Shopping Addiction Fueled by Online Shopping

Online Shopping Is Impacting Rates and Severity of Online Shopping

As the holiday season ends and a new year begins, many have stopped spending tons of money shopping for presents and are letting their wallets rest. Unfortunately, many others will struggle with compulsive shopping, commonly referred to as “buying-shopping disorder” (BSD). BSD is not officially recognized as a stand-alone diagnosis, but it has attracted the attention of many behavioral and addiction specialists. The issue was first described by a German psychiatrist as “buying mania” around 100 years ago and is now estimated to affect around 5% of the population worldwide.

Is Shopping Addiction Real?

Having a shopping spree every now and then is not the same as having a shopping addiction. Over-shopping or overspending can happen to anyone, but BSD is characterized by the extreme craving to shop for or seek consumer goods. People with BSD use shopping as a coping mechanism to regulate emotions by either getting pleasure or relief after shopping. Those addicted to shopping will often spend more than they can afford and experience post-purchase guilt and may even shop more to feel better, creating a vicious cycle. BSD is linked to depression, anxiety and other mood disorders, and can lead to financial distress, a sense of loss of control, and conflict with friends and family. Experts are urging that BSD be studied further and labeled as its own illness due to its similarities to other behavioral addictions such as gambling.

As retailers move their focus to online sales and more people gain access to the internet, spending habits have migrated from brick-and-mortar stores towards online shopping. When the internet first gained public popularity, people believed it would help people with BSD because it would protect them from in-store marketing gimmicks and bargain hunting opportunities. A recent study tracked the online shopping habits of people with a shopping addiction and found that a third of the participants had developed an online shopping version of BSD. Sophisticated and micro-targeted marketing makes people more susceptible to shop online and certain factors make others especially vulnerable to an online shopping addiction.

Targeted and sponsored online ads capitalize on a phenomenon known as “cue-reactivity,” or excitement from shopping cues. Businesses are able to grab a person’s attention and make them interested in clicking the buy button. The momentum of cue-reactivity depends on how excited a person is when seeing an item and whether or not it produces a craving. This behavior and craving are similar to those that enforce other behavioral addictions such as gambling and cybersex addiction.

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Why is Online Shopping So Popular?

A study from 2015 identified three key factors that made people vulnerable to an online shopping addiction. BSD is more likely to occur in:

  • People who like to buy anonymously or avoid social interaction.
  • People who enjoy a wide variety of items.
  • People who like instant gratification.

Research also shows that those who shop and buy online are at an increased risk for a higher severity of BSD. The speed and convenience of online shopping feeds the addiction part of the brain.

Shopping online provides the opportunity to make purchases unobserved and secretly. People with BSD may feel shame or regret about their spending habits and experience social anxiety, so they avoid crowded stores or social interaction. Online shopping satisfies the desire for variety since you can purchase from multiple retailers during a single spending spree. Online stores are always open so people can shop around the clock, making it more difficult to control cravings.

Additionally, the convenience of “one-click shopping” makes it easier to spend money and studies show people spend up to 100% when using credit instead of cash. This is because paying for things with cold hard cash is a more painful experience than using a credit card. How much a purchase is directly linked to the payment is known as a concept called “coupling.” For example, if I go to a coffee shop and use cash, the act of paying and the act of consuming my beverage are directly coupled. I know exactly how much I have to give up for my coffee when I pay with cash; however, when I use a credit card, there’s a break in time between when I have my drink and when I actually have to pay for it. The lack of coupling when paying with credit is similar to using the “download” button when purchasing a song or using tokens at a casino, which can expand the distance between you and your money.

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How to Know if You Have an Online Shopping Addiction

The difference between overspending from time to time and having a shopping addiction comes down to how it affects your mental health and personal life in the long run.  BSD often leads to financial instability and debt, family conflict over excess spending, and depression or anxiety. Signs of compulsive online shopping and BSD include:

  • Feeling like you can’t stop online shopping even if you wanted or tried to stop without success.
  • Online shopping has caused harm to relationships, work, or financial security.
  • Family members, partners, or friends are concerned about online shopping habits.
  • Thinking about shopping all the time.
  • Getting angry or upset if you can’t shop online.
  • Online shopping is the only thing that makes you feel better.
  • Hiding purchased items because you are afraid others will think it’s a waste of money.
  • Feelings of guilt or regret after online shopping.
  • Spending less time doing things you enjoy because of online shopping.
  • Buying things you don’t need or planned on, even when you can’t afford it.

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Find Help for Online Shopping Addiction

If you believe you or someone you love may have an addiction to online shopping, seek help from an addiction specialist today. BSD can be linked to or worsened by other problems like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or substance abuse. Standard treatment for BSD involves cognitive behavioral therapy and treating an underlying issue can help improve the compulsive buying behavior.

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