College students are the highest risk group for digital media overuse. While the transition to college is challenging for all students, those who lack the necessary self-management skills can find themselves overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed. Often causing them to retreat into the relative comfort of their favorite digital media. The presence of co-existing conditions like ADHD, autism, anxiety, or mood disorders further increases the risk of digital media overuse. Which is linked to poor sleep habits, lower grades, and a host of mental health and emotional issues.
In This Article
What is Digital Media Overuse?
Digital media use occurs on a spectrum, with healthy use on one end and addiction on the other. In the middle is digital media overuse. The overwhelming majority of people who use the internet fall in the digital media overuse category, which is why we focus much of our work there. Only a small percentage of the population meets criteria for technology addiction with the most vulnerable age groups being college students followed by adolescents. This includes 13%-18% of US college students and 8.5% of US children ages 8-18.¹,²
Why College Students are the Highest Risk Group for Digital Media Overuse
Brain Development and the College Student
Researchers now know that the human brain isn’t fully mature until a person’s mid to late twenties.³ Specifically, the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until this time. That’s the part of the brain that influences attention, impulse control, and prospective memory. So people under 25 especially struggle to set limits on their digital media use because of their stage of brain development.
Digital media is built using something called persuasive design, which makes it habit-forming for anyone. But people under 25 are particularly vulnerable to persuasive design because of their stage of brain development. Those with co-existing conditions like ADHD and ASD have an even greater vulnerability. We’ll explain persuasive design in more detail in a later section. First, let’s look at the other reason college students are the highest risk group for digital media overuse.
The Sudden Responsibility of Self-Management
Parents act as a sort of surrogate frontal lobe for their children while they’re living at home. For example, imposing limits on their children’s screen time. If parents don’t work with their children to progressively build social, emotional, organizational, and self-advocacy skills, when those children go off to college, the responsibility of self-management is suddenly thrust upon them. Often leading to a sense of overwhelm. In these situations digital media overuse can become a welcome distraction from the pressures of their new lives.
If the student has one or more coexisting conditions such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), depression, or anxiety, they will find the pull to overuse digital media even greater. People with ADHD and ASD are sensation seeking, which makes them more vulnerable to highly stimulating persuasive design used in digital media. Many students who take medications to treat conditions like ADHD, anxiety, or depression, arrive at college never having managed their own medications because their parents took care of it for them. Consequently, they lack the organizational skills to ensure that their prescriptions are filled on time and that they take their medications daily.
Students with these co-existing conditions might also struggle socially. Without the social connections and structures they had in place during high school, which were often fostered by their parents, they may turn to the relative comfort of digital media where they have online friends and/or enjoy a sense of competency and accomplishment. Left unchecked, this can evolve into digital media overuse.
Finally, because the federal law that provides learning disabled or special education high school students with an individual education plan doesn’t apply at the university level, college students must either operate without one or go through the complicated and time-consuming process of seeking university accommodations. This means obtaining mental health and learning disability assessments, providing documented proof of eligibility to the university, re-registering for accommodations every semester, and coordinating with each individual instructor to receive accommodations in a way that works for their class. Colleges and universities are not required to make accommodations and modifications of policies and practices if it would fundamentally alter the nature of the service, program, or activity or give rise to an undue financial or administrative burden for the institution. Which means even if a student meets all of the accommodations requirements, they still might not get all the accommodations they request.
Video: The transition to college can be a lonely one for students struggling to find a new group of friends.
Which Co-existing Factors Increase the Risk for Digital Media Overuse?
Very often, those who seek treatment for digital media overuse or addiction are unaware they are contending with one or more of the following mental health issues. We have found that identifying them can be an effective start to their healing process.
- Depression: Depression is consistently found to be predictive of problematic video game, internet, and smartphone use.4 In one study that used Young’s Internet Addiction Test to compare multiple predictors of internet addiction, level of depression had the strongest association even when considering demographics, personality traits, and the ability to envision and pursue future goals.5,6,7
- Anxiety: Given that it’s extremely common for people with depression to also have anxiety, it’s hardly surprising that anxiety is also consistently found to be predictive of internet addiction and digital media overuse.8 Specifically, social anxiety is a strong predictor. People with social anxiety perceive greater control and decreased threat when communicating online. Many of the young people we treat for digital media overuse issues have trouble forging relationships outside of the home and will retreat to the perceived safety of the internet.
