Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

The Most Common Process Addictions in Young Adults

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Is there anything wrong about using fun, distracting activities to relieve stress—like gaming, gambling, shopping, and scrolling through social media? Not when those activities are done in moderation. But if they become compulsive and start to take over your mind and your life, you may be struggling with a process addiction, also known as a behavioral addiction.

Like addictions to alcohol or drugs, process addictions in young adults are unhealthy coping mechanisms for avoiding distressing thoughts and feelings. And, as with other addictions, process addictions ultimately make those emotional issues worse. Moreover, they often create new problems, including problems with money, law enforcement, work, physical health, and relationships.

Key Takeaways

  • Process addictions follow the same patterns as a substance or alcohol use disorder.
  • Internet addiction, which may include addictions to online shopping, gaming, gambling, and other behaviors, is the most common category of process addictions.
  • Research shows behavioral addictions are linked to multiple mental health disorders.
  • Young adults can ask themselves the 10 questions below to gauge whether they may haec a process addiction.

What Is a Process Addiction or Behavioral Addiction?

The definition of process addiction is a compulsion to continually engage in an activity or behavior even though it creates significant negative consequences. Those consequences can include poor mental health, physical issues, problems with relationships, difficulty functioning in day-to-day life—or all of the above.

Behavioral addictions catalyze a temporary psychological reward. While a young adult is engaged in the activity, the brain generates “feel-good” neurochemicals like dopamine that produce a temporary high. However, that high quickly dissipates when the behavior stops, leading to a craving for the next “hit.” As the behavior escalates, the negative effects on the person’s everyday life also multiply.

Process addictions follow the same pattern as addictions to substances or alcohol. In other words, the root causes, the thought process, the reward cycle, and the recovery journey are all very similar. As with substances, the person can develop a tolerance and require more of the behavior to satisfy their craving. Moreover, both types of addictions typically require treatment in order for a young adult to stop the behavior and recover from the underlying issues.

There is growing evidence that addictions to sex, pornography, social network sites, exercise, work, and buying/shopping may be genuine disorders among a minority of individuals. But none of these behaviors is likely to be included in formal psychiatric manuals in the near future until there is further research collecting more high-quality data on all research fronts. This includes epidemiological, neurobiological, psychological, and clinical.

Mark D. Griffiths, International Gaming Research Unit, Psychology Department, School of Social Sciences, Nottingham Trent University”

What Are the Most Common Behavioral Addictions in Young Adults?

Over the past decade, internet addiction has become one of the most common behavioral addictions among young adults. There are also other types of common behavioral addictions in young adults, including exercise addiction, sex addiction, food addiction, and even work addiction.

It’s not a coincidence that younger people are more likely than older ones to develop addictions, including process addictions. The adolescent and young adult brain is still in development. That means that the changes in neurochemicals produced by addictive behaviors have a more powerful impact. In addition, the parts of the brain that control emotional regulation and impulse control aren’t completely mature until the mid- to late 20s. Hence, young adults have fewer healthy coping skills and less ability to control their dependence on unhealthy ones.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the brain of a person with gaming disorder, for example, reacts to gaming in the same way a person with a substance use disorder reacts to a drug. The behavior prompts a neurological response that creates feelings of pleasure and reward. This cycle has the potential to progress into addiction. Moreover, process addictions can prime the brain for other types of addiction, such as substance use disorder or alcohol use disorder.

Let’s look more closely at the various types of process addictions in young adults.

Internet Addiction

The early months of the pandemic led to significant increases in internet addiction around the world, which has continued repercussions today. This category breaks down into a number of different internet behaviors that can be addictive:

  • Gaming disorder (video game addiction), recognized by the World Health Organization as a mental health condition
  • Smartphone addiction
  • Social media addiction
  • Pornography addiction
  • Cyber-relational addiction—characterized by a tendency to establish friendships or romantic relationships with people online, via chat rooms, forums, or social networks
  • Online shopping addiction
  • Gambling addiction, the only behavioral addiction recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

Know the Facts

In a 2022 study of 500 college students, 45% of male participants and 32% of females were addicted to the internet.

Social Media Addiction

For many young people, checking social media is the first thing they do when they wake up in the morning. And it’s the last thing they do at night. Research shows that 16- to 24-year-olds spend an average of three hours a day using social media. And by some estimates, between 5 and 10 percent of social media users are addicted. 

Many of the detrimental social media effects on mental health for today’s young adults reflect habits they may have developed as teenagers. Adolescents are the age group at greatest risk of developing social media addiction. That’s due to their ongoing brain development and identity formation. 

Video Gaming Addiction

In 2018, gaming disorder was classified as a mental health condition by the World Health Organization (WHO). Consequently, this disorder is included in the 11th edition of WHO’s International Classification of Diseases Manual. Similar to other addictions, this disorder is characterized by the inability to control an obsession with video gaming. 

Adolescents and young adults are more vulnerable to gaming disorder than older adults. In fact, one study of gaming worldwide found that Gen Z (ages 16–30) are three times as likely as Millennials to be addicted to gaming. And they are four times as likely as Gen X and Baby Boomers to have gaming disorder.

Why are males more likely than females to become addicted to gaming? This may be due in part to brain function. The parts of the brain that control impulsivity develop more slowly in males. Moreover, gaming can provide a source of community and connection for young men that they may not be able to create in real life. That’s particularly true if they struggle with face-to-face social interactions.

