Background: Very few people seek in-person treatment for online behavioral addictions including gaming and gambling or problems associated with shopping, pornography use, or social media use. Web-based treatments have the potential to address low rates of help seeking due to their convenience, accessibility, and capacity to address barriers to health care access (eg, shame, stigma, cost, and access to expert care). However, web-based treatments for online behavioral addictions have not been systematically evaluated.
Objective: This review aimed to systematically describe the content of web-based treatments for online behavioral addictions and describe their therapeutic effectiveness on symptom severity and consumption behavior.
Methods: A database search of MEDLINE, Embase, PsycInfo, Web of Science, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, and Google Scholar was conducted in June 2022. Studies were eligible if the study design was a randomized controlled trial or a pre-post study with at least 1 web-based intervention arm for an online behavioral addiction and if the study included the use of a validated measure of problem severity, frequency, or duration of online behavior. Data on change techniques were collected to analyze intervention content, using the Gambling Intervention System of CharacTerization. Quality assessment was conducted using the Effective Public Health Practice Project Quality Assessment Tool.
Results: The review included 12 studies with 15 intervention arms, comprising 7 randomized controlled trials and 5 pre-post studies. The primary focus of interventions was gaming (n=4), followed by internet use inclusive of screen time and smartphone use (n=3), gambling (n=3), and pornography (n=2). A range of different technologies were used to deliver content, including websites (n=6), email (n=2), computer software (n=2), social media messaging (n=1), smartphone app (n=1), virtual reality (n=1), and videoconferencing (n=1). Interventions contained 15 different change techniques with an average of 4 per study. The techniques most frequently administered (>30% of intervention arms) were cognitive restructuring, relapse prevention, motivational enhancement, goal setting, and social support. Assessment of study quality indicated that 7 studies met the criteria for moderate or strong global ratings, but only 8 out of 12 studies evaluated change immediately following the treatment. Across included studies, two-thirds of participants completed after-treatment evaluation, and one-quarter completed follow-up evaluation. After-intervention evaluation indicated reduced severity (5/9, 56%), frequency (2/3, 67%), and duration (3/7, 43%). Follow-up evaluation indicated that 3 pre-post studies for gaming, gambling, and internet use demonstrated reduced severity, frequency, and duration of consumption. At 3-month evaluation, just 1 pre-post study indicated significant change to mental health symptoms. Conclusions: Web-based treatments for online behavioral addictions use an array of mechanisms to deliver cognitive and behavioral change techniques. Web-based treatments demonstrate promise for short-term reduction in symptoms, duration, or frequency of online addictive behaviors. However, there is limited evidence on the effectiveness of web-based treatments over the longer term due to the absence of controlled trials.
- internet intervention
- social media
- systematic review