Fatal Digital Addiction

Published On: March 17, 2020 09:35 AM NPT By: Krishna P Bhandari

Nepali people are probably as hooked to the fluorescent screens as anyone else in the world. Nepal has caught up with the world in device indulgence and digital addiction

In a 2018 paper published by International Society for Neurofeedback Research (ISNR), Erik Pepers and Richard Harvey have described various symptoms of digital addiction in a sample of undergraduate students. Identified based on the self-declaration based data of the students, the symptoms include increased loneliness, anxiety and depression. As humanity gets more tech-savvy, it also grows more dependent on digital devices and their services for daily life. Moreover, digital services are becoming more dominant pastimes, at the cost of traditional pastimes such as sports, outdoor activities, reading, storytelling, socializing, visits to the libraries etc. This overindulgence has also led to physiological impact in the form of problems with muscles, joints, eye strain etc. Technology, while enhancing human life in many ways, is also having negative impact in more ways than ever. 

During a trip to Japan in 2009, I was surprised to see youngsters hooked to their phones. They incessantly texted on their clamshell phones with real keypads (unlike touchscreen slabs of today). On the streets or in the metro trains, in the buses or restaurants, on the park benches or in malls, people were endlessly typing into their phones or playing games. Their eyes were glued to the screens, unaware of the crowd and hustle-bustle around. They were deeply immersed and unaware of the world around them. Interestingly, people in Nepal at that time were much more interactive among themselves and much less so with digital devices. It was probably because of much less proliferation of the services and devices at the time. 

Fast forward to 2020 and Nepali people are probably as hooked to the fluorescent screens as anyone else in the world. Nepal has caught up with the world, at least in device indulgence and, increasingly, digital addiction.  

Silent addiction 
Based on my own experience, digital addiction catches the users unawares. There is this constant urge to check the mobile. There may be no call, no SMS or no alert but still the hand automatically goes to the device. It becomes as mechanical and at times as useless as flipping one’s wrist regularly to see the time (many times without even noticing the time shown by the watch) or adjusting one’s glasses or even pricking the nose. Just do it, without necessity or purpose. 

Personally, I have continuously felt an urge to turn up the phone, swipe a finger or two and pretend to be looking for something important. Most of the time, I am not even aware of what I am looking for on the screen. I flip through a few applications, swipe left and right, scroll up and down and then put the device aside, only to pick it up again seconds later. And then the same cycle repeats. It is the last thing I see before sleeping and the first thing I grab after wake-up. I just ‘check’ it. Whether I am in a meeting or at a happy table with friends and family, I worry more about doing that frequent ‘check’ on my phone than establishing a physical rapport with those around me. Perhaps it is not only me. Perhaps it happens to many others. At least I have seen a lot of people like me, glued to their devices. And the result is that among the people sitting around a table, almost everyone is staring at a screen rather than talking to others around. Most of them on social media. Just doing endless scroll on the social media wall, for innumerable number of minutes on end. Even the people who are not very active on social media are active on other applications or content on the devices. 

If even a social media outcast like me spends so much time on a device screen, it must be much worse for social media freaks. And there are many freaks, wanting to know about every movement of others. From the menu at the dining table to the new dress to the school result to office gossip to happenings in the neighborhood, everything finds its place in the social network. There is an overwhelming deluge of posts, photos, videos and everything in between. That leads to the endless scrolling up and down, right and left, to be ‘aware’ of everything out there. The screen time must be overwhelming for those who tend to post every event of their daily life and track every ‘likes’ to their posts. 

Toll on health 
It its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the World Health Organization has included ‘Gaming Disorder’ as a disease. According to the WHO, gaming disorder is a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. This definition and description indicates an addictive behavior. However, the digital addiction or over-indulgence covers a much wider scope than just gaming. Though just related to gaming, the WHO classification is a serious indication of the impact of digital technology on human well-being. 

While using digital devices, people often tend to sit for a prolonged period in a single posture. An uncomfortable posture and lack of movement during device use leads to back pains, joint pains and strains on the neck and the eyes. Over exposure to the fluorescent light of the smart screens also leads to irritation and headache. Use of smart screen near bedtime leads to degradation of sleep quality. Moreover, young people and kids tend to spend prolonged periods of time indoors, in a limited number of postures. That means reduced physical exercise and the ensuing negative consequences. 

