Four digital disorders you might have and how to beat them

Co-written with Dr Richard Wolman

If you are an average tech user, you may be suffering from a digital disorder.

Social networking sites, chat and message apps, videos, games. Smartphone, tablet, laptop, PC. All around us, always. Average screen time for young people in the US is now over seven hours a day.[1]

There might seem to be huge advantages to using this tech: connectivity, information, entertainment.

But it also has profound effects on the human body, particularly the brain. Digital media alter cognition, emotion and behaviour. They are designed to do so – for their own success[2] – and we’re only just starting to discover the negative impact this can produce.

Digital media, developed mostly over the past twenty years, interacts with psychological and physiological systems evolved over two million years. The results are not good.

Processes that promote human survival – such as reward for accomplishment – now become the enemy: jailers keeping us in digital prisons. Our brains have effectively been hijacked to get us hooked and keep us there.

Earlier this year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg set out a manifesto.[3] It describes Facebook leading a ‘global community’ whose sense of shared values sparks collective action. In this vision, Facebook is a universal tool for developing offline human relationships.

But as Israeli historian Yuval Harari argues,[4] the entire business of Facebook is geared to keep us online: from the way it presents information to the ideology of its board members. Facebook is part of the problem, not the solution.

The effects of digital media use go way beyond Facebook. And we need to know what they are so we can choose how to respond.

So, we reviewed research on the relationship between tech use, cognition and mental health. Findings suggested processes which – though not an exhaustive list – we group into four major digital disorders. You might recognise their symptoms in your own behaviour:


1. Digital autism

Autism has two features: 1) repetitive behaviours with narrow interests, and 2) difficulties with social communication, particularly empathy.[5] There is no single cause – it can result from genetic and environmental factors.[6] Isolating environments can produce a temporary state of autism.[7]

Addiction to video gaming and social networking sites is increasingly common. The way these devices and apps reward our brains by constantly presenting new, tiny pieces of information makes our dopamine receptors fire non-stop[8]. We crave new content, so we use them more, to the exclusion of other needs – like a drug.

Experiments with rats by Canadian researchers Olds and Milner[9] illustrate how such compulsive behaviour develops. You allow a rat to ‘self-stimulate’ by touching a lever which provides a brief, pleasurable buzz direct to their brain. They keep doing it, over and over, and before long they’re doing it so much they ignore food, sex, exercise or sleep. They’re addicted.

‘Gamification’ is the term describing product design to engineer this kind of compulsive, repetitive, narrow behaviour.

Screen time becomes a period of constant activation for our neurobiological ‘drive’ system.[10] Even when we manage to put the devices down, we’re thinking about going back to the digital ‘high’.

Because this addictive cycle is based on dopamine hits, it comes at the expense of our ‘soothing system’, a natural opiate- and oxytocin-based neural network that allows us to feel content.[11]

And as we spend more time in isolation with our screens, some evidence suggests our ability to recognise emotions and empathise diminishes.[12]-[13] This may be part of a wider social trend over decades as tech use has grown.[14]-[15]

Put the addictive, repetitive behaviour alongside diminished emotion recognition and empathic response, and you have a temporary state of ‘digital autism’.


2. Digital narcissism

Narcissism can broadly be described as self-love. In small amounts it promotes positive self-image and qualities such as leadership.[16]

But at higher levels, it becomes a disorder involving excessive dependence on others’ approval, lack of empathy and poverty of intimate relationships, plus grandiosity and attention-seeking.[17]

Research shows that narcissistic traits correlate with everything from compulsive social media use[18] to status update and Tweet frequency[19], number of friends, frequency of selfie posting[20] and motivation to use social networking sites to appear ‘cooler’ to others.[21]

A decade ago Andrew Keen coined the phrase ‘Digital Narcissist’,[22] hypothesising that user-generated web content increases self-focus.

He may be right. A study last year found the first evidence that digital media use – specifically posting selfies to social media – actually increases narcissism.[23]

Further psychology experiments show this self-focus through offline behaviour change, in anticipation of how we will later be represented online.[24] Life imitating art, at the expense of our authenticity.

Digital narcissism is a road to nowhere. No matter how many friends or followers we have, we want to acquire more and keep getting their ‘likes’. But these are not real relationships.

