Digital detox: This Bengaluru clinic helps people battle tech-based addictions
For the 15-year-old boy, being paradropped onto a remote field where he battles other players to be the last survivor, had become a way of life.
Of course, the boy (name withheld to protect identity) isn’t fighting a real-life battle and isn’t part of a real-life survival game. He is addicted to the popular game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds or PUBG (pronounced pub-g). Created in December, the game was an instant hit and according to the website SuperData, which collates information on the revenues of gaming platforms, PUBG was the third most popular game even in June, seven months after its introduction.
The Class 10 student was so immersed that he stayed up until 2-3 am playing the game, woke up late and often missed school. It was at this point last month his parents, worried over his future, took him to the SHUT (Service for Healthy Use of Technology) Clinic, located at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), which helps people deal with technology-based addictions.
It didn’t take Manoj Kumar Sharma, who runs the clinic, long to diagnose that the teenager suffered from gaming disorder.
World Health Organization recognised gaming as a disorder in June. The boy showed all the symptoms — putting gaming over other activities and continuing with it despite the negative consequences it could bring.
Visiting Sharma was not as fruitful as his parents had hoped, though. “In the two sessions I had with the patient, it was clear that he was unwilling to recognise that he had a problem. As a result, it was difficult for us to proceed,” Sharma said.
Beyond gaming, even social media usage is being recognised as highly addictive, prompting Facebook and Instagram to introduce a new dashboard that will show users the time they spend on the apps.
With the increased accessibility of internet-enabled devices, chances are more people could be affected by this in one way or the other.
According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), there were 1.18 billion wireless subscribers in the country, as of March 2018. And, there are 493 million internet or broadband subscribers in the country.
In the four years since it was opened, the SHUT Clinic has seen a steady increase in the number of patients showing signs of addiction to the internet, social media, gaming and pornography. “When we began, we got maybe one patient every week. But now, we get at least six or seven patients a week,” Sharma said.
And addiction can have surprising outcomes, said Sharma, citing a case where a patient switched from cannabis use to pornography.
“We are yet to ascertain if the same principles of pleasure apply to that case as well. But what was interesting in that case was the patient had completely overcome his addiction to cannabis, only that it was replaced by pornography,” he said.
In an increasingly digitised world, where people broadcast every aspect of their lives on social media, Manoj Sharma said, the need for validation in the real world had shifted to the virtual space. He cited the example of the 15-year-old cited above.
“He has only about four or five friends outside of his digital world, where he has at least 1,000 friends,” said Manoj Sharma.
To be sure, addiction to technological devices is not new. In an older study, researchers at NIMHANS found that television addiction existed, too.
The need for the SHUT Clinic was felt after studies of internet use and its effect on communities pointed to a disturbing trend.
“We found that there was a significant proportion of people who were addicted,” said Manoj Sharma. Studies of internet use across classes found there was little difference in the impact of technology.
And Sharma found addiction was inducing increased levels of stress among all age groups. “Adolescents reported stress because they felt constantly pressured to post messages on social media,” he said.
The effect of the addiction on families was alarming, with addicts preferring to concentrate on their social media and digital lives.
“We coined the term ‘online infidelity’ to describe an emergent phenomenon, where individuals satisfy themselves using online platforms rather than through physical intimacy with their partners,” said Manoj Sharma.
A recent study by researchers from the Bocconi University in Italy and University of Pittsburgh in the US found that broadband internet usage led to a 25-minute decrease in sleep.
To put this in perspective, research done in 2017 by the RAND Corporation found that decreased sleep results in efficiency losses and estimated that in Germany alone, 209,000 working days were lost as a result.
Sharma said a study he had conducted at workplaces in Bengaluru found that apart from pornography, online shopping was a big addiction that could affect efficiency.
Praveen Kumar Chintapanti,a consultant psychiatrist at the Tranquil Minds counselling centre in Hyderabad, said he had been approached by a couple of companies that were worried about some employees who were unable to resist watching pornography at the workplace despite repeated warnings.
“And it isn’t just pornography. Many people constantly check their devices either for news, including for information on celebrities, which we call information voyeurism, or browse shopping sites at the workplace,” Praveen Kumar Chintapanti said.