Know the Facts

Males are three times more likely than females to be addicted to video gaming.

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Gambling Addiction in Young Adults

Like gaming, gambling is easily accessible online and has the same addictive elements of chance, skill, and intermittent reward. Research shows that gambling participation typically increases during adolescence and peaks in young adulthood. This is also the time when the risk of developing problematic gambling behaviors is highest. Video game makers have also added gambling elements to games, like roulette and slot machines. This increases exposure to gambling for young people.

Furthermore, gambling while drinking or using drugs magnifies the potential financial and psychological risk for young adults. And this age group has a higher prevalence of drug use and binge drinking than other demographics. Hence, this boosts the likelihood that young adults will gamble while using substances.

Shopping Addiction in College Students

Shopping addiction, also known as oniomania, is a process addiction that involves compulsive buying (online or in stores) as a way to avoid negative feelings. Young people with shopping addiction may engage in impulse buying (unplanned purchases that happens on the spur of the moment). Or they may tend toward compulsive buying (pre-planned shopping as a way to deal with uncomfortable or painful emotions).

While young adults may jokingly refer to shopping as “retail therapy,” using excessive shopping to distract from emotional distress is not a useful strategy. Any relief they feel while shopping quickly passes, and the compulsion to shop returns. Over time, this can lead to problems with finances and relationships. The mental health issues underlying the behavior can also get worse as the duration of the process addiction increases.  

Know the Facts

8.3% of university students have compulsive shopping behaviors vs. 4.9 percent of all adults. Being younger and female increases the risk of shopping addiction.

What Causes Process Addictions in Young Adults? The Link Between Mental Health and Behavioral Addictions

Process addictions are typically a symptom of underlying stress and mental health challenges. The behavior doesn’t start out as an addiction. A young person who is struggling may use a pleasurable behavior as a way to numb their painful emotions and avoid the distress they are feeling. Over time, if they repeatedly engage in the activity, it can trigger an addictive cycle.

Some young adults are more vulnerable than others to process addictions. Social, neurobiological, and psychological factors, as well as personality traits, can increase the likelihood of developing a behavioral addiction. In one study, researchers identified four traits that put people at higher risk for addiction: hopelessness, anxiety sensitivity, impulsivity, and sensation seeking.

Internet addiction in particular has been found to be associated with mental health issues, including:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Hostility
  • Relationship problems
  • Obsessive-compulsive symptoms
  • Impulsivity
  • Codependency

Research on problematic gambling in particular shows that underlying motivations for the behavior include depression and anxiety. Young people with gambling addiction also tend to have difficulty with self-regulation and more academic, personal, and family problems. They also tend to have high levels of risk taking and poor coping skills. One study found that problem gambling in young adults is associated with ADHD, particularly among males.

10 Signs of Process Addictions in Young Adults

Recognizing the signs helps young people get treatment for process addictions as soon as possible. Young adults can ask themselves the following questions about their potentially problematic behavior.

  1. How much time do I spend on the behavior in comparison to other activities?
  2. Is my performance in school and/or the workplace suffering as a result of the time spent on this activity?
  3. Do I use the behavior as a way to cope with or avoid difficult emotions?
  4. Do I spend most of my time either engaging in the behavior or thinking and talking about it?
  5. What impact does the behavior have on my relationships with friends, romantic partners, and family members?
  6. Does the behavior have a negative effect on my mood and/or physical well-being?
  7. Am I hiding from others the extent of my involvement in the behavior?
  8. Have I tried and failed to cut back on the time spent on this activity?
  9. Am I constantly trying them to stop the behavior or trying to set boundaries around it, without success?
  10. When I’m unable to engage in the activity, do I experience symptoms of withdrawal, such as depression or irritability?

If young adults answer yes to some or all of these questions, they should consider scheduling an assessment with a mental health professional. Trying to go cold turkey or limit the behavior without professional support may backfire, causing a resurgence of the addiction. A mental health professional or treatment program can help young people address the underlying issues prompting this form of self-medication.

Treatment for the Root Causes of Process Addictions

At Newport Institute, rather than treating common behavioral addictions, we address the mental health issues underlying problematic behaviors. Our mental health treatment involves a combination of therapeutic modalities. Through tailored treatment plans, young adults address underlying trauma, PTSD, anxiety, or depression.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) can help young adults shift their thinking in order to change their self-destructive behavior. Experiential therapies, such as martial arts, Adventure Therapy, yoga, and meditation (depending on location), give young adults positive coping methods to replace problematic behaviors. Creative arts therapies, such as art and music therapy, support them to process trauma and focus on their interests and talents.

Long-term treatment offers the space and time to achieve a range of treatment goals and create a comprehensive plan for continuing care after discharge. Here are some of the benefits of inpatient care for mental health that lasts 90 days or more. It’s important to note that many, but not all, of these benefits can be provided by long-term outpatient care.

Contact us today to schedule an assessment. We can help you determine whether you or your loved one is struggling with an underlying mental health issue, and recommend the right level of care. Our Admissions counselors are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to help young people get started on the road to recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a process addiction?
  • What are the symptoms of gaming disorder?
  • How does social media lead to addiction?
  • Why are males more likely to have gaming disorder?
  • How do you treat a behavioral addiction?

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Co-Occurring Disorders / February 14, 2023

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