Reliable evidence shows we cannot really ‘know’ more than around 150 people – we simply don’t have the time or brainpower for meaningful interaction beyond that.[25] And if we can’t meet people offline, relationships decay and ultimately perish.[26]


3. Digital anxiety

Anxiety is a biological mechanism – a system evolved over millions of years to respond to threats and keep us safe. But it too can be hijacked.

Our access to information has never been greater. Yet the very presence of enormous quantities of data through our devices can easily lead to overload and anxiety.[27]

We often browse compulsively for fear of missing out – a kind of anxiety common among Millennials.[28] When we find something that we might have missed out on, we zero in to see what happened.

This anxiety-led searching may produce temporary respite from the worry that someone somewhere is having a better time. But more often, a secondary process unfolds when we conclude that we have missed out: digital depression.


4. Digital depression

Carefully-curated profiles generate envy of others’ lives, making us less satisfied with our own. This negative self-comparison typically leads to lowered mood and reduced self-esteem.[29]-[30]

The main behavioural correlate of lowered mood is withdrawal and reduced activity.[31] This sets up a maintenance cycle: we feel lower, so we do less, then we feel even lower, and so on. Isolation has its own biological mechanism: sadness.[32]

It is not a given that such emotions and behaviours will result from digital media use. Larry Rosen – whose ‘iDisorders’ work has found significant correlations between tech use, anxiety, low mood and pathological personality traits – notes that there can be benefits too, depending on how tech is used.[33]

But the way such devices, apps and sites are designed – keeping us online alone – means it is more likely than not that frequent use will result in some level of digital anxiety and depression.[34]

Most people would agree these four digital disorders are not conditions they wish to experience. Yet these are the biologically-inevitable products of the way we currently use digital media.


So how do we beat digital disorders?

We don’t believe the answer lies in the baby-and-bathwater solution of dropping everything, trialled by the ‘Disconnect’ movement.[35] Binning all digital media removes the potential for tech to help us flourish: the growing field of Digital Humanism.[36] And it’s pretty much impossible these days, unless you want to become a hermit.

Instead, let’s use the tech wisely, as Tristan Harris argues, to do things ‘well’.[37] This may involve re-prioritising the way we design apps and interfaces, for example to enable us to concentrate rather than maximise our access to information.

Another means to beat digital disorders is to have offline contact built around shared interests. When we interact with real people, our social skills (including emotion recognition) grow[38]-[39], and we learn more effectively when we share attention to an activity.[40]

Focussing on meaningful events rather than ourselves reduces narcissistic self-absorption. We’re more likely to be in the moment: notice what’s around us, pay attention to experience and enjoy it.[41] We also get the chance to give something to others.

Guess what? Psychologists agree these are all the most reliable ways to generate sustained wellbeing[42] and happiness.[43]

Our next evolutionary challenge as a species is to negotiate these disorders of digital media and adapt how we use tech to promote our wellbeing, not be held prisoner.



[1] Rideout, V. J., Foher, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds: A Kaiser Family Foundation Study. Retrieved June 15, 2016 from:




[5] Baron-Cohen, S. (2008). Autism and Asperger Syndrome: The Facts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[6] Happé, F., Ronald, A., & Plomin, R. (2006). Time to give up on a single explanation for autism. Nature Neuroscience, 9(10), 1218-1220.

[7] Hobson, R. P. (2002). The Cradle of Thought: Exploring the Origins of Thinking. London: Pan Macmillan.

[8] Levitin, O. (2015). Why the modern world is bad for your brain. The Observer. January 18, 2015.

[9] Olds, J., & Milner, P. (1954). Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat brain. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 47(6), 419-427.

[10] Panksepp, J. (2004). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

[11] Gilbert, P. (2009). Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 15(3), 199-208.

[12] Uhls, Y. T., Michikyan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, D., Small, G. W., Zgourou, E., & Greenfield, P. M. (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 387-392.

[13] Greitemeyer, T., & Mügge, D. O. (2014). Video games do affect social outcomes: A meta-analytic review of the effects of violent and prosocial video game play. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(5), 578-589.

[14] Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(2), 180-198.

