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BW Businessworld

Blaming The Bottle

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 first heard about the concept of internet addiction way back in the 1990s. We hadn’t seen anything yet, but some reports claimed that people were so hooked they’d get rashes if they went offline. Oh give me a break.

Decades later the addiction transferred to smartphones and from there to social media, apparently the great detriment of the human race.

Sure, there are people who live on their smartphones and other gadgets and hate to be without them. I’m one of them. But when is this addiction and when does it cause distress to the point of needing treatment is another matter. Am I addicted when I’m reading the news online? Or when I’m wrapped up in a book on the Kindle? Or when I’m Skyping with my mom?

I’m not sure how  NIMHANS (The National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore) would define it because they’ve started a whole technology de-addiction clinic, according to news reports.

How do you get addicted to something that has become an intrinsic aspect of life? And how do you treat it when the sufferer is hardly suffering and doesn’t want any help? Apparently the parents of many children who refuse to study and want to just live on Facebook and chat with their friends are queuing up to visit this clinic. But I’ll bet the children don’t think they should be visiting a mental health institution for a behaviour which comes naturally to them and which they understand better than their parents. In fact, it’s for achievements in technology that we then applaud those children, especially when they join the world’s biggest tech companies.

So using technology for long hours is a disease? And for how many hours? Two a day, four, ten?

I quizzed two psychiatrist friends on whether technology addiction needed to be classified as a disorder. One of them promptly talked of how there was at one time, great debate over whether rain gambling should be outlawed. It would take all of five minutes to find something else to bet and game over. But yes, he said, although it didn’t seem like say, substance abuse and addiction, it was often still behavioural addiction and a person could need help if it was disruptive and causing distress. Since managing addictions requires different expertise from mental health professionals, a separate clinic could make sense.

And so I spoke to a technology addict who really was in distress. Spending every waking moment connected, she sometimes half awakens from sleep to do something on her phone. She couldn’t bear to stay too long  in the shower for fear of missing out on something online. The whole thing made her feel depressed and anxious. But then on asking I discovered that she indeed had a history of depression in the family and had been treated for it herself. Very aware of her genetic vulnerability to depression, she still says that the only valid diagnosis here was technology addiction.

The other psychiatrist I spoke to says she had hordes of parents coming to see her about children who don’t study because they spend too much time on Facebook. She said confiscating gadgets and keeping them away from being online never works because that is attacking the wrong problem. It’s like blaming the bottle for being addicted to drink. She was emphatic in her belief that we didn’t yet know enough about technology and social media and its impact on human behaviour to begin to label disorders we think stem from it.

But all too often we hear about how Facebook is disconnecting not connecting us and how messaging is driving a wedge straight into family relationships. No one held a gun to our heads to press Like without actually saying something to a friend. Take away the messengers and you still won’t find teenagers willingly spending hours chatting with family members. They’ll take off and find something else to do because teenagers have always liked their own space.
It’s a new world. And we created it. 

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 11-08-2014)