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Virtually all of the kids we see with gaming overuse issues have a variation of ADHD. For these kids, gaming is a self-soothing behavior. While real life is endlessly variable, a video game has very clear rules that kids with ADHD can become skilled at following. People with ADHD are also naturally lower in dopamine. When they use highly rewarding applications like video games, their dopamine is triggered to release at a higher rate which leads to them want more and more time gaming.
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): People diagnosed with ASD may find online communication platforms less threatening than in-person interactions where they can be misunderstood, rejected or bullied. Especially those within multiplayer video games that come with a well-defined set of rules. In studies, youth diagnosed with ASD display higher levels of compulsive internet use and video game play than their neurotypical peers.9 And adults with ASD endorsed more symptoms of video game pathology than did neurotypical adults.10 Autistic traits also predicted the severity of internet gaming disorder in adults that had an ASD diagnosis.11
Video: A successful IT professional tells how he almost had to drop out of college because of his difficulty managing ADHD and an auditory processing disorder on his own. Some of his challenges included managing his medication and overuse of the video game World of Warcraft.
What is Persuasive Design, and Why Are College Students So Vulnerable to It?
Tech companies design their products using something called persuasive design.12 Persuasive design techniques were informed by psychologists, working for the tech companies, that understand how to create habit-forming behaviors using automated prompts and a variable reward schedule—the most addictive reward schedule known to man. The results have been resounding. The latest research says Americans now check their smartphones an average of 352 times a day.13
Common persuasive design techniques like autoplay videos and infinite scrolling keep users on digital platforms longer than they intended. While rewards doled out on a variable schedule such as a new weapon in a video game, or a like on your latest social media post, create the compulsion to keep trying or keep checking. That’s because every time a person receives one of these rewards, their brain releases dopamine and the motivation to engage in the behavior increases. As the person becomes immersed in digital media use, dopamine is released at a regular pace and it overrides the logical part of their brain located in the prefrontal cortex. Which, as we’ve already established, is not yet fully developed in a person under 25.
As a result, the person may begin to miss sleep because they are staying up late online. (Often the first sign of digital media overuse.) Their grades may begin to suffer, and they may be more emotionally reactive and impulsive.
Resources to Learn More about Digital Media Overuse and the Transition to College
- An anti-crash course for college students: Digital Media Addiction 101 [The Birmingham News]
- Problematic Internet Use/Computer Gaming among US College Students: Prevalence and Correlates with Mental Health Symptoms [Depression & Anxiety]
- Self-Control and Problematic Internet Use in College Students: The Chain Mediating Effect of Rejection Sensitivity and Loneliness [Psychology Research and Behavior Management]
- Parenting kids over 18 is still parenting. You just get less control and the stakes are higher. [NBC News]
- What’s the matter with kids today?: Education scholars debunk myth that young people today are lazier, more immature than prior generations [Harvard Gazette]
- The relationship between shame and internet addiction among university students: the mediating role of experiential avoidance [International Journal of Adolescence and Youth]
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9. Paulus, F. W., Sander, C. S., Nitze, M., Kramatschek-Pfahler, A. R., Voran, A., & Von Gontard, A. (2020). Gaming Disorder and Computer-Mediated Communication in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Zeitschrift Für Kinder- Und Jugendpsychiatrie Und Psychotherapie, 48(2), 113–122. https://doi.org/10.1024/1422-4917/a000674
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11. Concerto, C., Rodolico, A., Avanzato, C., Fusar-Poli, L., Signorelli, M. S., Battaglia, F., & Aguglia, E. (2021). Autistic Traits and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms Predict the Severity of Internet Gaming Disorder in an Italian Adult Population. Brain Sciences, 11(6), 774. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11060774
12. Warburton, W. (2018, December 18). Media Psychology, Ethics and Persuasive Design. The Amplifier Magazine. https://div46amplifier.com/2018/12/18/media-psychology-ethics-and-persuasive-design/
13. Americans Now Check Their Phones 352 Times Per Day. (2022, June 9). Asurion. https://www.asurion.com/connect/news/tech-usage/
Introduction to Digital Media Overuse, A Clinical Training for Counseling and Related Professionals October 7, 2022
Approved by NBCC for 6 CE hours.