[15] Small, G. (2013). Is the internet killing empathy? Retrieved June 17, 2016 from:

[16] Ackerman, R. A., Witt, E. A., Donnellan, M. B., Trzesniewski, K. H., Robins, R. W., & Kashy, D. A. (2011). What does the narcissistic personality inventory really measure? Assessment, 18, 67–87.

[17] American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-V. Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

[18] Andreassen, C. S., Pallesen, S., & Griffiths, M. D. (2017). The relationship between addictive use of social media, narcissism, and self-esteem: Findings from a large national survey. Addictive Behaviors, 64, 287-293.

[19] McCain, J. L., & Campbell, W. K. (2016). Narcissism and social media use: A meta-analytic review. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. [advance electronic publication]

[20] Fox, J., & Rooney, M. C. (2015). The Dark Triad and trait self-objectification as predictors of men’s use and self-presentation behaviors on social networking sites. Personality and Individual Differences, 76, 161-165.

[21] Sheldon, P., & Bryant, K. (2016). Instagram: Motives for its use and relationship to narcissism and contextual age. Computers in Human Behaviour, 58, 89-97.

[22] Keen, A. (2007). The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. London: Currency.

[23] Halpern, D., Valenzuela, S., & Katz, J. E. (2016). “Selfie-ists” or “Narci-selfiers”?: A cross-lagged panel analysis of selfie taking and narcissism. Personality and Individual Differences, 97, 98-101.

[24] Marder, B., Joinson, A., Shankar, A., & Houghton, D. (2016). The extended ‘chilling effect’ of Facebook: the cold reality of ubiquitous social networking. Computers in Human Behavior, 60, 582-592.

[25] Dunbar, R. I. M. (2010). How Many Friends Does One Person Need? London: Faber and Faber.

[26] Dunbar, R. I. M., Arnaboldi, V., Conti, M., & Passarella, A. (2015). The structure of online social networks mirrors those in the offline world. Social Networks, 43, 39-47.

[27] Bawden, D., & Robinson, L. (2009). The dark side of information: overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies. Journal of Information Science, 35(2), 180-191.

[28] Przybylski, A. K., Murayama, K., DeHaan, C. R., & Gladwell, V. (2013). Motivational, emotional and behavioural correlates of fear of missing out. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 1841-1848.

[29] Andreassen, C. S., Pallesen, S., & Griffiths, M. D. (2017). The relationship between addictive use of social media, narcissism, and self-esteem: Findings from a large national survey. Addictive Behaviors, 64, 287-293.

[30] Appel, H., Gerlach, A. L., & Crusius, J. (2016). The interplay between Facebook use, social comparison, envy and depression. Current Opinion in Psychology, 9, 44-49.

[31] Martell, C. R., Dimidjian, S., & Herman-Dunn, R. (2010). Behavioral Activation for Depression: A Clinician’s Guide. New York: Guilford.

[32] Panksepp, ibid.

[33] Rosen, L. D., Whaling, K., Rab, S., Carrier, L. M., & Cheever, N. A. (2013). Is Facebook creating ‘iDisorders’? The link between clinical symptoms of psychiatric disorders and technology use, attitudes and anxiety. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 1243-1254.

[34] Sagioglou, C., & Greitemeyer, T. (2014). Facebook’s emotional consequences: Why Facebook causes a decrease in mood and why people still use it. Computers in Human Behavior, 35, 359-363.


[36] Pettey, C. (2015). Embracing Digital Humanism. Gartner Inc., June 5. Retrieved June 22, 2016 from:


[38] Fonagy, P., & Luyten, P. (2009). A developmental, mentalization-based approach to the understanding and treatment of borderline personality disorder. Development and Psychopathology, 21(4), 1355-1381.

[39] Uhls et al., ibid.

[40] Slavin, R. E. (2011). Instruction based on cooperative learning. In R. E. Mayer & P. A. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Learning and Instruction (pp. 344-360). New York: Taylor & Francis.

[41] Kabat-Zinn, J. (2004). Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life. London: Piatkus.

[42] Aked, J., Marks, N., Cordon, C., & Thompson, S. (2008). Five Ways to Wellbeing. New Economics Foundation report. Retrieved June 23, 2016 from:

[43] Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.