Are you a slave to the virtual world?

Apr 22, 2013, 23:46 IST | Kiran Mehta

We 'share' our pictures with our 'friends' in a click, we 'tweet' our most intimate thoughts to all, and we encourage being 'followed' by strangers. Social media is changing the way we communicate, often leading to digital addictions, warn psychotherapists. The Guide attempts to delve deeper into the real truths about the virtual world

“Google ‘iDisorder’ ”, says Mumbai-based psychotherapist Reema Shah at the mention of digital addiction, and the irony isn’t lost on her. She explains, “Technology is inseparable from our lives today. Computers, mobiles, and social media platforms aren’t the problem; it’s the way we use them that negatively impacts our mental health.”

iDisorder, as a Google search reveals, refers to an ‘obsession with technology’. This addiction, in turn, puts us at risk of an entire gamut of psychological disorders, which fall under the broad umbrella of ‘iDisorder’. Shah elaborates, “Technological addictions can make us display symptoms of everything from obsessive compulsive disorder to depression, mania, narcissism, voyeurism and the like.”

The above definition will probably bring to your mind more than a few on your ‘friends list’. For instance, that one couple, we all know, who communicate by posting on each other’s wall; or the handful of people we ‘follow’ who tweet their lives away.

Given the technological advancements, little wonder that iDisorder is on the rise and Shah warns, “One too many bytes are all it takes to get caught in the web.” But fret not, Shah helps you understand the problem, recognise warning signs, and suggests simple remedies to guard against a crash.

Why the addiction?
Psychologist Abraham Maslow theory of social needs explains the addiction. Shah elaborates, “Technological addictions are a relatively new subject in Psychology. Since social media platforms have entered our lives only recently, even less is known of their impact on our lives.” However, recent research attempts to understand iDisorder in terms of Maslow’s theory.  Maslow had proposed a hierarchy of human needs. These consist of physiological needs, security needs, esteem needs, and self-actualising needs. Research has revealed that many social media platforms are cunningly built to feed our social and self-esteem needs. 

For instance:
Numbering friends: Facebook/Twitter allows us to keep track of the number of ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ we gather and thereby, reinforces our social need. We define our popularity and those of others in numbers; this is addictive. Yet it does nothing to nurture relationships.

Connect with a click: All we have to do is wait for our picture to get more ‘likes’; or get ‘re-tweeted’ and we feel accepted by others. But such virtual connections, without face-to-face contact, remain shallow.

Voyeurism: One click can feed voyeurism. For example, our Facebook feed fills us in on events in our friends’ lives; where they’ve ‘checked-in’, people they have ‘tagged’ and so on.

Measure your ‘likes’: The ‘likes’ we gather on our pictures satisfies our esteem needs. The more ‘likes’ we get, the prettier and smarter we feel. Unfortunately, this could breed narcissism or render us paralysed to others’ opinions.

Blog the good life: By reading a personal blog, we often live vicariously through others. This works because many posts, on popular blogs, are written for entertainment and excitement. This can be addictive as we want to escape our routines. Yet, at the end of the day, we haven’t experienced anything. When you become aware of the problem areas that could make you an online addict, here’s a check list to spot the symptoms.

Warning signs of iDisorder:
>> Spending more time on the internet than you intend to, regularly.
>> Chatting /texting friends with less time to socialise.
>> Lower attention spans — Digital addiction is linked to the ability to multi-task. You have to be able to talk to someone in front of you while sending a text message. This, in turn, encourages distractions, so much so, that even when you need to concentrate you find that you’ve ‘trained’ yourself otherwise.
w You text and spend time on social media networks even at work and your co-workers and seniors have hinted at reduced efficiency.
>> Feeling panicky when you lose network.
>> Frequently pre-occupied with thoughts of how others have reacted to your status messages or tweets.
w Making impulsive decisions, rather than thinking things through because you find the need to get things done quickly. After living in a virtual world where you chat in real time, everything else seems slow.

Pull the plug off
Recognise the addiction and realise that a problem exists. In our society, there is little awareness of digital addiction. But when you spend too much time in a virtual world, you cannot be unaware of it. More often than not, you refuse to recognise that this is a real addiction.

Once you have accepted the problem, delve deeper. In most cases, digital addiction exists in the framework of a larger emotional issue such as depression. Here digital addiction fills a void, or provides an escape route from more deep-rooted problems.

Discriminate with regard to the applications you use. A popular app isn’t reason enough to download it. Ask yourself if you really need it, as opposed to merely wanting it. Gauge how much it gives you and how much it takes away from you. Don’t lose touch with yourself to stay in a virtual world.

Get a virtual detox plan in place. Set aside a few hours daily where you switch your phone off, log off your computer and disconnect from all forms of technology.

Internet Addiction across the globe
>> In highly-wired South Korea, digital addiction has reached alarming rates in recent years. In 2010, the Huffington Post ran a story about a couple in South Korea who let their three-month-old baby starve to death while they were addicted to an online game where they raised a virtual child.
>> China recognised the disorder early on and set up internet de-addiction camps in 2007. These camps combine military-style discipline with counselling sessions and sympathy to aid recovery.
>> Research by German scientists at the University of Bonn has found that a genetic link plays a part in internet addiction. A comparison of the genetic make-up of the problematic internet users with that of healthy control individuals found such people are more often carriers of the genetic variation linked to nicotine addiction.

“It was a relief to get off Facebook”
Sejal Patel, 30, a Philadelphia-based instructor with the American Red Cross, found the social overload of Facebook to be stressful, and went off Facebook. Patel says, “Facebook became a routine; I checked it daily, often several times a day. I would even log-in on my drive to work; it’s got me thinking about de-activating my account.” Sejal realised that she could do without most of the information: “A lot of it (feeds, pictures links), had little bearing on my life. I could do away with this data yet it was stuff I was spending too much time thinking about. At times, I’d see a photo or read a status, and find myself making comparisons. It stressed me out and so I de-activated it.” She’s happier now, “I didn’t expect much, but going off Facebook gave me a sense of relief. I felt more focussed and centered within a few days of logging out.” Did it affect her social life? “Sometimes, I don’t learn of an event or a party; or, I’ll have friends discussing something they read, and I find myself out of the loop.” But would she go back? “I had logged back on, once, to connect with someone for an email address. But I de-activated my account, promptly. I am sure I won’t join Facebook again.” 

150 Figure in millions of Internet users in India. We have the third largest internet population in the world after China (575m) and the US (275m)

Go to top