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Smartphone Slaves

PEOPLE ARE SPENDING HOURS ONLINE. EXPERTS SAY IT IS TIME TO TREAT THIS ADDICTION AS A DISORDER

BY ADITI PAI FROM INDIA TODAY  

 

4 in10
Young professionals in India are using 10 to 19 apps every day
78%
Respondents chose internet access over a sense of smell
63%
Professionals wake up and look at their smartphones first thing in the morning
88%
Respondents indicated a preference for a smartphone over a TV

SOURCE: CISCO 2014 CONNECTED WORLD TECHNOLOGY REPORT 

These days, Abhishek, 22,is on a Tinder high. Endorphins flood his brain as soon as he opens the dating app on his mobile. His fingers move in a blur, "swiping right all the time", to indicate he "likes", well, a lot of potential matches that flit by on the screen. In between, the commerce graduate from Delhi's Khalsa College switches to Facebook or Instagram. Finally, he falls asleep by 4 a.m.-tired from watching Game of Thrones online. If there's some "spare time", the only child of a real-estate developer from south Delhi drops in at his father's office.

A Rising Tribe
Abhishek belongs to a rising tribe of young urban Indians, 50 per cent of whom treat the internet as "an extension of the brain," says a 2015 Kaspersky Lab survey. It goes on to observe that since 73 per cent connect to the internet via a  smartphone, misplacing the device can "be a cause for serious concern amongst most Indians."

But that's just the beginning of the new smartphone-internet story. More shocking (and very unsafe behaviour) is that though most people (7 out of 10 surveyed) could recall their partner's/spouse's phone numbers without any prompting at all, only 2 out of 10 knew their child's school's contact number! Now that's scary.

Just like Abhishek then, are we adults spending our a lot of our waking hours in the virtual world, obsessively playing games, watching videos, scouring news and views, checking e-commerce sites, chatting, retweeting and favouriting on social media? Apparently so.

In 2014, a study involving 10,000 people from 10 countries by A.T. Kearney Global Research revealed that 54 per cent Indians surveyed said social networking consumed the greatest part of their online lives.

It's an Addiction
The reason why people use digital technology is changing. And along with it, urban relationships. Consider a 28-year-old IIT engineer, living in Lucknownow: a large part of his life is dedicated to building relationships with women in cyberspace. He has had "cyber relationships with over a 100 women" since his days in IIT. Shy and geeky, he couldn't hold a conversation with the few women he met in real life. Now, the IT professional is so accustomed to forging friendships in a make-believe world that he finds it "impossible" to establish a relationship in real life. "It's the sign of our times," says Dr Priyaranjan Avinash, a senior psychiatrist in Varanasi who works with ePsyClinic.com, which offers online psychotherapy. "When gadgets become the focal point of one's life, eating into work, family life, friendships and leisure, it's an 'addiction', just like any other," he says.

If holding a gadget makes you euphoric and its absence makes you miserable, it's time to call on the counsellor to check for addiction. In 2014, NIMHANS in Bengaluru gave interesting insights into the tech-addiction age: 3.5 per cent of those seeking treatment were seriously dependent on digital technology. And 11 per cent of addicts were in physical and psychological distress, the study found."People are getting addicted to technology without realizing it," says DrManoj Sharma, associate professor of clinical psychology and coordinator at the Service for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT) clinic in NIMHANS.

"It is a psychological problem which has a physical outcome and can snowball into a societal problem."

Internet addiction is not yet considered for a clinical diagnosis. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists internet gaming addiction as a "condition for further study," and not a pathological disorder. But excessive internet use by young people, that takes them away from the"real" world for many more hours than experts consider healthy, is a serious concern worldwide. China is the first country to treat internet addiction as a clinical disorder. A documentary, Web Junkie, on a Beijing rehab centre where teenagers are confined for months and put through draconian "deprogramming" therapy, has sent alarm bells ringing globally.

