Reality morphs into ‘second life’ with studies claiming that an average Internet user spends a staggering two hours in cyberspace every day. And distraction gets costlier as society adjusts more and more to ubiquitous networking.
Researchers have increasingly begun to link time spent online to conditions such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety. Although controversially not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-V), Internet Addiction, or more formally, Internet Use Disorder (IUD). is increasingly worrying mental health experts.
Compared to the likes of gambling, drug abuse or alcoholism, IUD involves preoccupation with the usage of the substance, loss of other interests and severe withdrawal-like symptoms when the object of dependence is not available. “It is really hard for other people to understand what it is like. They think it is funny, but being addicted to something online, like pornography or gaming or social media, is very much like being addicted to drugs,” says *Jahangir, whose addiction cost him his education. He flunked out of university as he would spend all his time online. “You cannot stop yourself from doing it and it invariably ends up occupying the rest of your life too. It is like an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder of sorts, except people don’t take you that seriously.”
A hypothetical situation?
Neurochemically, IUD mimics all other addictions: it can manifest as changes in brain structure. According to a study published in the open access portal Plos One, the disorder shows up as reduction in volume of certain areas of the brain and its white matter — the part that connects brain cells. Certain people have a psychological or physiological predisposition to the addiction, and here is where the links to depression, ADHD and anxiety come in.
In the journal Psychopathology, leading psychologist Catriona Morrison writes, “Over-engaging in websites that serve to replace normal social function might be linked to psychological disorders like depression and addiction”. A team of researchers at Leeds University found that Internet addicts were more likely to be depressed than non-addicted users. The study also discovered that addicts spent proportionately more time browsing sexually gratifying websites and online communities.
In a recent survey by the non-profit Anxiety UK, a similar pattern was found linking anxiety to the heavy usage of social media. Nearly two-thirds of respondents had difficulty sleeping after using social media, and nearly half felt “worried or uncomfortable” when separated from Facebook and email. Although the correlation between anxiety and social media usage is firmly established, it is unclear whether anxious people gravitate towards social media or whether social media makes people anxious. Researchers hypothesise instead what may be a feedback loop: anxious people adopting social media, which makes them more anxious by feeding their insecurities.
According to Lady Greenfield, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, social network sites risk infantalising the mind: it is marked by short attention spans, inability to empathise and a shaken sense of identity. This is due to the acclimatisation of the brain to rapid-fire bursts of information at a rate unprecedented at any time during the span of human civilisation.
While looked upon skeptically in many parts of the world, Internet addiction is seen as a very serious problem in many countries. In China, for example, there are Internet addiction treatment centres where parents bring their children to be treated. In one military-run centre in the outskirts of Beijing, the young patients typically live for three months in guarded cells with regular therapy and a strict dietary and physical regimen. The centre claims to have treated over 3,000 patients since 2004.
It must be noted that it is only when a person becomes dependent on the Internet to the point that their normal lives are disrupted that it truly becomes a disorder. Even then, milder therapies may work just fine in managing the problem. Jahangir sought help from the university psychologist for his addiction. “It was not an overnight change, but I benefited a great deal. I had to undergo a behavioural change designed to educate me in using self control,” he says. Even a recent Dutch study has found that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) might be effective in reducing dependence on the Internet. It encourages people to replace behaviour patterns that may be harmful or destructive with constructive ones. “After more than a year of therapy, I was able to go back to university to complete my degree.”
Since IUD has no FDA-approved diagnosis or treatment yet, psychiatrists refrain from commenting on the subject. A counselor at a university, adds however, “The number of students with Internet-related issues is bothersome. More and more people are coming forward and there needs to be more research to help these patients.” Online communities dedicated to the problem have reported success with consciously limiting Internet usage to less than an hour a day. Making the effort to spend time in face-to-face interaction and taking up a physical hobby are noted as two of the best ways to avoid Internet addiction.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
Omar Hayat is a freelance writer who contributes to local publications.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 27th, 2014.
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