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When Online Shopping Becomes the Big Deal

Woman has her credit card and making purchases on her iPad.

As a result of the pandemic, shopping in brick-and-mortar stores has lost some of its sparkle. Meanwhile, shopping online has never been more appealing. It’s safe, it’s easy, and it’s incredibly convenient. Online shoppers can scroll or surf through endless pages of deals and specials, all from the comfort of their living room. They’re rewarded first by the thrill of finding something they want and buying it, and then again, a few days or weeks later when packages arrive like gifts at their front door.

In fact, online shopping is up nearly 45% over last year according to the Census Bureau, with no signs of slowing down. As we head into the holiday shopping season, people who struggle to keep their finances in check may be overwhelmed by the near-constant focus encouraging them to spend more, save more. Black Friday, for example, which had already stretched into a full weekend in recent years, now consists of an entire month as advertised by retail giants like Target and Walmart. While it’s possible to shop online in moderation, it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of compulsive spending, and how to seek help if you need it.

Online shopping addiction is not yet a diagnosable illness. It is not currently covered in the DSM-V, nor are there insurance codes. However, it falls into the same cluster as other process addictions such as gambling, online gambling, sexual compulsivity, pornography addiction, internet and gaming addiction (digital use disorder). A process addiction occurs when a person repeatedly engages in a behavior compulsively to cope with their underlying emotional discomfort, such as anxiety, depression, sadness, loneliness etc. But that behavior, in this case shopping, ultimately doesn't fix the core emotional problem.

And not unlike other process addictions, the signs of an online shopping addiction can fly under the radar or seem justifiable. Holiday sales, birthdays, weddings, and Amazon Prime Days all provide a great excuse to shop: “I'm just buying it for the deals. I'm going to buy everybody's birthday presents for the next year.” Someone with an online shopping addiction can rationalize spending away effortlessly.

The pandemic has only amplified these behaviors for many people because substance use and behavioral disorders thrive in isolation and with the lack of accountability that comes from working at home and social distancing. We are all spending significantly more time at home and feeling some degree of stress and anxiety. A year ago, if we saw stacks of boxes being delivered every day and the neighbor's vehicle never left the driveway, we would have wondered if we needed to check on our neighbor. Now we simply think they are safely quarantining.

We probably won't know until much later how many people are truly having problems with online shopping during the pandemic. But many are already struggling with behavior that is no longer sustainable. Their jobs have been affected, their credit cards have been maxed out, and they have taken money out of their 401(k) accounts to support their habit. As the economy becomes more challenging and as pressure mounts, the strategies they once used to sustain their shopping addiction won’t work anymore. The next six months will be telling.

Sadly, many times it is the family members who must intervene. If you suspect a loved one is having problems with online shopping, here are signs to watch for:

  • Presenting as angry, more irritable, or easily upset.
  • Losing a job or having other difficulties at work.
  • Demonstrating they are having financial challenges they can't fully explain, or their explanation is the same explanation over and over.
  • Opening new credit card accounts.
  • Spending too much time online, but it doesn’t seem related to pornography or video gaming.
  • Alluding to a desire to buy something they can't afford.
  • Showing an emotional connection to purchasing, or the desire to purchase.
  • Making comments they really need to cut back on spending.
  • Exhibiting secretive behaviors, like quickly closing the laptop when you walk into the room.
  • Especially if they have had problems before, be aware and cautious. Somebody who is in recovery is generally trying to live in a very transparent manner. Behaviors that don't fit with that should be concerning.

Among the warning signs on this list, loved ones typically first identify anger, irritability, employment struggles, or shame and secrecy surrounding finances. These issues may have multiple causes, but they nearly always warrant some gentle questions or exploration.

For anybody who suspects a problem, it’s important to seek out treatment strategies that utilize cognitive-behavioral approaches. These help people to see the disconnect between their thinking, behaviors and emotions and identify their underlying distorted beliefs. At Caron, for example, we routinely screen for problem shopping, and work with people to develop healthy strategies to address those needs.

The reality is that just like smart phones and social media, online shopping is here to stay. But with the right support, those struggling with making compulsive purchases can learn to moderate their behavior and find gratification in more constructive ways.

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