Fantasy or Reality?
Recently, Mumbai psychotherapist SeemaHingorranycounselled a 25-year-old who triggered a family crisis by constantly posting details of a family feud on Facebook: from who hurled abuses at whom to who slapped whom. Excited with the attention she got from Facebook friends, the patient obsessively checked comments and 'likes', feeling happy each time people-even strangers-empathized with her. "She felt emotionally disconnected from her family. Suddenly, virtual strangers became her support system," says Hingorrany. With a rising number of cases of gadget addiction pouring into counsellors' chambers, mental health experts are coining terms to describe behavioural changes that come with excessive
gadget use.

A number of youngsters are reporting disorders such as Selfitis and Phantom Vibration Syndrome. ChaitaliSinha, 24, a Mumbai-based lawyer, was told that she has Selfitis or narcissism when she spent hours locked in her bedroom posting 50 selfies a day. It was only when she was asked to resign from work for poor attendance that her parents took her to a counsellor. "I get a high when I get lots of likes," she says. During counselling, she realized that her obsession stemmed from a poor body image that she had suffered since childhood.Be it attention or social acceptance or voyeurism, FOMO or the Fear of Missing Out is gripping a large number of tech addicts. "That beep on the phone, and we immediately take the phone and then the cycle of forwarding jokes, chatting, replying to messages. It just continues," says Geetanjali Kumar, a Delhi-based psychologist.

Addiction to online gaming, or Internet Gaming Disorder, is another area of concern. An engineering student walked into Mumbai psychiatrist  Dr KersibChavda's chamber two years ago, asking for help to wean him off games. A bright student, he was sent on long leave by his university because he spent 50 hours at a stretch playing games. Similarly, Manish Mehta, 20, a student of physics at Pune University, opted for a 'break year' because he "didn't find the time to study" after playing with other gamers from around the world. "I used to play through the night because my teammates were usually from the US," he says.

Sign of the Times
The symptoms are clear, say doctors: when the user compromises on work and leisure activities to spend time on the smartphone, it marks the beginning of addiction. Sameer Mehrotra, 38, was put on a diet of Ludo and tennis to
wean him off virtual gaming which was threatening to tear his marriage apart. The Mumbai businessman's children were roped in to play outdoors with him while his phone was left at home. After a few days of anxiety pangs when he couldn't stay without his phone for even 15 minutes, Mehrotra now rations his phone use.

Dr Purnima Nagaraja, consulting psychiatrist at Dhrithi Psychiatric Care in Hyderabad, says: "Heavily addicted people can't make eye contact while talking. Emotional blunting is another concern, wherein youngsters would rather use only emoticons to express their emotions." Six months ago, she counselled a 17-year-old who had three cellphones and 13 accounts on Facebook which he used to chat with various people using different identities. An only child, he was lonely at home but found a whole world of virtual relationships to lose himself into. His parents took him to a doctor when he attacked them and inflicted injuries on himself each time they tried to take the phone away.

Even younger children, who spend long hours playing online, show signs of mood changes and anxiety. Mother to a nine-year-old, Mumbai-based dentist DrNupurJhunjhunwala says that her son is irritable even after two hours of online games. "Everything is so fast-paced in online games. When the real world can't match the same pace and action, he gets anxious and upset," she says.

Smita Pradhan, 38, of Mumbai, was diagnosed with clinical depression when she decided to walk out of home. A few sessions of psychotherapy revealed that the homemaker suffered from anxiety and low self-esteem fuelled by her obsession with networking sites. "Her appreciation of relationships was measured by likes and comments on her photos on Facebook. That's why she believed that her husband and children, who weren't on Facebook, hated her," says psychotherapist GitanjaliMurgai who is counselling her.

