Ask anyone if they are addicted to their smartphone or laptop and the answer will be a resounding no. But the fact is virtual networking has taken over most lives and made social networking among the top three addictions affecting urban youth, besides smoking and drinking.
So worried are some parents with this dependence on social networking, online gaming and texting that they are dragging reluctant teens to psychologists. Harsh Mehra (name changed), 15, became a different person after his parents gave him Internet access. “His grades fell, he gave up playing tennis, started to gain weight and developed body image issues. He also showed signs of aggression if he was denied online time, even when he was spending almost a third of the day online,” says Dr Sameer Malhotra, senior psychiatrist, Fortis group of Hospitals. Just as with hard drugs and nicotine, networking activates certain reward pathways in the brain, releasing the neuro-chemical dopamine, which is linked with pleasure and aggression. This leads to addictive Net use. High-speed Internet on multiple platforms like phones and tablet computers is making it easier to stay connected virtually. People can now update their Facebook status, tweet and send BBMs 24X7. There’s even an application on the iPhone which uses the camera to show the user where they are walking so they can type without ever having to look up from their screens. The availability of these features on most phones has become a serious problem in schools, says Binu Channan, a middle-school teacher at Delhi Public School, RK Puram.
“Children are constantly commenting on each other on Facebook. There have even been fights in the school over comments on someone’s profile.” However, schools are unable to take any legal action. “All we can do is guide and advise them to not bring phones and such problems to the school. We can’t control what they do after school hours. For that, we raise the issue with the parents,” she says.
Malhotra cites the case of a 16-year-old patient who spent excessive time online that real interactions made him anxious. He began skipping school and avoiding personal interactions and became paranoid and aggressive.
Intense counselling and psychotherapy got them on track, which included setting limits on Internet use and motivating them to pursue their interests. Avoiding aggressive computer content and following a regular sleep schedule were other remedies that helped improve the condition of the two boys. Dr Rajesh Sagar, additional professor, department of psychiatry at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, says that the responsibility to check this growing addiction falls on parents. “They have to understand that this is a problem.
“Most times it goes unnoticed. They should discuss the child’s habits with teachers and consult a psychiatrist or psychologist if they cannot handle it themselves,” he says.
Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders — the standard criterion for classification of mental disorders. Nor does it find a place in the International Classification of Diseases published by the World Health Organisation. Dr Sagar says that though IAD is not a classified disorder, it’s linked with impulse control disorders like pathological gambling. He believes IAD should be included in the revised version of the DSM likely to be published in 2013. Net addiction was first put forward as a disorder in 1996 by Dr Kimberly Young, director of the Centre for Internet Addiction Recovery. Based on behaviour exhibited by net users which is similar to forms of addiction, she concluded that problematic net overuse can interfere with ‘normal functioning’.
She devised the Internet Addiction Diagnostic Questionnaire (IADQ), which determines a user’s addictive tendencies or not. Ironically, this test for Internet addiction is available on the Net.