How the Internet Turns Shopping into an Obsession

A new report from internet use and psychology researchers warns that the internet could be contributing to more cases of "shopping addiction."

by Lauren O'Neill
Oct 15 2018, 3:30pm

Photo: VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

You got dumped, you had a shitty day at work, you're on your period, you missed the bus. Whatever's gone wrong on, you are sad, and because of that you're feeling a familiar urge: you pick up your phone and open a shopping app. "I deserve it," you say out loud to no one, adding a dress to your ASOS shopping cart with a little tap. "Retail therapy," you say, and in goes a scarf. I've seen the best minds of my generation fucked until payday because they went hard on too many Glossier on the third of the month.

As technological advancements rage on, we keep getting introduced to new ways to spend. Before the internet, you had to wait for your Saturday trip to the mall, or for the new catalog to come—but now, everything you could ever want to buy is in the palm of your hand, 24 hours a day.

Last week, a report by a group of researchers proposed that there's a direct correlation between internet use and some mental health disorders, one of which is shopping addiction or obsession. Those experts, who make up the European Problematic Use of the Internet Research Network, have called for urgent research into the issue, with NHS consultant and the network's head Naomi Fineberg noting that, "We are at a sort of watershed, starting to understand there is a problem."

Obviously, the problematic use of the internet group have an agenda—to be like: "Not sure this internet thing is so great??"—but there are issues to parse.

Many people, myself included, deal with consumerist impulses. It's one thing to buy a treat when you've been paid, another to spend hundreds of dollars each month on shit due to a combination of boredom, low self-esteem, and materialism, just because it's easy. And while shopping—like other famously addictive things—has always been a way to self-soothe, the internet's undeniably made it more pervasive. (a huge 68 perfect of internet users in the EU shopped online last year).

But exactly how has that omniscience made it easier to get obsessed with buying stuff online? I talked to some other shoppers to find out.

Instagram Has Absolutely Bombarded US

All those aspirational Instagram posts are catnip for consumers and a dream come true for people trying to sell them stuff. Some businesses work primarily on the basis of watching Instagram's micro trends and then putting them into mass production—ASOS, Missguided, Pretty Little Thing, and Fashion Nova—and then there are the reselling sites and apps, like eBay and Depop, where you can find yourself easily spending an entire utility bill on someone's old joggers.

Emily, 24, an online clothes shopper, tells me she thinks that "choosing and buying clothes makes you feel more secure in your identity, which can feel reassuring and grounding when you're upset," adding that she sometimes uses it "as a crutch for when I'm feeling down," as it's a "welcome relief from any deep shit you might be thinking about."

Interestingly, she also describes how a detox from social media—in particular Instagram—has impacted her habits: "I've been struck by how much my shopping appetite has reduced. I've still had periods of wanting to buy things, but not nearly to the same extent. Because I like clothes, I used to follow quite a few fashion bloggers, so would constantly see 'inspiration.'"

Shopping Apps Are Too Easy to Use

Whenever I'm feeling particularly anxious, I always find myself wanting to be in a supermarket. I crave their plainness and uniformity—bright white light and cheerful soullessness. It's nice that everything has a place where it belongs. Shopping apps are the digital version of this hypothetical calming supermarket.

Apps like ASOS, Urban Outfitters, and Topshop are neat and easily navigable, making them foils to the busy design of social apps like Facebook and Twitter (The Economist even quotes Facebook's founding president Sean Parker as having suggested that the platform works by "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology," which is just great). While social media sites can be anxiety-inducing, shopping apps feel designed to give you a minute's peace; to be alone with all the potential versions of you that the clothes and shoes you're scrolling through represent. Items are laid out in simple grids—and in scrolling, there is serenity.

Hayley,* 29, agrees, saying that shopping apps often emulate the more visually pleasing social apps, like Instagram and Tumblr. "In the same way I engage with Tumblr and Instagram on an aesthetic basis, I treat shopping apps the same. The user-friendliness feels really similar," she says. "On ASOS, you can 'heart' things to save them, and I end up saving things I like in the same way I fave things on social media."

Both Emily and Hayley say that, a lot of the time, it's not even about the actual buying (Emily says that "often, buying just makes me feel more stressed because then I also feel guilty about the money”), but that it's the mere experience of using these apps—which Hayley calls "clean and sparse"—that they enjoy most. Which says a lot about how we receive information these days!! And the ways we have to calm ourselves down!! Doesn’t it!!

Deals and Rewards Keep You Coming Back

Who among us has not sent a message to the group text, or a desperate last resort tweet asking for a student discount code? Who can say they have not received an email from ASOS informing them of a 20 percent off weekend and not had a little browse, staring lustily at a pair of sneakers they’ve had in their saved items for a solid two months?

With shopping apps come reward deals, loyalty points and, crucially, money off. "Deals" have been used since forever to actually persuade us to spend more money, but the internet’s ability to expose us to them in our inboxes, on our targeted ads as we surf other areas of online, and even on social media, means they burn a hole in our collective pockets, and we end up spending more just to feel as though we've outsmarted the system by saving. You don’t need me to tell you that we have not.

The 'Buy Now Pay Later' Advertisement

Over the last year or so, you might have noticed the option to buy now and pay later via something called Klarna when shopping online for clothes, which, as you can agree, is all we fucking need. Klarna is a Swedish group which offers a credit payment method for small-scale purchases (you can use it online with retailers like ASOS and Topshop). A recent Financial Times article described it as one of a few "lenders who are rewriting the language of debt for the Instagram era."

The instant gratification of shopping is obviously one of the things which pull us to it, and while there's always a delay with online purchases (though most major online shops now have a next-day delivery subscription service, where you can pay an upfront sum to receive next-day delivery from the site for a year), until recently, if you didn't have the money (or a credit card) you couldn’t buy the thing. Klarna has changed that, and is one more factor in how the internet manages to keep shopping on our brains.

Matt, 24, tells me about their experiences of using Klarna to buy items from ASOS when payday was a while away: "I ended up choosing Klarna at checkout and I quite liked the fact there were no fees or interest payable, and the 'try now, pay later' aspect. I think, had there been even a small fee, I would have been put off, but I was able to rationalize it to myself as if I was buying the clothes next month and just getting them in advance."

They add that they can see how people might become reliant on Klarna—like any credit service—and say that trying not to use the service again was difficult: "I definitely had to stop myself from getting more clothes the month after. I'm not great with money and I was worried I'd use it more and more and end up having bigger and bigger Klarna debts eat into my pay-check each month. So I think I'd need to have a reason to use it again instead of giving myself a blank check."

*Name has been changed

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mental health
VICE International
online shopping
buy now pay later