Multiple, overlapping addictions common among young adults

November 16, 1999

Women are more likely than men to become addicted to caffeine and chocolate, whereas men are more likely to get hooked on alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, television and internet use, according to a new study from Washington University in St. Louis.

"Our analysis revealed a clear tendency among college students to become addicted to more than one common substance or activity," said David K. Dodd, Ph.D., co-author of the study and senior lecturer in psychology in Arts & Sciences.

Titled "Overlapping Addictions and Self-Esteem Among College Men and Women," the study examines whether there is a tendency for individuals to have multiple, overlapping addictions to common substances and activities and whether patterns of addiction can be linked to self-esteem. Other co-authors are undergraduate psychology students Joshua L. Greenberg and Stephen E. Lewis, both of whom graduated from Washington University in 1998.

The study, published in a recent issue of the journal Addictive Behaviors, is based on surveys asking college students to rate their personal levels of addiction to common substances (alcohol, caffeine, chocolate and cigarettes) and activities (exercise, gambling, Internet use, television and video games). Participants rated each substance and activity on how frequently it caused them to experience a symptom of addictive behavior, beginning with craving and progressing through withdrawal, lack of control and tolerance.

The study is the latest in a series of experiments over the last decade to address a central question in addiction: Is there a general tendency for individuals to become addicted to more than one substance or activity? Until recently, the search for this so-called "addictive personality" has been limited mostly to studies of alcohol or drug abusers who are currently in treatment for debilitating addictions.

Rather than focusing on seriously addicted individuals, this study explores addictive tendencies among college students who are, in general, neither dysfunctional nor alienated from their social environment. Participants included 64 male and 65 female students attending a private, highly selective, urban university in the Midwest. Respondents were randomly contacted at various locations on campus and invited to complete anonymous surveys.

Contrary to previous research on overlapping add ictions among college students, Dodd's study found large correlations both within and between substances and activities. For instance, students who professed higher levels of addiction for gambling also reported heavy use of video games; serious cigarette smokers also appeared more drawn to alcohol.

With respect to levels of addiction among all participants, the study found that exercise yielded the highest level of addiction and the greatest proportion (30 percent) of participants who scored at levels of "substantial addiction." Other areas with relatively high rates of "substantial addiction" include caffeine (29 percent), television (26 percent) and alcohol (26 percent).

Evaluating self-esteem

The surveys also included a series of questions designed to evaluate the respondent's self-esteem. Researchers hypothesized that low self-esteem might be positively related to high levels of addiction, but they found no such relationship. Only exercise showed any significant connection to self-esteem -- respondents who reported higher levels of addiction to exercise also scored high on self-esteem.

"We did not assess the extent to which participants in our study found their addictive tendencies to be dysfunctional or distressing, but our assumption is that most participants in our study were functioning adequately," explained Dodd. "A relationship between self-esteem and addiction might in fact be present among individuals who are more seriously addicted or disturbed by their addiction."

Although little is known about why some people seem to exhibit a common core of vulnerability to various forms of addiction, Dodd's study suggests that a susceptibility to multiple addictions is a fact of life for many young people.

"The overlapping addictions found in the present study do suggest a common core of vulnerability to addictive substances and activities found in everyday life," Dodd concluded. "While no one is sure why this common core exists or how it develops, the results of this study offer implications for theories of addiction and suggest new directions for the study of addiction among normally functioning young adults."
Note: For more information, refer to Greenberg JL, Lewis SE, Dodd DK, "Overlapping Addictions and Self-Esteem Among College Men and Women," Addictive Behaviors, 24(4): 567-571, July-August 1999.

Washington University in St. Louis

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