From the Editor-in-Chief – Editor’s Note News

What is the feeling you get if you lose or misplace your mobile phone for a while? Is it as if you have lost a limb, leaving you seriously handicapped? That’s how indispensable a mobile phone has become to us. The glowing touchscreen of our mobile phones has become our collective magic lamp: press your fingertip to the screen and you can instantly communicate with your family and friends and shrug off boredom. Inform the world through social media about how you look, what you eat, which movie you are watching or showcase the flowers in your garden. In doing so, remain connected, in an odd sort of way, not just with your near and dear ones but also to a vast army of anonymous scrollers. This has made the world feel like a global village, with digital thumbs-up, hearts or any emoji you wish to acknowledge your presence. Then there are the seamlessly streaming videos, OTT series that keep you up at night as you go through several seasons as if there will be no tomorrow. Video games galore if that’s what floats your boat. Not to mention the incessant flow of Whatsapp videos, memes, jokes, news false and otherwise, and social media with its troll armies. A never-ending feast of hyperstimulation to keep you engaged. All so bewitchingly good. So, what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is that we are hooked and it is beginning to take a debilitating toll. For two years now, we have been slowly battling Covid-19. A possible fourth wave seems to be underway, with Omicron and its variants beginning to torment us again. Yet another pandemic has been silently creeping on us—the growing scurge of digital dependency. Initially, Covid confined us to our homes. As major studies are now revealing, this has particularly affected the young. A 2021 survey by Vivo-CyberMediaResearch (CMR) titled ‘Smartphones and their Impact on Human Relationship’ of 2,000 respondents in the 18-45 age group across Indian cities found that 80 per cent of them admitted to checking their phones within the first 15 minutes of waking up and 46 per cent of them picked up the phone at least five times in an hour. Worse, 74 per cent said they could not put their devices away as life without them made them depressed. The Global Web Index’s Social Media Trends 2019 report cited a global study that showed that Indian digital consumers spend around 2.4 hours every day on social networks and messaging, a little higher than the global average. Harvard University researchers also estimate that people usually talk about themselves around 35 per cent of the time when they are offline; it becomes a staggering 80 per cent when they go online—signalling an unhealthy narcissistic obsession with themselves. What was supposed to be a tool for convenience has taken over the lives of many.

American website addictioncenter.com defines social media addiction as “a behavioral addiction characterized by being overly concerned about social media, driven by an uncontrollable urge to log on to or use social media, and devoting so much time and effort to social media that it odds other important life areas”. This is what psychologists like to call our ‘lizard brain’, which simply reacts to pain or reward. The mere act of putting a photograph and writing about yourself online—and the sight of others responding to it favorably with likes and retweets—releases happy hormones in your brain. The experience is so seductive, even if interlaced with phases of intense trauma and anxiety, that we are driven to repeat the behavior.

This affliction among the young is particularly alarming. A recent report by the Indian Academy of Paediatrics found that even two-month-old babies are being exposed to mobile phones. The study estimates that, on average, most newborns in India first get exposed to smartphones or TV screens within 10 months. A more worrying report comes from an ongoing study at Harvard that shows children are maturing earlier from the use of phones due to premature thinning of their cortex that processes information from the five senses of the human body. This is one of the reasons why the American Academy of Paediatrics recommends zero digital media exposure for children under 18 months and only an hour a day for children aged two to five. As harmful is the surge in online gaming, with India seeing one of the most significant growth of users in this segment, according to the Boston Consulting Group, which interviewed 3,200 respondents across 21 locations in the country. It has got so bad that the World Health Organization now classifies gaming disorder as a mental health disease. Digital addiction is now seen as damaging as substance or alcohol abuse and is beginning to cause various disorders, including declining attention spans, behavioral changes, anxiety, insomnia, depression, physical pain and even violence.

With the peril upon us, schools and hospitals in India are scrambling to provide counseling and deaddiction facilities, particularly for the young. This week’s cover story, researched by Senior Associate Editor Sonali Acharjee, examines the growing threat of digital addiction, its impact on our emotional, physical and social health and how we can detox ourselves. Doctors she spoke to advise that we strike a virtuous balance between the online and offline worlds. But that is easier said than done. Mumbai-based digital addiction counselor Dr Hirak Patel advocates turning off your notifications for some hours daily, putting your device on silent and changing your privacy settings so that others can’t tell if you are online. Others talk of how families need to effectively monitor their children’s interactions and time spent online. Also, impose ground rules for on-screen use for children, including a simple rule called 20-20-20 where every 20 minutes, they take a 20-second break and look 20 feet away. It reportedly helps break the obsession with peering at a device. You will find many more valuable tips to guard against the maniacal pursuit of digital nirvana we indulge in. Happy detoxing.

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