Smartphone addiction: Here's how to identify and the need for correction

A decade ago, no one may have thought we would ever need technology detox centers, but the existence of National Institute of Mental Health & Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) in Bengaluru explains a lot about the start of a new era of addictions.

A decade ago, no one may have thought we would ever need technology detox centres. But the existence of National Institute of Mental Health & Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) in Bengaluru explains a lot about the start of a new era of addictions.

The technological advancements over the years have made our lives very comfortable, and keeping in touch with friends and family easy. Just like most other things in life, it also comes with a fair share of cons. Afterall, too much of something isn't good, be it alcohol, smoking or even technology. But don't we need our gadgets every day? How could we know if we're addicted? Besides, how do we draw the much needed fine line between conscious usage and addiction?

We visited NIMHANS and met Dr Manoj Sharma, a technology detox expert who explains it all.

You know you are addicted when...

To answer the most basic question whether technology is harmful, the answer is partly yes and no. Dr. Sharma says it is just like any other aspect of your life that needs to be used in moderation. Anything in excess could have a negative impact on life. While you can't throw away your gadgets, you will know you are addicted to your smartphone, social media, gaming or an app when...

Delay at work in hand
As long as a particular technology is like a purposeful activity, which means you use it and once your purpose is served, move to other tasks without any carry over effect, you aren't addicted to it. One shouldn't feel the need to carry on with the technology, even when they have other things at hand.

Lifestyle changes
Addiction is when it brings changes in your lifestyle, slowly yet steadily. Dr. Sharma explains that one may feel like delaying their sleep because they want to spend time on social media and slowly lead to a permanent change of sleeping time. "If they are losing out on their food habits. Some avoid breakfast, lunch, dinner and even prefer fast food so that their intense gaming session isn't disturbed,” he said.

Lack of interaction
One will also find changes in terms of interaction with others. "Like 10 to 12 hours of video game users tend to lose out interaction with parents, friends and don't prefer leaving their room or the couch. They lose interest in outdoor activities," he explains further.

Nomophobia and digital amnesia
Dr. Sharma also points out some psychological problems. Now, it is quite normal to feel slightly worried if you ahve forgotten your phone at home and missed out on calls and messages. However, he also talks about nomophobia which means one gets very anxious if the phone isn't around. Another psychological problem is digital amnesia, which means if your memory card has gone corrupt or you've lost all contacts and details, you feel you've lost touch with the world. In a nutshell, not having access to a particular technology could make such people aggressive, irritable, leads to oral and physical fights and other communication issues.

What goes on in your brain and body - 4Cs approach
Dr. Sharma says that psychologically, structure-wise, we are yet to come out with a finding. However, it is easy to view the whole process with a 4Cs approach.

The mind, brain always desires to access online content or reach out to the phone or stay glued to the screen with a game controller.

Due to craving, people lose control. It is almost like overeating wherein our stomachs are full, but we can go on eating mindlessly. "If you are a video game user you might have thought that ok will play only for one hour or half an hour, but that one hour doesn’t end there it go on for 3-4 hours that becomes lose of control. This is psychic manifestation and become psychological disorder," he said.

Surfing the web, staying glued to smartphones or social media sites becomes a compulsive habit. So, though, there are other important chores at hand, one will keep delaying them. Procrastination or compulsion can easily turn into a habit.

The consequences of all this become evidently soon. Physical consequences such as dyspepsia, posture problems, frequent headaches and so on. Texting neck is seen quite frequently and pain in hand, wrist and sometimes even fingers, Dr Sharma adds. Giving us a real life example, Subhash Joshi a young patient would send around 300 - 400 texts per day. He soon developed pain on fingertips. Another problem is fatigue due to sitting in the same posture for hours, especially those addicted to video games. "Teenagers, because of their energy level, feel it’s not affecting them. But we are educating them about the effects that will be seen in long term, especially posture problems," he further explains.
The 4 Cs approach is a psychological manifestation of these addictions. The brain has somewhere learned the addictive use of technology and if you take it away, people addicted to it start feeling restless and uneasy, he points out.