Hidden Cravings
Sociologists blame tech addiction on new-age urban living: the breakdown of large family systems, a dearth of real offline relationships and the desire for an aspirational lifestyle. Many people crave popularity, and online validation is in terms of numbers far more easily attainable than in real life, where relationships have to be nurtured. Experts link tech addiction to other personality disorders such as low self-esteem and a desire to be accepted. For most, the virtual world is a bed of roses without the thorns that come with real life. Air-brushed pictures on Instagram, albums of exotic holidays, comments and likes from friends are all about a picture-perfect life.

Mind-Body Connect
In January 2012, the Shanghai Mental Health Center in China conducted a study, which showed that internet addiction can actually cause neurological changes similar to those with alcohol and cocaine dependency. "It leads to problems with dexterity and adversely impacts mind-body coordination. I've also seen patients complaining of physical pain and low bone density," says Murgai. Wedding planner AkshataRao, 27, had to undergo physiotherapy when she experienced uncontrollable pain and twitching of fingers. "It was because of constant texting. I'd text for more than 16 hours a day," she says.

Another common complaint is pain in the neck, hand and fingers which is a result of repetitive strain injury-when  the same muscles get worked because of poor posture or frequent texting. Says DrAnand Kumar, professor and head of the neurology department at Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kochi: "Constant exposure to electromagnetic radiation interferes with cognitive memory and sleep. The heat generated from the gadget irritates the surface tissues of the skin. We have no concrete evidence yet to link tumours to mobile radiation."

A Digital Drug
This is the first time experts are dealing with something that cannot be ingested, smoked or consumed and where bodily harm is not the prime issue. Digital addiction plays with the mind. Yet it involves the same symptoms, says Dr Harish Shetty, social psychiatrist at Mumbai's Dr L.H. Hiranandani Hospital. Like any other form of addiction, people suffering from internet addiction show a loss of control over behaviour, lie about excessive use, steal money or show manipulative behaviour, exhibit euphoria-followed-by-anxiety paradigm, panic, physical distress and extreme isolation when taken off gadgets. "It's like a drug, but it is digital," says Mehta. "It can make people numb, increase uncontrollable cravings and interfere with the brain's functioning.

If you don't get restful sleep, it affects your digestive system and causes neurological changes in the long run." Not surprisingly, tech addicts often show signs of addiction to other substances as well. "Any addiction is about filling a void within. So it's easy to get addicted to multiple things at the same time," says Mehta. At Shetty's clinic, most tech addicts come with what he calls the "drugs, games and porn disorder"-patients addicted to all three at the same time. Chavda says: "Theories on 'addictive personality' exist but these haven't been proven about digital addiction yet. Some have linked it to depression or borderline personality disorders, but nothing has been authenticated."

Quest for the Cure
Internet rehabilitation centres are coming up in India too. The SHUT clinic, which opened in 2014, pioneered the movement of digital or internet detox with centres that help obsessive users of technology reduce dependence on the phone. Seeing that a number of young children were addicted to their phones and chat messengers, Delhi-based NGOUday Foundation set up the Centre for Children in Internet and Technology Distress in July 2014 to wean them off excessive digital use. "Like any addiction, people can show signs of anxiety and other withdrawal symptoms including violence, so regular counselling and a strict weaning-off programme is needed," says Shetty, who conducts internet de-addiction workshops and counsellingprogrammes across Mumbai.

Experts also notice that younger children and teenagers too suffer withdrawal symptoms and separation anxiety when phones and tablets are taken away from them. Counsellors urge parents to address the concerns of the digital age by monitoring gadget time and putting family time on the must-do chart. Schools, too, are waking up to the need for a digital diet for students by banning phones on campus.

"Parents compete with each other by giving their kids the latest phones in the market. They fuel this obsession in children at a young age," says RupaliVidvans, a mother of teenage boys and a teacher at a school in Mumbai.

