With the proliferation of social media sites, the desire to stay connected online has become permanent. But this digital addiction is now beginning to take its toll on people’s happiness. As technology becomes omnipresent, the dangers of digital dependency are real and unsettling.
It looked like a surreal scene except that it wasn’t. The family of five, all sitting in the living room and busy with their gadgets, hadn’t uttered a word in the last 30 minutes. It was when this scene was getting repeated several times over the week that Rafi Q Khan realised there was something wrong with the way the family was communicating with each other. “Even while at home, my kids had started messaging us on our family WhatsApp group instead of walking into our room to discuss things,” says Khan, a 47-year-old communications consultant from Gurugram. “It seems we are all happier typing than talking,” he adds.
There are many urban households like the Khans where gadgets have taken the central role in everyday lives. A self-confessed gizmo addict, Khan is away from his phone barely for a few minutes a day, keeping it at arm’s length even while sleeping. With three children aged 24, 21 and 17 years, the family of five is almost always engaging with each other through mobile apps. The Khan household has a smart TV, a smart refrigerator, digital cameras and innumerable other gadgets, which are connected to smart home device Amazon Echo. “I am always staring at a gadget. And I do realise that it’s a problem,” Khan confesses. His dependency on gadgets has reached a point that has had a ripple effect. His family members have started having conversations online rather than face-to-face interactions. Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Harvard Law School, might classify Khan as a borderline case of ‘tech addiction’.
His recently released book Your Happiness was Hacked, written with co-author Alex Salkever and published by Penguin Random House India, tries to pin down cases such as Khan’s and the effect technology is having on people’s happiness. Wadhwa stresses that most people don’t realise that there is such a thing as technology addiction. “They check their email 20 times an hour and spend hours everyday on WhatsApp and Facebook, but don’t know that these products have been designed to make them addicted. They don’t realise the harm that is being done to their well-being and happiness,” he says. With the proliferation of social media sites and a communication explosion, the desire to stay connected online has become permanent.
What started out as humans controlling a device has now turned the other way round. A situation, which Simon Gottschalk, a sociologist from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, puts across as: “machines have normalised a state of permanent urgency”. In his book The Terminal Self: Everyday Life in Hypermodern Times, he talks about how when we turn the terminal on, it immediately responds and prompts us to respond. And as soon as we do, it typically reacts instantly in an ongoing and potentially endless conversation. “Such a rapid response time naturally invites us to follow suit, to ‘sync’ to the tempo of terminal interactivity, and to accelerate our response time,” says Gottschalk.
We talk to our device, listen to it and even decorate it. We rely on it to remember information we deem important and consult it when making important decisions. “Its mere presence in a setting transforms interactions, we feel lost without it and violated when others look at it without our permission,” he adds. Ironically, even as people are worried about artificial intelligence (AI) engulfing humanity, not many seem bothered about inching towards it by being dependent on the intelligence of their devices rather than their own intelligence. “AI is surely advancing rapidly, but is nothing like what we saw in science-fiction.
Yes, some people have proposed marriage to Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, but these bots are far from being human-like and we can’t depend on them for anything but telling us the weather. And yes, we often trust the directions given to us by Google Maps over our own instincts, but there is little to worry about here… no one spends their days chatting with Siri and Alexa,” assures Wadhwa. Yet depression arising out of an uptick in the usage of sites like Instagram and Snapchat has been the topic of many research papers. Getting trapped in the web of unending demands of technology has taken its toll, and how.
The industry defines digital dependency as a behavioural addiction, loss of control due to excessive immersion in digital gadget usage, consequent daily disorder in the form of nervousness and anxiety, and inclination towards the virtual world. According to a report published this month by Ofcom, the UK government-approved communications regulator, the average internet user spends 24 hours a week online and checks the mobile phone every 12 minutes. Ofcom also found that, for the first time, the time spent making phone calls from mobile phones fell, as users used messaging services such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger instead. On average, British children own their first mobile phone by the age of seven years, a tablet at eight years of age and their first smartphone by age 10. India isn’t far behind.
As per a KPMG-Ficci 2016 report on cellphone usage, the number of smartphone users in India is expected to reach 690 million by 2020, which is seen as a key enabler in internet consumption. So it is not surprising that as per a new research conducted by the Aligarh Muslim University, which is yet to be made public, it was revealed that 63% of those surveyed logged on to their smartphones for four-seven hours daily, while 23% are logged on for more than eight hours daily. The study, titled Smartphone Dependency, Hedonism and Purchase Behavior: Implications for Digital India Initiatives, was funded by the Indian Council for Social Science Research, New Delhi, and surveyed students from universities of Delhi and surrounding areas. The preliminary findings reveal that only 26% respondents indicated the primary usage of smartphones for calling purposes and the remaining used it for accessing social networking sites and entertainment.
This year, the World Health Organization added gaming disorder to its list of mental health conditions. Staying in denial is no solution. Some like Belinda Parmar, a London-based tech evangelist who was a passionate advocate of the digital revolution for women a few years back, have now started keeping their family’s smartphones and laptops locked away. The change happened when Parmar started getting disturbed by her son’s apparent compulsion to play video games. “‘I need to get my life out of the way, so I can get on with gaming’—this sentence sums up how my son feels about video games,” says Parmar. She started the campaign #TheTruthAboutTech to raise awareness about the positives of technology along with the consequences of its addiction and is working in schools and running workshops across the UK.
