Does Compulsive YouTube Viewing Qualify as Addiction?

By Paul Gaita 05/19/17

Compulsive internet use is a growing issue but experts still appear to be split on whether it constitutes an addiction.

Teen laying on couch and using her smartphone.

A recent feature from PBS NewsHour highlights the lingering debate about whether habitual use of online media and digital technology constitutes an addiction.

The story profiles a middle school student whose obsessive viewing of YouTube content led to extreme behavior changes and eventually, depression and a suicide attempt. The student finds support through therapy at an addiction recovery center, but the question remains: did she have a legitimate addiction to YouTube, or was it a case of overindulgent behavior combined with a pathological disorder?

The student in question is a young girl named Olivia who felt at odds with the "popular" kids at her Oakland area school. She began watching YouTube videos after hearing that it was a socially acceptable thing to do. "I started trying to watch as many videos as I could, so, like, I knew as much as they did," she said. Her viewing habits soon took the place of sleep, which impacted her energy and mood. Her grades began to falter, and external problems within her house—arguments between her parents and the death of her grandmother—led to depression and an admission of wanting to hang herself. 

Her parents took her to a psychiatric hospital, where she stayed for a week under suicide watch, but her self-harming compulsion continued after her release. She began viewing videos about how to commit suicide, which led to an attempt to overdose on Tylenol. After recovering a second time, her parents brought her to Paradigm, an addiction recovery center in San Rafael, California, where head psychologist and co-founder Jeff Nalin said that her problem was not uncommon among his patients.

"I describe a lot of the kids that we see as having just stuck a cork in the volcano," he said. "Underneath there's this rumbling going on, but it just rumbles and rumbles until it blows. And it blows with the emergence of a depression or it emerges with a suicide attempt."

Olivia was diagnosed with depression that led to compulsive internet use—but does that constitute an addiction? Psychiatrists and addiction specialists appear to be split on the issue: while the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not include digital addictions of any kind—to social media, video games, texting nor pornography—some believe that the symptoms mirror that of addictions to drugs, alcohol or food.

A study conducted at McMaster University in Canada found that college-aged students who spent excessive amounts of time on the internet exhibited more depression, anxiety, impulsiveness and an inability to manage time and routines than those who did not. 

Excessive online use has also appeared to trigger chemical reactions in the brain that echo similar responses incurred during substance abuse. "There are studies that have looked at people's brains while they're online, and their brains start looking like those of someone who has a substance abuse disorder," said Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of Stanford University's Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinic. "Similar pathways seem activated." But for some professionals, deeming these results and responses as evidence of addiction may be overstating the case.

Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University noted that addiction to the internet may be a symptom of another addiction, rather than an addiction unto itself. People addicted to online gambling may be gambling addicts, not internet addicts—as Griffiths noted, saying that a person is addicted to the internet is not unlike saying that an alcoholic is addicted to a bottle, not its contents. 

Regardless of whether her issues are a bona fide addiction or not, the student featured in the PBS story does have work ahead of her: she's admitted fearing the content of her social media accounts: "I'm worried about when I do go back on my phone what's going to be there," she said. "What have people been sending me?" But she has asked her mother to restrict her phone use, plans to avoid isolation and will continue to address her concerns through outpatient treatment and the help of a therapist.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.