Cultivate Digital Hygiene
There's no quick-fix solution. Going gadget-less isn't always feasible. And people often slip into their old digital routine after a spell of abstinence. The buzzword is ''digital hygiene": "create a corner for your gadgets when you go to sleep, throw the television remote and mobile phone out of the bedroom," says Shetty. Workplaces, too, are laying down norms with tech-free spaces and no-gadget work time and urging employees to reclaim their weekends.

In the meantime, Abhishek stays glued to his handheld device. Going by research and the rule of averages, he is checking his phone at least 150 times in the 16 hours he is awake; making, receiving or avoiding 22 calls a day; sending or getting 23 messages daily; checking the time on his phone 18 times a day. And like  over 996.6 million mobile phone owners in India, he may not even be aware that the line is blurring between where he can carry his phone and where he can't: the loo, bed, the dinner table, and the driver's seat. If he's reading this story, here's hoping it'll convince him to go off the grid and wake up to the other joys of life.    

CONDENSED FROM INDIA TODAY (28 september 2015). WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY INDIA TODAY CORRESPONDENTS and mamta sharma. copyright 2015 LIVING MEDIA INDIA LIMITED.

 

Decoding digital Disorders

You get psyched if you miss a Facebook update, your friends exist only
online and you obsess about selfies-these are tell-tale signs of a disorder

FomoWant to be the first to read, share and comment? It's the Fear of Missing Out.
FadIf you obsessively post pictures and eagerly await posts from your friends on networking sites, you could be suffering from the Facebook Addiction Disorder.
SelfitisClick more than five selfies a day, and you are a victim of selfitis, an obsession with clicking selfies.
Internet Addiction DisorderWhen your routine day is all about spending waking hours in the virtual world.
Social Media Addictionyou have an overpowering urge to use social media, constantly checking updates.
Game AddictionWhen playing games means Candy Crush or online FIFA stretches into hours.
Phantom Vibration SyndromeYour phone may or may not be around but you feel you can hear it ring or vibrate. The term made popular by the Dilbert comic strip is used for those who are extremely
attached to their phones (see Touchy Feely Questions...page 150).
Digital PoutingDon't want to talk to parents about the report card? Most tech-savvy children plug in their earphones and play games on gadgets to avoid conflict.

 

A QUICK Self-Exam

DrSenthilReddi, associate professor, NIMHANS, Bengaluru, identifies problem areas. If you have any three of these, there's cause for concern.

Craving:You have a strong desire to engage in a particular activity
(almost like withdrawal symptoms)-either shopping online or watching porn or going over social media, or just going through your phone or
being on the computer all the time.
Control: You may get the craving and not be able to control your impulse to pick up that phone.
Compulsion:You need to go back to the activity repeatedly even when there is no need to do so. You may have done away with personal interests to fit this in.
Consequences:This may affect your productivity at work or even your personal relationships. For instance, shopping online constantly may affect your monthly household budget.
Try to manage the situation your-
self for a while. Take a technology holiday. But if it's a part of your
job, then avoid all contact over the weekend. -As told to Sunalini M

 

 

cellular jails
Research shows how deep our
attachment to smartphones runs

India
996.6million
Mobile users in India; 375 million internet users; 277 million mobile internet users;
134 million social media users

2 hour 36 minutes
Average daily use of social media via
any device

3 hours 17 minutes
Average
daily use of internet via mobile phone

2 hours 04 minutes
Average daily TV watching time by internet users

4 hours 43 minutes
Average daily use of the Internet via a PC or Tablet

 

How Teens & Tweens Behave Online

66% say they feel more accepted on social media than in person.​
72% feel more important or popular when they receive a lot of likes
58% feel upset or depressed when they don't receive a lot of likes
30% have created fake profiles to reinvent themselves
92% have posted or have done something risky online
71% admit to interacting online with people they don't know in person
64% say they know how to hide what they do online from their parents

Source: trai; iamai; We Are Social's Digital Statshot India; McAfee Tweens, Teens & Technology 2014​ [Age group 8-13 & 13-17]

 

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