Addiction in the digital age: The new epidemics

Digital addiction is a very serious issue in the UK, with implications for mental health and wellbeing. Around 1 in 8 adults in the UK suffer from a form of behavioural addiction, including excessive use of the internet and social media platforms. 

Digital technologies have become an essential part of daily life, revolutionising how people communicate, work, and entertain themselves. YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok have seen vast user growth, with YouTube alone reaching 82.8% of the UK’s population as of early 2024. 


Digital addiction manifests in various forms, such as social media addiction, gaming addiction, and compulsive internet browsing. 

Social media addiction


Social media addiction is a behavioural addiction. It is an excessive and compulsive use of social media platforms, leading to significant impairment in daily functioning. Like other forms of addiction, the act of using social media releases dopamine, which reinforces the behaviour. Individuals with social media addiction may feel an overwhelming urge to engage with these platforms, often at the expense of other important life activities and responsibilities.




In the UK, the average internet user spends approximately two hours and twenty-four minutes daily on social media. It is estimated that around 4.1% of the population exhibits signs of social media addiction, with the prevalence particularly high among young users.


Psychological impact


Social media addiction can have bad effects on mental health, including:



The constant comparison with others and the need for social validation can worsen feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. Overuse of social media can also disrupt sleep patterns and reduce the time spent on face-to-face interactions, further contributing to mental health issues. 


This example illustrates the real-life impact of social media addiction and highlights the importance of seeking help when social media use starts to interfere with daily life.

Gaming disorder


Gaming disorder is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a pattern of gaming behaviour due to impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities. Unlike casual gaming, where individuals play games for enjoyment without significant negative impact, gaming disorder involves a compulsive engagement that disrupts daily life and responsibilities.




Symptoms of gaming disorder include:


  • Preoccupation with gaming
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not playing
  • Need to spend increasing amounts of time gaming
  • Unsuccessful attempts to control gaming
  • Continued excessive use


The National Centre for Gaming Disorders in the UK provides diagnostic and therapeutic services for affected people.


Impact on life


Gaming addiction can severely affect various aspects of daily life. Academically, students may neglect their studies, leading to poor performance. Social relationships often deteriorate as individuals withdraw from family and friends, choosing to spend more time gaming. Physically, excessive gaming is linked to poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and sleep disturbances, potentially leading to broader health problems such as obesity and vision issues. Mental health can be adversely impacted, with conditions such as depression and anxiety becoming more prevalent among those with gaming disorders.




There has been an increase in cases treated at the NHS National Centre for Gaming Disorders. Since its opening in 2019, over 745 individuals have sought help, reflecting the growing recognition of the disorder. 

Internet addiction


Internet addiction is excessive or poorly controlled urges to use the internet. It could mean compulsive web surfing or prolonged engagement in online activities.




There are several subtypes of internet addiction, including:


  • Online gambling: Engaging in betting activities that can lead to financial and social problems.
  • Shopping addiction: Compulsively buying items online, leading to financial distress.
  • Information overload: Excessive searching for information, causing mental fatigue and stress.
  • Cybersex addiction: Overuse of online sexual content, which can impair real-life intimacy.


Behavioural and cognitive effects


Affected Individuals may exhibit mood changes, irritability, and restlessness when not online. They often struggle to control their internet use, leading to neglect of real-life responsibilities and relationships. Cognitive effects include diminished attention span and decision-making capabilities.


Internet addiction can lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD. It is often used as an emotional crutch to cope with negative feelings rather than addressing underlying issues.

Smartphone dependence


Smartphone dependence, or smartphone addiction, is an excessive use of mobile phones to the point where it interferes with daily life. Unlike general internet addiction, which involves all online activities, smartphone dependency specifically relates to smartphones and the apps they host, such as social media, games, and messaging services.


Patterns of smartphone use contributing to dependency include:


  • Frequent checking of notifications
  • Prolonged engagement with social media
  • The use of smartphones as a primary source of entertainment and communication


This is driven by reinforcement learning, where users receive positive feedback, such as social interactions or gaming rewards, reinforcing the need to check their devices continually.


Health issues


Physically, it can cause sleep disruption due to blue light emission and the habit of checking phones before bed. Mentally, it is associated with increased anxiety, stress, and attention problems. The constant connectivity and pressure to remain available can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and reduce the quality of personal interactions.


Cultural influence


Cultural factors significantly influence smartphone dependency. In highly connected societies, the social norm of constant availability and the fear of missing out (FOMO) drive people to stay glued to their smartphones. Additionally, cultural expectations around productivity and social engagement contribute to higher rates of smartphone dependence, especially among younger populations who are more integrated into digital communication platforms.

Digital well-being


Several technological apps are designed to help monitor and limit screen time. These solutions include features such as screen time tracking, usage alerts, and the ability to set daily limits on device use. Apple’s Screen Time and Google’s Digital Wellbeing provide usage statistics and controls to help users maintain a balanced digital lifestyle.




Setting specific time limits for device usage, creating tech-free zones (such as bedrooms or dining areas), and scheduling regular breaks from screens are effective methods. Practising mindfulness and engaging in offline activities like reading, exercising, or spending time with loved ones can significantly reduce dependence on digital devices.


Private rehabs in the UK, such as UKAT, provide a supportive environment with expert guidance, personalised therapy, and holistic approaches to address the root causes of addiction. If you or someone you know is struggling with social media addiction, it’s important to take proactive steps toward recovery.