Addiction in the Digital Age

As technology changes and advances, so does the world we live in. The prevalence of high-speed internet access and plentiful smart devices shrinks our environment and increases our access to just about everything you could imagine on a daily basis.

Even substance abuse and addiction are affected by the rise of the Internet, social media and drug forums. Teenagers aged 12-17 were studied, and the National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVI: Teens and Parents found that 70 percent of this age group spent time on social media daily, making them five times more likely to use tobacco, three times more likely to use alcohol, and twice as likely to use marijuana than their peers not on social media. Viewing images of peers abusing substances at a young and impressionable age increases the likelihood of teens trying these substances themselves.

Adolescent brains and the prefrontal cortex are underdeveloped, and abusing substances early increases the risk factors for developing a substance abuse dependence or disorder later in life. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making, controlling emotions and willpower, making young people more at risk for engaging in potentially hazardous behavior before that region of the brain is fully developed. Of those who abused alcohol before age 14 in 2013, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 15.4 percent were likely to be classified with an alcohol abuse or dependency as opposed to the 3.4 percent of the population who first tried alcohol over age 18.

Researchers in Greece also found a relationship between excessive internet usage and substance abuse. Adolescents aged 14-19 were studied, and those who were considered addicted to the Internet also showed a higher likelihood of abusing illicit substances, as published by ABC News. Researchers speculate that the same personality traits, including impulsiveness, recklessness, aggressiveness and nonconformity, found in teens spending most of their time in the digital world are the same as those traits found in those who abuse substances. Early research even speculates at the connection between certain regions of the brain affected by excessive internet use and substance abuse. While internet addiction is not a formal diagnosis, it is interesting to note how substance abuse and increased internet usage may be related.

Increased Access to Drugs

In addition to internet usage potentially being a precursor or potential predictor of substance abuse, the Internet may also make drugs more accessible. Online pharmacies have popped up. As many as 85 percent of them may not even require a prescription, or they allow faxed prescriptions, which opens the door to forgeries, according to PsychCentral. People may be able to obtain prescription medications over the Internet without ever even seeing a physician, which may increase the risks for abusing these medications. Named for an 18-year-old individual who died from overdosing on a prescription medication prescribed by a doctor he hadn’t physically seen, the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2008 prohibits controlled substances from being sold without being seen by a physician face to face; however, rogue internet pharmacies and international operations may sell these substances online and ship them to Americans.

While the majority of prescription drug abuse is likely to be the misuse of medications found in a medicine cabinet and possibly diverted from a friend or relative with a legitimate prescription, PsychCentral reports that as many as 10 percent of prescription drug abusers potentially obtain the pharmaceuticals from an online source. This number may even be grossly underestimated, as online pharmacy sales and deliveries may be difficult to track.

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Anytime a prescription medication is used in a way that is not medically necessary, it is considered abuse. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has labeled the prescription drug abuse problem in America as an epidemic, with 1.4 million people seeking medical treatment at an emergency department (ED) for the nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals in 2013. The CDC also reports that drug overdose is the leading cause of injury death in the United States.

Prescription and over-the-counter drugs are the most commonly abused substances in America by people age 14 and older behind marijuana and alcohol, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) publishes. Young people in particular may think that prescription medications that initially come from a doctor or pharmacy may be safer than other illicit drugs. Online drug forums and blog posts as well as social media all espouse the usability, safety and allure of abusing prescription medications. Additionally, increases in internet speed may also be related to prescription drug abuse. Health Affairs published data showing that when a state’s internet speed increased by 10 percent, admissions at drug treatment facilities for prescription drug abuse rose by one percent as well.

Drugs produce a variety of different chemical changes in the brain, and the Internet provides a laundry list of different options for different feelings. For example, those wishing to stay awake longer and enhance focus and attention may seek out stimulants such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medications, while those feeling emotional pain may look toward central nervous system depressants that provide a calming, relaxing and numbing effect. Most drugs interfere with the brain’s natural reward pathway, increasing euphoric feelings and changing motivation circuits. Numerous online forums exist that discuss all of the different drugs and how they will make you feel, and many forums will even provide direction in how and where to obtain these drugs with or without a prescription. They may not, however, fully explain the health risks and consequences associated with illicit drug abuse.


Internet Drug Marketplaces

Prescription medications are not the only drugs sought out over the Internet, and online pharmacies are not the only retailers either. Another underground market exists online, and it is called the “darknet” or the “Dark Web.” Using the Tor network, which uses highly sophisticated encryption technology to promote anonymity, illicit online marketplaces have sprung up. These sites use Bitcoin as payment, which is an online currency notoriously difficult to track. Online bazaars for illicit drugs, services, weapons and other illegal products are not easily accessible for the casual internet user; however, the Dark Web lies just beneath the surface for those determined or knowledgeable enough to seek it out.

Perhaps one of the largest of these underground markets, called Silk Road, had 18,000 different drug items for sale before it was shut down by the FBI in October of 2013, as published by the Washington Post. Silk Road connected buyers and sellers through an online forum, offering drugs such as:

  • Heroin
  • Ecstasy or MDMA
  • Multiple strains of marijuana
  • Ketamine
  • LSD
  • Opium
  • Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • Mescaline
  • Psychedelics like 2C and NBOme

Buyers would order drugs from sellers, and the drugs were then shipped via the U.S. Postal Service directly to their doorsteps. Ecstasy, 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, or MDMA may be one of the more popular items sold through these black market internet channels. Much like eBay for legal sales, buyers could rank sellers on Silk Road. MDMA is notoriously dangerous if purchased on the street because it is often laced with hazardous toxins, and purity can be difficult to assess. Buying from a seller on Silk Road with a high rating seemed to provide a sort of safety net, or a better chance of receiving a purer product. Of course, these ratings are highly subjective and not truly trustworthy.

After Silk Road was shut down, at least 18 more illicit marketplaces have popped up in its place, offering more than 47,000 drug listings, according to the Washington Post. The FBI continues to track and shut down these sites as fast as they can, aggressively targeting these online marketplaces.

Treatment More Accessible

One of the benefits of the digital age is the wealth of information right at our fingertips. Medical symptoms can be researched and better understood, and addiction treatment may be more accessible as well. Sometimes it may seem easier to type questions into a search engine, send an email, or enter into a virtual chat than picking up the phone and calling someone or making an in-person appointment. It provides a layer of anonymity that many crave in this day and age. You can research different treatment options and centers before fully committing or feeling pressured to commit. You may also virtually visit many of these treatment facilities all without ever leaving the comfort or privacy of your own home. Exploring treatment options and seeking help may be easier than ever before with the spread of technology and the increased internet presence.

Even in the technology age, successful substance abuse treatment requires personal therapies and counseling sessions as part of a recovery plan. FRN treatment facilities offer a range of drug and alcohol treatment programs as well as specialized and integrated dual diagnosis treatment for those suffering from co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders.

If you’d like to take a step toward healing, our admissions coordinators are standing by to help you or your loved one find the right recovery option to suit your unique set of circumstances. Please call now.

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