Shopping addiction linked to problem gambling

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Photo by Thao Do .

Black Friday can be just as addictive as blackjack, and researchers at the Yale School of Medicine are investigating why.

The team surveyed 2,100 Connecticut high school students to search for links between addictive shopping behaviors and pathological gambling, two behaviors previously associated with unhealthy habits like alcohol abuse and physical altercations. The research is the first to examine the common behavioral factors between the two types of addiction in adolescents. By understanding behavioral similarities between pathological gambling and shopping, researchers and clinicians may be able to design better treatment for all types of addictions, said Sarah Yip, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry and lead study author.

“The more we know, the better,” Yip said. “At the moment there are more well-validated treatments that exist for things like gambling than things like shopping. Understanding shared features helps us understand how to improve treatments.”

Addictive shopping risk was identified in the study by asking participants questions similar to those used to diagnose pathological gambling and other addictions, such as whether or not they experienced the irrepressible urge to buy things, anxiety that could only be alleviated with shopping, or if they missed school or work to go shopping. A 2006 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry estimated that 5.8 percent of adults in the US are problem shoppers.

The current study found that adolescents who were at risk for problematic gambling were more likely to report a tension or anxiety that could only be relieved by shopping. Additionally, those identified as at risk for problematic shopping were more likely to report concern over the gambling behavior of a family member. Yip said this data suggests that risk for problem shopping could be socially or even biologically transmitted within a family, but cautioned that more research was necessary.

Yip said the inspiration for the study came from data suggesting that adolescents addicted to gambling and adolescents addicted to shopping tended to engage in similar types of unhealthy behaviors, suggesting a connection between the two disorders in adolescents.

The study is notable for examining adolescent addiction, said Jon Grant, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago who was not involved in the study.

“This is a growing area of interest because this seems to be the age group where these behavioral addictions start rearing their heads,” Grant said. “[This research] becomes important for early education, screening, and prevention efforts. Parents can get complacent about this age group, saying, ‘Thank goodness my child doesn’t use drugs!’ But that doesn’t mean the adolescent doesn’t have problems with other behaviors.”

Grant added that behavioral addictions such as pathological gambling and problem shopping often lead to mental health issues and substance abuse. Grant cited the example of depression, which may be caused by financial strain due to problem shopping or gambling, and therefore more effectively treated at its source.

Yip said behavioral addiction is becoming a much more accepted pathology in psychiatry. The recently-released fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders places pathological gambling in the newly-created category of behavioral addictions. In the previous edition of the DSM, pathological gambling was not labeled an addiction.

Marc Potenza, the senior author of the paper and Yale professor of psychiatry, said that the study represents only a first step in investigating behavioral addictions.

“As the data are cross-sectional, they in some ways raise more questions than they answer in a definitive way,” Potenza said in an email. “As such, we believe further study of the intersection of these behaviors, and how they may interact over time, is warranted.”

The study was published in Journal of Gambling Studies.

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