Dr Sharma tells us that there have been many case reports published by NIMHANS, and in the long run, with evidence only, they can come to a consensus whether it is an illness or just a coping behaviour.

Draw the fine line between usage and addiction
Recently while travelling back home from a vacation, I came across a couple with a talkative 4-5 year old. It seemed like a usual family, until the dad told the son to fidget with his own smartphone (a large 5-incher) and not their phones. On asking, he said, "He has been complaining we both have phones, and he doesn't. So, we gave him a phone." On discussing this with Dr Sharma, he explained that sometimes handing over a technology to kids is a method of engaging them in some task, but whenever you handover any technology to the kid, you should counsel them on how much time they can use it. It should be for a fixed duration of time. So promote control and enjoyable use from the beginning, from the time you first handover the technology, he explained.

He further went on to tell us about a case where both father and son were addicted to technology. "The father was a IT professional so he was always busy on the laptop and instead of communicating with his son he used to give him his mobile every time he was disturbed by the child. It automatically became a habit and the child started losing interest in other activities and preferred the phone," he explained.

In today's age, we cannot throw away our gadgets or keep children away from video games. However, it is important to teach them a controlled way of usage, wherein they equally engage in other activities. And the same rule applies to adults. Interestingly, there is no usage time rule that decides what is healthy. For instance, not more than 30 minutes of video gaming everyday is considered to be healthy. However, if you are playing a particular game once in a while, 30 minutes may not be enough. Similarly, one can access social media as and when required, and then move on with the day-to-day work, have enough time to engage with others, communicate face to face, and complete your daily tasks. It is important to use technology diligently.

NIMHANS technology detoxification
NIMHANS, started in May 2014, attends to roughly 2 -3 cases during weekends. The number is limited to three because the process involves spending significant time with each patient. The treatment is mostly initiated by parents, who take an appointment for a child. Children are usually reluctant and believe they don't need help. So, initially, individual sessions are conducted with parents and children.

He points out that in majority of the cases, children/teenagers complain about psychological or environmental issues such as loneliness, boredom, free time at hand, no playgrounds, no friends and so on. So, depending upon factors responsible for the addictiveness, the treatment begins. There are assessments to gauge the addiction level. There are standard scales using which the responses to questionnaires are scored. "We score them and tell them that this is your level of addiction on standard tools along with dysfunctional part. Once we educate them the adolescent tool recognise that this is a issue with them, the technology use is defiantly affecting them," he added.

In the past one and half year of initiation, video game users are more predominantly seen. Video game is followed by Internet browsing and cases of pornography addiction. Dr Sharma also points out cases of online shopping addiction among women, and addiction to mobile, porn and online gambling among men.

In one of the cases, Rahul Mehta, a video game addict who would spend the whole day glued to the screen without any interaction, had to go beyond usual sessions. He spent three weeks at NIMHANS. He showed immense progress and has been regular to college with good eating habits and structured sleep. However, Dr Sharma explains that sometimes career focussed Indian parents also need counselling as some children aim to make a career in video gaming. However, the key is to know where to draw the line.

He further explains how the responsible factors are picked and worked upon first. This also helps form a rapport with the patient. The programs intend at bringing minor changes such as reducing the time spent on Internet gradually, eating proper meals, focussing on academics/work, ensuring at least two meals a day with family, and so on. It’s a slow lifestyle changing process and not an abrupt forceful method. If someone spends a lot of time on Internet, they are asked to set aside 30 mins for stretching and other quick exercises that will take off attention for 2-3 mins. It is important that one ensures they don't fall in the 4Cs zone and use technology diligently without affecting their lives. Sessions at NIMHANS are designed case by case and aim at a healthy way of using technology. Each session at NIMHANS is affordably priced at Rs 120 per session.

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