Health experts flag new epidemic, all because of internet addiction

Doctors stress that one form of internet addiction usually begets another, causing grave behavioural issues. But there are ways to combat it.

Abhishek Pratap, a 19-year-old engineering student, felt an adrenaline rush every time he won a bet online. And every loss would prompt him to bet again. Six months into the game, he hadn’t won or lost a significant sum of money. And relished the experience.

This changed when he decided to use his father’s credit card to wager a few lakhs. That’s when his luck ran out, as he ended up losing the bet. To conceal the transaction from his parents, Pratap deleted the bank’s notification message regarding the transaction.

But he could not control his craving to bet again. The following day, he took the drastic step of selling his MacBook Air, a birthday gift from his father, in order to carry on online betting.

Pratap’s parents finally got him to a doctor who diagnosed him with an addiction to online gambling.

Read more: Editorial: Let’s face it, the virus has affected our minds and mental health too

Pratap is not the only one addicted to various websites on his phone. Mental health experts have categorised this obsessive and excessive internet use as ‘internet addiction’. “Just look around and you will see a majority of people glued to their phones — at home, in office, or on public transport, hooked to online gaming, gambling, binge-watching crime-thrillers, and surfing pornography websites” says Girish Kurra, founder, Umeed Deaddiction and Rehabilitation Centre in  Delhi.

“We have observed a significant surge in individuals of all age groups seeking our deaddiction services, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic,”added Kurra. 

Representative image of internet addiction
Binge-watching comes with many emotional consequences. For example, binge-watching a crime series can instill a persistent sense of fear, leading to heightened vigilance, and fostering feelings of mistrust of others, anxiety and insecurity, even within the confines of one’s own home. Pic courtesy: Gunjan Sharma

With India soon going to top the list of countries with the maximum number of smartphone users, mental health experts foresee an impending epidemic of psychological and behavioural challenges. Not succumbing to smartphone addiction is not easy in this digital age. Especially when the smartphone is capable of catering to your every need and greed — morphing from a virtual department store to an expansive shopping mall, a captivating entertainer, and even an erudite educator.

“The smartphone seduces you with an array of services conveniently delivered to your doorstep,” asserts Dr Rohit Garg, a senior consultant psychiatrist at Mind Vriksha, New Delhi.

Studies paint a grim picture

According to Nielsen’s India Internet Report 2023, the country boasts a staggering 700 million internet users, with a remarkable 90% of them engaging online daily. Delving deeper, a report from the Indian Journal of Psychiatry discloses that an average individual spends roughly four hours per week on social media.

In contrast, those grappling with addiction dedicate a staggering 38.5 hours weekly to these platforms. 

Similarly, a recent report published by LocalCircles, a community social media platform, says as many as 40% of Indian parents have admitted that their children between 9 and 17 years are addicted to videos, gaming and social media.

Easy availability of smartphones coupled with high-speed Internet availabiity anytime, anywhere has only compounded the problem, say experts.  

Social media platform frequently show only the positive sides of people’s lives, creating a pervasive sense of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) among people,” says Dr Deepak Raheja, a noted psychiatrist and director, Hope Care India. “Besides, social media offers instant gratification via likes, comments and shares, triggering the release of dopamine in the brain, triggering a  desire for extra involvement and creating a cycle of addiction.

“Then there are people who use social media as an avenue to escape from demanding situations or loneliness. Digital connections made online may temporarily relieve emotional strain, but inadvertently lead to a dependence on social media as a coping mechanism.” 

Read more: Loneliness: An urban epidemic that carries the same risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day!

Ranjit Upadhyay, 25, a mechanical engineer, stopped going to his office a few months back. Worried, his parents took him to a psychiatrist, who said he was sleep deprived. Further questioning revealed that he had secluded himself from all family and friends on the pretext of handling a very high-stakes office project.

However, the reality was different.  

It was only when an office colleague visited Upadhyay’s home to inquire about his well-being that Upadhyay’s parents learned he had cut off all communication for several months, not responding to emails, messages, and phone calls from his colleagues. 

Ranjit’s online usage statistics were alarming. He logged an average phone usage of approximately 8.15 hours during his waking hours, punctuated by a staggering 313 instances of picking up his phone throughout the day — once every two minutes. 

During his sessions with the doctor, Ranjit admitted his proclivity for binge-watching crime thrillers. With each captivating series he stumbled upon, he remained tethered to his phone until its conclusion. Once he had devoured one series, his quest for another commenced immediately, traversing through multiple OTT platforms to which he was a subscriber. 

