Humans invest in technology as it lessens human effort and saves precious time. The technological advancements have made it possible to access almost anything just through a click or sense of touch. Machines are becoming smarter and people are becoming dependent on them. The technological advancements and easy accessibility are coming at a cost; a cost that most of us are not even aware of paying. Internet addiction is a reality! It is as real as alcohol addiction or drug addiction.  

What is Phone/Internet Addiction?

All of us are aware of addictive substances like alcohol, cigarette and other drugs. In addition to these, there are certain behavioural addictions as well and phone addiction is one type of it. Although the DSM and ICD (classificatory systems of Mental Illness) do not classify it as a disorder yet, the way things are shaping up it will soon be included as extensive research is being done in this area. Just like alcohol or nicotine, excessive use of mobile phones (internet) also leads to excessive release of Dopamine which is the primary neurochemical responsible for feelings of pleasure. Every notification, like or comment on your post acts as a reward, which reinforces the action of posting something or being more active online. When this is repeated again and again, it slowly starts following the addiction pathway as factors like Preoccupation, Craving, Increased tolerance, and Inability to cut down set to creep in. Variable reinforcement makes this pattern more resistant to extinction. 

Is it masking a mental health disorder?

When a person seems unhealthily focused on phone use (especially online games), to the point of social isolation, the behaviour may be, rather than addiction, a product of other mental health problems. Studies indicate social anxiety, ADHD, learning difficulty, and even depression to be closely linked in cases with excessive phone use. Initially it was thought that only children are affected by this problem, but as we look around us we realize that even adults are hooked on to their phones for varied reasons.  

Effects of phone/internet addiction

The effects are manifested in both physical and emotional symptoms, in addition to interpersonal problems. Some of the emotional symptoms are – irritability, impatience, impaired sense of time, inability to keep a schedule, anxiety, etc. Some of the physical symptoms are – backache, headache, disturbed sleep, weight gain or loss, blurred vision, cervical pains, etc. As people are spending more and more time in the virtual world, their bonds with real people are getting severed. Virtual stories and constant texting are slowly but surely squeezing out the fun and essence of face-to-face conversations. At present, it feels imperative to disconnect (no internet) to reconnect with our real lives! 

Self-help Strategies

  1. Recognise the triggers that make you reach for your phone. It could be boredom, loneliness, work or even just the thought of missing out on something. Identify them, and find healthier and more efficient ways of handling them.
  2. Look for in-person social interactions, not just virtual relations. Humans are social beings and isolation or even virtual relations are not healthy for us. 
  3. Develop healthy coping mechanisms and share your feelings, concerns and experiences with your loved ones. Build a strong social support system around you.
  4. Set goals for when you can use your phone; schedule specific times of the day for using your phone.
  5. While having meals, keep the phone away from yourself and be mindful of what and how much you are eating. Enjoy your food and chew it properly.
  6. Mute the notifications so that it does not distract you while you are working and it also reduces the temptation to check it immediately. 
  7. Leave the phone/tablet out of your bedroom when you retire for the day and go to sleep. The blue light emitted by the screens can disrupt your sleep cycle. 
  8. As a parent, if you want your child or teenager to reduce their time on the phone, you need to model the same behaviour. Stick to the limits and boundaries you set. Focus more on spending quality time together. 
  9. There are certain apps that help you monitor your phone use on a daily basis, which eventually encourage you to reduce the screen time or to use it more judiciously.
  10. Disconnect (from phone/internet) to reconnect with yourself, family, friends and nature!

Addiction Therapy

If you are unable to bring about some of these changes or are just not able to give up on your phone time, you must seek professional help as phone/internet addiction is treatable. Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy provides step-by-step ways to stop compulsive behaviours and change your perceptions about your use of phone/internet. Therapy can also help you learn healthier ways of coping with uncomfortable emotions—such as stress, anxiety, or depression—that may be fuelling your phone/internet use. SHUT (Service for Healthy Use of Technology) Clinic is an internet de-addiction centre started by NIMHANS, Bangalore to help people replace excessive technology usage with healthy activities. More such setups are coming up to handle this new age endemic.