Are you at risk of digital addiction? The short answer is, yes

There’s a reason you can’t ignore your smartphone. New studies show that the pings are tapping into ancient neural impulses that once alerted humans to a likely predator attack.
Updated on Apr 15, 2018 07:36 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | By

Overuse of smartphones is an addiction that makes neurological changes in the brain similar to habit-forming opioid painkillers such as oxycontin, according to a new study. Getting hooked to social media technology also causes behavioural changes associated with substance abuse, making users withdraw socially and feel isolated, lonely, depressed and anxious, found the study published this week in the journal NeuroRegulation.

Much like cigarettes, digital technology is designed to be addictive. Pings, push notifications, vibrations and other alerts trigger our biological response to danger, triggering the same neural pathways that once alerted our ancestors to an imminent threat — like a predator attack — and compelling us to look at unnecessary bits of information so we could figure out how to fight or flee, and survive.

The loneliness is partly a consequence of replacing face-to-face interaction with communication that excludes body language and other physical signals. The study notes that people are also almost always multitasking while communicating, which doesn’t give the mind and body time to relax and regenerate. This results in ‘semi-tasking’, where people perform two or more tasks at the same time but do them half as well because they are not focused enough, said researchers from San Francisco State University.

The World Health Organization has included ‘gaming disorder’ in the draft 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the standard diagnostic tool that doctors, researchers and epidemiologists use to identify global health trends and diagnose and categorise conditions. It is scheduled to be published later this year.

It defines gaming addiction as a pattern of gaming behaviour (‘digital-gaming’ or ‘video-gaming’) characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that it takes precedence over daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite negative consequences.

Getting hooked to social media causes behavioural changes associated with substance abuse, including social isolation, loneliness, anxiety and depression. (Wikimedia Commons)
Getting hooked to social media causes behavioural changes associated with substance abuse, including social isolation, loneliness, anxiety and depression. (Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone playing games on their phone or console is not an addict.

According to the ICD-11, for gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to significantly affect personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning, and should be evident for at least one year. The inclusion of gaming disorder in ICD-11 will focus the attention of governments and clinicians on the risks and lead to prevention and treatment measures.

The red flags are playing for increasing amounts of time, thinking about a game when not playing, lying to family and friends about how long you play, getting restless, irritable and angry when asked to cut down on the time spent with the gadget, and withdrawing from social networks, family and hobbies.

Though addiction affects a very small proportion of digital- or video-gamers, those who play regularly must stay alert to the amount of time they spend gaming and whether it is affecting physical, psychological and social functioning.

India’s first recorded case of gaming addiction was reported in the International Journal of High Risk Behavior and Addiction in 2016 by doctors from New Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia hospital, where two brothers were hospitalised for a month of rehab in the psychiatry ward. The men, aged 22 and 19, were socially and, to a large extent, physically dysfunctional by the time their parents sought help. They had been playing non-stop for days at a time, making no time for meals or bathing or studies.

Games are designed to make it difficult for people to stop playing. Addictive games are both challenging and compelling and periodically give players small wins to induce a rush of dopamine, the ‘reward’ chemical in the brain that triggers feelings of achievement and pleasure.

Players are constantly egged on to beat a high score or reach the next level for a hidden clue or target and given a feeling of being in control as they create, discover and destroy worlds, defeat armies and kill monsters. The anonymity of role-playing allows players to escape reality and create their own unique character that they often become emotionally invested in. Added to that are the bonds they form with like-minded anonymous players who accept them as their online avatars, and one can see why it gets harder and harder to exit that virtual world.

There are things you can do to lower the risk of addiction. Turn off alerts and push notifications and schedule periods of no communication or media interruption, so you can focus on offline activities, relationships and conversations. A rather more extreme measure is to exit social media accounts and limit conversations to texting, calling and meeting people, which should perhaps be easier to do now that we know how social media posts are exploited by industry to change behaviour and affect outcomes.


    Sanchita is the health & science editor of the Hindustan Times. She has been reporting and writing on public health policy, health and nutrition for close to two decades. She is an International Reporting Project fellow from Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and was part of the expert group that drafted the Press Council of India’s media guidelines on health reporting, including reporting on people living with HIV.

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