“I still love technology for the benefits it gives us, but I’ve seen a different side to it as well. The hijacking techniques, the way the companies design games so you can’t end them until you’ve finished the battles, the manipulation to keep us addicted to our devices, etc. I saw my son and his friends use technology in a way that was more about pressure than pleasure,” Parmar adds. According to Parmar, the number one aspiration of a teenager today is to become a ‘vlogger’ or ‘live streamer’ like Ninja or Summit 1G. “The rise of digital dictators and their desire to make us tech addicts is changing the nature of our relationships. The ‘boring real world’ can’t compete with the number of dopamine hits that the virtual world offers. The levels of empathy in society have dropped in the last 10 years, coinciding with our increased use of tech,” she says.
Digital dependency isn’t difficult to define. Checking messages or browsing the web compulsively, without even being conscious of it, are the first signs of dependency. “Technology addiction can be defined as frequent and obsessive technology-related behaviour, which continues to be increasingly practised, despite negative consequences to the user,” says Mohammed Naved Khan, project director, Faculty of Management Studies & Research, Aligarh Muslim University. In his research, individuals admitted to suffering from “extreme tech anxiety” when separated from their devices such as smartphones or tablets. Researchers are putting technology addiction on a par with dangerous addictions such as drugs and alcohol.
Last year, researchers from University of Maryland’s International Centre for Media and the Public Agenda conducted a study where college-student volunteers at 12 universities around the world were asked to spend 24 hours without access to devices or even newspapers. The study findings revealed that when not allowed to connect to digital technology in any way, participants developed withdrawal symptoms typically seen in people addicted to cigarettes or other substances. Many study participants said they felt like they were trying to kick a hard drug habit or going on a strict diet. This condition has been described by experts as ‘Information Deprivation Disorder’. It is now reported that technology impacts the pleasure systems of the brain in ways similar to psychotropic substances.
“It provides some of the same rewards that alcohol and other drugs might: it can be a boredom-buster, a social lubricant and an escape from reality,” says Khan. In fact, a name has been coined for the fear of being without your phone: nomophobia (no-mobile phobia). “It is defined as that rush of anxiety and fear when you realise you are disconnected and out of the loop with friends, family, work and the world,” he adds. Rajiv (who goes by one name only), a 29-year-old media professional from Delhi, identifies with tech anxiety. “My mobile phone, if nothing else, is always with me. I don’t part with it even in the shower where it is lying comfortably in a dry corner,” he says. Rajiv likes to believe that he isn’t addicted to any gadget, but says, “I do like to keep my phone with me all the time.
Keeping it with me is not a problem. Losing sight of it is.” A worldwide study conducted by Internet security company Kaspersky Lab earlier this year suggested that spending too much time in cyberspace is taking a toll on people’s natural ability to learn, memorise and recall information. It’s leading to digital amnesia where people can’t recall more than two or three phone numbers, as they are using their brains far less than their forefathers did. In Norway, researchers at the University of Bergen studied the social media use of more than 23,500 people in 2016, revealing that addictive social media use is linked not only to low self-esteem, but also narcissism.
Besides the health ramifications, cyber security is another area of concern. According to Debarati Halder of Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling, Ahmedabad, spending too much time on devices has led to an increase in cyber crime, ranging from stalking to forgery. “I have come across several cases where young people (teens and young adults) have faced problems of data mining and grooming by strangers online. This has led to cases of cyber stalking, cyber bullying, trolling, creation of fake avatars, etc. Sexting is another area of concern, which has led to an obsessive nature of content generators,” says Halder.
Plan of action
India’s first tech de-addiction centre, SHUT Clinic (Service for Healthy Use of Technology), was started in June 2014 and, the same year, Uday Foundation, an NGO, started the first tech de-addiction centre in Delhi. “Awareness has increased, so we are seeing more cases in our clinic. Parents are now conscious of the lifestyle disturbances they notice in their kids, especially lack of sleep and social activities,” says Manoj Sharma, associate professor, department of clinical psychology, Nimhans, who also heads SHUT. While technology de-addiction centres are becoming a norm, technology companies have started owning up to some of the responsibility too.
In August, social media giant Facebook announced that users of Facebook and Instagram will be able to create pop-up alerts to limit their time on the apps, block push notifications for fixed periods and get updates on the time they spend on the social networks each day. Google’s ‘Digital Wellbeing’ and Apple’s ‘Screen Time’ are similar concepts that the tech firms developed recently to discourage smartphone overuse by allowing a user to set self-imposed time limits for apps on their phone. Yet not everyone is convinced that digital well-being tools will help. “The top tech companies are the most powerful brands in the world—more powerful than governments. It is not in their interest to stop our addictions.
For everyone of us trying to stop using tech, there are thousands of designers, psychologists and technologists working to keep us addicted to their platforms to consume ads and make them money,” points out Parmar. Words that indeed ring a bell. Wadhwa suggests, “Analyse how and why you are using technology and decide what is best for you. Ask yourself these questions: is the way I am using this app (or any technology) making me happy or unhappy? Is it hurting people around me emotionally? If I look back on my life, will I be glad I spent a lot of time on this app or would I rather have spent it another way?” In short, it’s time to question your digital dependency.