Binge-watching comes with many emotional consequences. For example, binge-watching a crime series can instill a persistent sense of fear, leading to heightened vigilance, and fostering feelings of mistrust of others, anxiety and insecurity, even within the confines of one’s own home.

Representative image of internet addiction
The average internet user spends roughly four hours per week on social media. In contrast, those grappling with addiction dedicate a staggering 38.5 hours weekly to these platforms. Pic courtesy: Gunjan Sharma

In a strikingly different tale, Dr Garg recounts the case of a 28-year-old married man, who was irrevocably entangled in the web of dating platforms. During the course of counseling, it emerged that the man was concurrently having conversations with 88 women.

“He would anxiously wait for the reply every time he sent them a message,” says Dr Garg. “He was constantly proposing that they meet. A single ‘no’ in response would make him lose his temper. Such was his obsession with the online partners that he had distanced himself from his spouse”.

Look out for this kind of behaviour

According to Dr Garg, anger and anxiety are the most conspicuous symptoms of internet addiction. A harrowing incident from the previous year serves as a poignant example: A 16-year-old boy fatally shot his mother when she tried to stop him from playing PUBG on his phone. The boy utilized his army officer father’s licensed firearm.

“I frequently advise family members of my patients to be vigilant for shifts in behaviour,” adds Dr Garg. “If their children are hooked to their phone or laptops and are getting irritable when interrupted, this is a clear sign of internet addiction”. 

Doctors stress that one form of internet addiction frequently begets another. Consider individuals who indulge in binge-watching. This behaviour often spills into binge-eating, enhancing the overall ‘experience. Concurrently, excessive screen time correlates with heightened alcohol and tobacco consumption, often at the expense of proper sleep.

This concatenation of habits ushers in a host of health issues, including obesity, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, and in severe instances, the progression towards alcohol and tobacco addiction. In some severe cases, excessive exposure to screen light can even trigger excessive electrical activity within the brain, leading to epileptic episodes.

Symptoms and side-effects

Individuals grappling with anxiety, depression, other forms of addiction or other mood disorders, as well as those experiencing loneliness due to limited social interactions or support, are particularly susceptible to internet addiction.

The initial help to them often comes from people living around them. If you notice a family member, friend, or colleague indulging in online activities to the point of losing track of time and neglecting their responsibilities, it is crucial to sound the alarm.

Much like in any other form of addiction, internet addicts also exhibit withdrawal symptoms, including restlessness, anxiety, anger and irritability. Unlike in drug addictions, where one can ask the addict to stay off from the substance in question, the necessity of smartphones makes it unfeasible to instruct a patient to cease usage altogether. Consequently, the biggest challenge is to help them learn how to use it in moderation.  

In fact, self-assessment, acceptance and controlled abstention are crucial to the treatment. “Previously, parents might have withheld access to these devices, but the transition to online education made smartphones with internet access indispensable for continuing their studies,” says Kurra. “So, the concept of moderation applies even to online knowledge consumption”.  

Different types of digital addition

Cybersex Addiction: This involves the compulsive use of Internet pornography sites. 

Cyber-relationship Addiction: This addiction revolves around virtual relationships, where individuals become obsessed with their online acquaintances, often prioritizing these connections over real-life relationships. 

Net Compulsions: This pertains to the irresistible urge to engage in activities like online gaming or participating in online auctions and bidding, which can lead to detrimental financial consequences in real life. 

Information Overload: This occurs when individuals engage in obsessive web surfing or database browsing, overwhelming themselves with an excessive influx of information.

Computer Addiction: This entails an obsession with activities such as computer programming or gaming, resulting in excessive time spent on these activities to the detriment of other aspects of life. 

Ways to reduce internet addiction  

1. Establish Boundaries: Set timings for checking social media and stick to these timings.  

2. Embrace Digital Detox: Take regular breaks from your smartphones and laptop. You can do it for a day, or on weekends to begin with. This will help you build and nurture your offline connections.  

3. Engage in physical activities: Sports, social gatherings, hobby classes, and other activities help lessen reliance on digital interactions. 

4. Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness techniques can assist in spotting and managing addictive tendencies and help prevent dependency on your gadgets. 

5. Seek Support: If you feel that you are a compulsive user of your phone and end up spending more time than you have allocated, seek medical help. Talk to your friends and family or an expert counsellor. 

6. Leverage Technology: There are apps that can track your screen time, set utilisation limits and offer reminders to prevent excessive usage.

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