Cover Story

The dark domain

Published On: March 24, 2017 08:59 AM NPT By: Cilla Khatry

Not many people in Nepal would confess to seeing a therapist in the first place but Arpana Singh from Satdobato, Lalitpur, willingly talks about her weekly visits to a counselor in order to seek ‘treatment’ for her internet addiction. She feels internet addiction is a grave problem and people need to talk about it in order to find a solution. 

Internet addiction for Singh started innocuously enough. When she upgraded to an iPhone 5 from a Blackberry with dial pad four years ago, she was fascinated with it, and round the clock internet access made it even better. The first thing she would do as soon as she woke up is log on to Facebook. That was how she knew whose birthday it was that day, which Bollywood star was fighting with which actor, and all the other latest news and gossips. “Anything that was of any importance was there on Facebook,” says the 32-year-old mother of two.

Soon enough she was lugging her phone to the toilet, using it while preparing meals for her family, and while driving around town as well. She would play games, browse through fun websites, and watch endless videos on YouTube. “A smartphone (with internet access) made sure I was never bored or alone. After a point, I couldn’t function without my iPhone anymore,” she says. 

Then, post lunch one day in June 2, 2016, her six-year-old son fell violently ill. She remembers the exact date because it was her wedding anniversary. She had apparently put dates and cashews in the rice pudding she had cooked, completely forgetting the fact that her son didn’t take to them too well. She had been distracted by an online quiz she was taking while putting together the simple pudding. While rushing him to the doctor’s office, she vowed to cut down on her phone and internet usage. But making a resolution was the easy part and sticking to it was a whole other ball game. That’s when she decided to seek professional help and started visiting a counselor to talk about her problem and find a solution. 

“It was amazing how fast my gadget addiction escalated. Until a couple of years back, I would use my phone to call my parents in India and maybe send a few photos of my children through e-mail or Skype,” she says, adding that in hindsight she sees the consequences of being hooked online. Two years ago, she had crashed her car into a stalled van because she was distracted by the comedy video she was watching while driving. She had badly damaged her car’s bumper and radiator and had to shell out Rs 15000 for repairs. She didn’t think much about it then and was glad to have come out unscathed but now can clearly see how she was letting internet slowly run, and ruin, her life.

And there are many, like Singh, who turn to Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites for their daily dose of news and updates first thing in the morning and stay hooked to it throughout the day as well. 25-year-old Suresh Acharya* (name changed), a secondary school teacher, confesses to spending the first half an hour in bed hooked on Twitter, going through all the new posts and commenting on ones that interest him. Acharya wasn’t always a big fan of Twitter and its own world of information, and communication. He confesses that he jumped on the bandwagon only a year ago when he discovered an author he loved active on Twitter. 

With over 11 million followers and three times that number of tweets, Paulo Coelho talks about anything and everything. From pictures with Ronaldo and quotes from philosophers to news from the literary world, his posts cover a range of topics and can engage you for hours, says Acharya. They are also, according to Acharya, inspirational and informative. “Except when he tweets in Portuguese and I can’t understand a thing,” he jokes. “You are free to choose. Make your decisions with courage, detachment, and a touch of madness” – This is the kind of inspiration from Coelho that Acharya likes to start his day with. 

But his online addiction is slowly costing him his reputation. At meetings, his superiors have often chided him for lack of attention and constantly fiddling with his phone. While earlier he used to be called in to counsel students, he can sense that now other teachers are being preferred instead. He admits that he has a habit of just turning on his phone, flipping through the multiple home screens and checking notifications, before turning it off every few minutes or so. “I feel like something is missing when I don’t have my phone with me and carry it around all the time, even when I’m at home,” he confesses.

While internet has revolutionized the way we communicate and stay informed, it has also brought with it numerous pitfalls. It has made us talk less while chatting more, feel less while clicking at all the right emojis in response to all kinds of statues and posts, and let virtual lives takeover our real ones. A wife who didn’t wish to disclose her name talked about how her husband barely speaks to her for five minutes when he gets back from work but is the most social person on their extended family group on WhatsApp. 

Many students this scribe spoke to said that their mothers often texted them asking them to come have dinner or sent them ‘Good morning’ and ‘I love you’ stickers on Viber before they left for school in the morning. Many people also admitted to being online on their phones while in theaters, while driving, during religious services, business meetings, and even in the shower. 49 of the 60 people randomly questioned also said that they don’t turn off the internet connection on their phones when they go to bed. 

Online addiction is a growing social issue that is being debated worldwide. Several studies have shown that Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) ruins lives by causing neurological complications, psychological disturbances, and social problems. Many researchers have noted that a variety of mental disorders co-occur with IAD. According to several studies, smartphones and internet can be addictive because their use, just like drugs and alcohol, triggers the release of the brain chemical dopamine and alter mood. And just like using drugs and alcohol, you can rapidly build up tolerance so that it takes more time with your gadgets to derive the same pleasure.

Akanchha Karki, counseling psychologist, says that in a culture where mental health issues have been a taboo of sorts for so long, talking about internet addiction is like speaking Chinese to people. But it’s become a worrisome thing of late, at least in urban areas of Nepal, because for many people, especially youngsters, it seems like there is no life without smartphones and internet. “I teach at a school too and all the kids seem to talk about are phones and social media,” says Karki, adding that the more people are hooked onto social media, the more their real life starts to seem boring and that leads to an unbreakable loop of internet addiction. 

A 2014 study found a correlation between high social media usage, and depression and anxiety. Users, especially youngsters, tend to compare themselves with their peers on social media and this fuels feelings of loneliness and depression. Another study found that excessive smartphone use can disrupt sleep and have a serious impact on mental health besides affecting memory and your ability to think clearly.

Oblivious to these dangers, Nirmal Silwal, 24, promoter for the phone company Gionee, says that he spends 50-60% of his waking hours online. This, he argues, is because most of his work is done online. But besides work, he admits that he spends a lot of time on YouTube, Facebook, Viber, and WeChat with Viber ruling his early morning hours. “But almost all of my work has to be done online so internet and smartphones are crucial for my existence,” he insists. 

Gopal Raut, branch manager at the Internet Service Provider World Link, Jawalakhel, informs us that World Link has been in operation for 21 years and in 20 years, it had amassed 35,000 subscribers. “In the last year though, that number increased to 78,000 active subscribers,” says Raut adding that many homes today, not just offices, even have multiple internet connections as every family member needs fast internet across several devices. 

“Now even families in rural areas need internet. On a daily basis, we do 150 service installations outside the valley now while just a few years back we used to get requests for four or five at the most,” he explains. According to Psychologist Karki, a lot has changed in the last 10 years in the world of internet and the rest of the ‘physical’ world hasn’t really caught up which is why the virtual world has taken over the real one in every urban household at least. “Since internet and its usage will only continue to grow maybe it’s time we at least become aware of internet addiction and its repercussions,” she concludes.

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