Food, sex & smartphones

Can you be addicted to a behavior?

Image Credit: Shutterstock.
Photography: Shutterstock.

​Food fuels our bodies multiple times a day. Sex is an innate and fundamental dimension of being human. Technology allows us to be connected to anything, anywhere, at any time. So can the consumption of everyday things become an addiction? It turns out that it’s a complex answer that depends on the person and the impact on his or her life.

Addicted to food?

Food can activate the same system in the brain as drug addiction, says Lina Begdache, PhD ’08, assistant professor of health and wellness studies in the Decker School of Nursing at Binghamton University. As a registered dietitian-nutritionist, one of her research areas includes nutrition and mental distress.

“Foods high in sugar, fat and salt can activate the brain’s reward system that leads to pleasure,” she says. “However, when you build tolerance, you’ll need more of that food to get the same pleasure.”

Eating more can set the stage for addiction, which begins when there are surges of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Eventually, the brain’s reward center will get rewired, desensitizing its response to dopamine and potentially leading to imbalances in dopamine and serotonin (a natural mood stabilizer). Brain-chemical imbalances can affect one’s mental health, often leading to depression, anxiety or eating disorders.

So what are some potential warning signs that you are addicted to food? Consider seeking professional help if:

  • You feel you cannot control your food intake, especially high-sugar or “junk” foods.
  • You are preoccupied with food or are ashamed about eating or your weight.
  • You find yourself eating when you’re upset or rewarding yourself with food when you do something good.

Addicted to sex?

More than one celebrity has claimed to be a sex addict, in need of rehab, but “sex addiction” has long been a contested term, says Justin R. Garcia ’07, MS ’09, PhD ’12, assistant professor of gender studies and associate director for research and education at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.

“The concept of sex addiction appears to be tossed around somewhat casually and frequently to describe people in the news who have problems with their seemingly compulsive sexual behavior, promiscuity or infidelity,” he says. “That’s not to say there are not people who develop problematic behaviors in their romantic and sexual lives, but it is to say that we should be cautious about labeling these people and their behaviors as an addiction, or as something they may not be able to control. Human sexuality is rich with diversity, but we should be cautious about applying a clinical label to that variation when we are less enthusiastic about what we see.”

There just isn’t enough scientific research to demonstrate that “sex addiction” or “porn addiction” is a mental disorder, according to the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. However, people can absolutely experience significant physical, psychological, spiritual and health consequences related to their sexual urges, thoughts or behaviors. What might be some indicators for seeking professional guidance?

  • You feel powerless over how you act sexually, or your sexual choices are making your life unmanageable.
  • You feel shame, embarrassment or self-loathing over your sexual acts.
  • You promise yourself you’ll change but are unable to keep those promises.

Addicted to technology?

Many of us are guilty of rolling over in the morning and grabbing our smartphones to check email, headlines and social media before our feet even hit the floor. Our reliance on internet-ready devices is one of the reasons why Isaac Vaghefi started studying technology use among college-age students and looking at how excessive usage can lead to negative consequences.

“Our smartphones especially have turned into a tool that provides short, quick, immediate satisfaction, which is very triggering,” says the assistant professor of management information systems in the School of Management. “Our neurons get fired and dopamine gets released and, over time, this makes us acquire a desire for quick feedback. This process also has contributed to developing shorter attention spans and being more and more prone to boredom.”

“Technology addiction” is not an official mental disorder, but the umbrella term refers to addictive behavior related to social media, excessive texting, information overload, online shopping, gambling, video gaming, online pornography and overall smartphone usage.

Vaghefi and his colleagues recently interviewed 182 college students and asked them to report their daily routine smartphone usage. Based on the analysis of the responses, they classified users as one of the following types: thoughtful, regular, highly engaged, fanatic or addict. Seven percent identified as “addicts” and 12 percent identified as “fanatics.” Both groups experience personal, social and workplace problems due to a compulsive need to be on their smartphones. Overall, these users exhibited signs that could indicate depression, social isolation, social anxiety, shyness, impulsivity and low self-esteem. Females were most likely to exhibit susceptibility to addiction.

While “addict” users were in the minority, Vaghefi predicts technology addiction will increase as technology continues to advance, and application, game and gadget developers find new ways to ensure users’ long-term engagement with technology.

If you recognize any of these signs, you may want to consult professional help:

  • You use technology as a way of escaping problems or relieving feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression.
  • You ignore what’s happening in real time in favor of what’s happening virtually.
  • You constantly check your smartphone, even when it doesn’t ring or vibrate, or you get paranoid when you do not have your smartphone with you.