Apart from the obvious symptom of tired eyes, cramped joints and stagnant muscles, the fluorescent screens have direct consequence to the eyes because of the nature of light they emit. The excessive amount of blue and ultraviolet light coming out of the screens are harmful to the eyes causing blurred vision, burning eyes, headache and disrupted sleep.

Apart from the tangible health issues, there are other collateral damages of excessive digital device usage. Mobile use while driving can lead to serious accidents. Daredevil and dangerous selfies, mostly for social media posts, have taken many lives. We have seen many incidents, at least on social media posts, of people rushing to pose and take videos in an emergency such as accidents, natural disasters or other mishaps, rather than giving priority to helping the victims. This tendency to record the scene rather than help the stricken is also fueled by the desire to capture something interesting and posting online.

As people get more indulgent with devices and communicate only through them, they distance themselves from real human companionship. Even long-time friends over social media may not feel comfortable sitting across the table and talking over a glass of beer or a cup of coffee. It is one thing to have an over-indulgent digital conversation and another to have a real face-to-face and communicative relationship. But it is the latter that counts most. 

In an actual social gathering around a dinner table or a party hall or a local eatery, each participant is busy on his or her device while ignoring the actual gathering. Ironically, the cyber social media is making people less social in real sense. These so-called ‘social’ platforms tend to make people less interactive in meetings, parties and other gatherings.  People meet less and attend cyber meetings more. They talk less and chat more. They have more facetime calls than face to face interactions. They pose and click for post. They look good for likes and are disappointed not to get them.

Affecting kids 
The digital addiction is even worse among kids. From infants to toddlers to teenagers, playing with smart devices is a major pastime. A fussy infant or kid is easily pacified by a vibrant, animated smart screen. Once used a few times, that becomes a norm. Then the children will be happy only with the devices. As they grow up, they start exploring various other functions of the devices such as games, videos, pictures, animations. They literally grow with the devices and the indulgence also grows with their age. To exacerbate the matters, kids are not given alternatives that could help them avoid digital devices. The practice of reading to kids, playing with them or just having a light chit-chat is on the decline as most parents are looking for easier alternatives. While kids are busy with mobiles and tabs, parents also find some easy time for indulging with their own smart screens. Parents themselves are so hooked to devices that children just do not take seriously the admonitions and prohibitions, if any, issued by the parents. In cities it is even worse as kids already have much less outdoor activity, much small social circle and also many safety issues. Staying mostly indoors leads to over exposure to devices. 

The WHO guidelines on physical activity and sleep recommends no screen time for children below one year old. The upper limit of sedentary screen time is 60 minutes for one to five years of age. It also recommends increased physical activities as well as pastimes such as reading and storytelling by the caregiver. The old habits of running and playing around, being told stories by parents and elders certainly had great benefits for physical and mental development of small children. Increased digital addiction seems to be taking that away, resulting in stymied physical and mental growth. 

Even for adolescents and young adults, the increasing screen time is gnawing at the time they need to spend on other good activities. Those activities such as outdoor sports, mingling with friends, socializing, going around the neighborhood, helping in household chores, reading help them improve physical health and widen mental horizon. 

Curbing addiction
If an addiction can be started, it can also be stopped or reduced. Like every other addiction, digital addiction also requires some effort and habitual change from the concerned person. Readers Digest Canada has provided few tips for this in its website. Habit changes like increased outdoor activities, reduced social media use, allocation of some time for reading regularly and cultivation of creative habits are some of the ways recommended to reduce digital addiction. 

A recent paper published by Harvard School of Public Health suggests that while excessive social media and digital device use can lead to depression and anxiety, a self-regulated and controlled use can even be beneficial. They call it “effortful control” skills—the ability to self-regulate behavior that can lead to controlled and regulated usage for good purposes such as making good friends and garnering useful information. My own experience has shown that reminding myself every time I use my phone of the over-indulgence has helped me check myself. Self-check can be a useful approach of reducing digital addiction. 

The digital information age is a reality. Increasing over-indulgence with devices and technology is also a reality. The resulting impact on personal behavior, psyche, health and well-being are also the real and tangible consequences of the technological indulgence. Despite the negative consequences and risks, technology use and exposure cannot be avoided as so many aspects of modern life are dependent on it. However, a regulated and moderated use of digital devices, controlled use of services such as social media and proper monitoring of the digital screen time and use by children can lead to optimum use, positive use and minimized risk of negative impacts on the psychological, social and physiological impact on the users. 

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