcomes - like lost jobs, academic probation or dismissal, and severe damage to close relationships.