Use + Remix

As smartphones proliferate and young people spend more time online, their excessive use is creating a growing number of addicts

Like prison bars, the temptations that stare out of smartphones and laptops imprison many. : Gerd Altmann/Pixabay CC0 Like prison bars, the temptations that stare out of smartphones and laptops imprison many. : Gerd Altmann/Pixabay CC0

As smartphones proliferate and young people spend more time online, their excessive use is creating a growing number of addicts

Smartphones have proliferated, and internet use has exploded in recent years across India. More than half the country — 52 percent, or 759 million people — were active internet users in 2022. The majority of these were young people.

A 2019  study reported that two-thirds of internet users in India were aged 12-29. In 2022, a survey revealed almost all school-going adolescents (99.59 percent) use such technologies in one way or another.

The same study reported that nine percent of the adolescents surveyed reported phone addiction. Approximately 2.55 percent struggled with gaming addiction. Among college students, the proportion affected is higher. A systematic review and meta-analysis of 50 studies across 19 Indian states estimated that 19.9 percent of college students are addicted to the internet. A further  20-40 percent are at risk of internet addiction.

Research has found a significant association between internet addiction, stress, and depression, which can contribute to suicidal ideation and behaviours.

Reports suggest a link between online gaming addiction, especially PUBG, and suicide is on the rise among adolescents.

Online gaming has been associated with suicide in many cases when there is financial debt and loss due to betting. It is reported that there were 40 suicides in the last three years in Tamil Nadu due to online gaming, mainly rummy, due to heavy losses. Similar reports have come from  Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

The constant barrage of notifications and information overload can also severely impact attention spans.

A 2019 study found that while mild internet use augments cognitive functions such as attention, excessive use reduces it. This is especially worrisome for students who may find it hard to concentrate on their studies.

There are also physical problems.

A study conducted on school-going children between the ages of 11-17 found that 18 percent of them reported digital eye strain, characterised by dryness, irritation, and blurred vision. Additionally, the blue light emitted by screens can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insomnia and other sleep-related issues.

Lack of exercise 

Excessive time spent on digital devices often means less physical activity. The resulting sedentary lifestyle is contributing to increasing obesity and related health issues among Indian youth.

With many young people preferring virtual interactions to face-to-face conversations, their interpersonal skills are weakened. This can adversely impact their real-world relationships and lead to social isolation.

Their temperament, too, is affected.

A recent study found that adolescents who were addicted to technology, especially gaming, showed low persistence, high novelty-seeking and had conduct issues. They also tended to feel sad.

Families with adolescents addicted to the internet reported more difficulties with managing their behaviour, solving problems when they arose, and communicating with them.

Internet use is only going to increase by the year. The number of active users in India is projected to rise to 900 million next year. Surveys indicate that many young people now spend between four and six hours daily on their devices. The COVID-19 pandemic increased this usage when online learning became prevalent.

Indian users spend an average of 194 minutes a day on social media, platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, and online gaming. Instagram is the most popular social media platform for young people, followed by YouTube. Young people spend an average of 2.4 hours per day on social media alone.

What makes an internet addict

The constant urge to check notifications, scroll through feeds, and play mobile games, contribute to the making of an internet addict.

Internet use may begin as a coping response to stress, loneliness, or boredom. However, online activities, when used excessively to cope with the current negative mood state, lead to less use of alternate healthy coping behaviours such as talking to others or engaging in social or physical activity/sports.

Addressing this issue involves raising awareness, providing education and family support, setting boundaries, and fostering healthy alternatives to screen time. Medical help is also available.

Help is at hand

India’s first tech-addiction treatment centre, Services for the Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT) Clinic, has treated 611 young people for online gaming and gambling, social media addiction, and pornography addiction, among other mental health issues, since it opened in 2014.

The treatment follows a combination of motivation enhancement techniques, cognitive behaviour therapy, and family and parental counselling. SHUT Clinic has also launched a national-level digital detox helpline that operates twice a week as an outreach program for India to help the increasing number of technology addicts.

Additionally, there are services at the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune; Institute of Neurosciences, Kolkata; The All India Institute of Medical Sciences Behavioural Addictions Clinic, Department of Psychiatry, New Delhi; The All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Kalyani; Central Institute of Psychiatry, Ranchi and E-Mochan clinic at Government Mental Health Centre, Kozhikode.

The rise of technology addiction is a complex challenge that requires a concerted effort from families, educators, mental health professionals, technology companies, and the government.

Following China’s lead

The Indian government has begun to take steps to address it.

Efforts include public awareness campaigns, regulatory measures, and educational initiatives aimed at promoting healthy digital habits with initiatives such as Digital Wellness Guidelines, Cyber Swachhta Kendras (meaning cyber cleanliness centres), and the Information and Communication Technology curriculum by the National Council of Educational Research and Training.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has also indicated the government would follow China’s lead and introduce time and spending limits for online gaming and establish self-regulatory bodies for age restriction and data privacy. Last year, the Cyberspace Administration of China released draft regulations that would restrict children aged 8-15 to a maximum of one hour of internet use per day.

China has been regulating online gaming since 2007, with debatable results. Its proposed shutdown policy has been heavily criticised for taking away users’ freedom of choice, with no focus on addressing the underlying mental health issues.

In India, state governments such as  Karnataka have introduced digital detox clinics for the management of technology addiction. The Kerala state government is introducing Digital De-addiction centres (D-DAD) and digital de-addiction programs for students addicted to online gaming and pornography.

The advent of AI, however, threatens to make the problem worse by creating irresistibly engaging and personalised content that keeps users glued to their screens.

Social media algorithms and streaming services tailor recommendations to individual preferences, leading to endless scrolling and binge-watching.  AI-driven games and apps use reward systems and notifications to keep users hooked, disrupting daily routines and harming mental health.

This constant digital engagement heightens social isolation and makes breaking free from screens even harder.

Many users may need help to fight this addiction.

A combination of new laws and policies along with digital detox programs designed by mental health professionals can help.

Ashwini Tadpatrikar is a PhD scholar in the Department of Clinical Psychology, Services for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT Clinic), National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru

Manoj Kumar Sharma is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology, Services for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT Clinic), National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru

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Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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