Getting caught in the digital trap  

Wednesday, March 6, 2024
getting caught in the digital trap  

Abhishek Pratap, a 19-year-old engineering student, felt an adrenaline rush in his body every time he won a bet online. And every loss would prompt him to bet again. Six months into the game, he hadn't won or lost a significant sum of money. And relished the experience. 

This changed when he decided to use his father's credit card to wager a few lakhs. That’s when his luck deserted him as ended up losing the bet. To conceal the transaction from his parents, Pratap deleted the bank's notification message regarding the transaction. 

But he could not control his craving to bet again. The following day, he took the drastic step of selling his MacBook Air, a birthday gift from his father, in order to carry on online betting.

Pratap's doctor subsequently diagnosed him with an addiction to online gambling.

Pratap is not the only one addicted to various websites on his phone. Mental health experts have categorised this obsessive and excessive internet use as ‘internet addiction’. “Just look around and you will see a majority of people glued to their phones—at home, the office, or public transport,” says Girish Kurra, founder, Umeed Deaddiction and Rehabilitation Centre in  Delhi.

“Day or night, individuals are indulging in online gaming, gambling, binge-watching crime- thrillers, and surfing pornography websites. We have observed a significant surge in individuals of all age groups seeking our deaddiction services, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic." 

With India soon going to top the list of countries with the maximum number of users of smartphones, mental health experts foresee an impending epidemic of psychological and behavioural challenges. Not succumbing to smartphone addiction is not an easy test to pass in this digital age, wherein the smartphone is capable of catering to your every need and greed—morphing from a virtual department store to an expansive shopping mall, a captivating entertainer, and even an erudite educator. 

“The smartphone seduces you with an array of services conveniently delivered to your doorstep," asserts Dr Rohit Garg, a senior consultant psychiatrist at Mind Vriksha in New Delhi. 

According to Nielsen's India Internet Report 2023, the country boasts a staggering 700 million internet users, with a remarkable 90% of them engaging online daily. Delving deeper into this digital landscape, an Indian Journal of Psychiatry report discloses that an average individual spends roughly four hours per week on social media.

In contrast, those grappling with addiction dedicate a staggering 38.5 hours weekly to these platforms. 

Similarly, a recent report published by LocalCircles, a community social media platform, as many as 40% of Indian parents have admitted that their children between 9 and 17 years are addicted to videos, gaming and social media.

Easy availability of smartphones coupled with high-speed Internet, availabiity anytime, anywhere has only compounded the problem, say experts.  

“Social media platforms systems frequently show only the positive sides of people’s lives, creating a pervasive sense of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) among people,” says Dr Deepak Raheja, a noted psychiatrist and director, Hope Care India. “Besides, social media offers instant gratification via likes, comments and shares, triggering the release of dopamine in the brain, triggering a  desire for extra involvement and creating a cycle of addiction.

"Then there are people who use social media as an avenue to escape from demanding situations or loneliness. Digital connections made online may temporarily relieve emotional strain, but inadvertently lead to a dependence on social media as a coping mechanism.” 

Ranjit Upadhyay, 25, a mechanical engineer, stopped going to his office a few months back. Worried, his parents took him to a psychiatrist, who said he was sleep deprived. Further questioning revealed that he had secluded himself from all family and friends on the pretext of handling a very high-stakes office project.

However, the reality was different.  

It was only when an office colleague visited Upadhyay's home to inquire about his well-being that Upadhyay's parents learned he had cut off all communication for several months, not responding to emails, messages, and phone calls from his colleagues. 

Ranjit's online usage statistics were alarming. He logged an average phone usage of approximately 8.15 hours during his waking hours, punctuated by a staggering 313 instances of picking up his phone throughout the day—once every two minutes. 

During his sessions with the doctor, Ranjit admitted his proclivity for binge-watching crime thrillers. With each captivating series he stumbled upon, he remained tethered to his phone until its conclusion. Once he had devoured one series, his quest for another commenced immediately, traversing through multiple OTT platforms to which he was a subscriber. 

But binge-watching comes with many emotional consequences. For example, binge-watching a crime series can instill a persistent sense of fear, leading to heightened vigilance, and fostering feelings of mistrust of others, anxiety, and insecurity, even within the confines of one's own home. 

In a strikingly different tale, Dr Garg recounts the case of a 28-year-old married man, who was irrevocably entangled in the web of dating platforms. During the course of counseling, it emerged that the man was concurrently having conversations with 88 women.

“He would anxiously wait for the reply every time he sent them a message,” says Dr Garg. “He was constantly proposing that they meet and even a single ‘No’ in response would make him lose his temper. Such was his obsession with the online partners that he had distanced himself from his spouse”.  

According to Dr Garg, anger and anxiety are the most conspicuous symptoms of internet addiction. A harrowing incident from the previous year serves as a poignant example: A 16-year-old boy fatally shot his mother when she tried to stop him from playing PUBG on his phone. The boy utilized his army officer father's licensed firearm.

"I frequently advise the family members of my patients to be vigilant for shifts in behaviour,” adds Dr Garg. “If they are hooked to their phone or laptops and are getting irritable when interrupted, this is a clear sign of internet addiction”. 

Doctors stress that one form of internet addiction frequently begets another. Consider individuals who indulge in binge-watching. This behaviour often spills into binge-eating, enhancing the overall 'experience'. Concurrently, excessive screen time correlates with heightened alcohol and tobacco consumption, often at the expense of proper sleep.

“This concatenation of habits ushers in a host of health issues, including obesity, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, and in severe instances, the progression towards alcohol and tobacco addiction. In some severe cases, excessive exposure to screen light can even trigger excessive electrical activity within the brain, leading to epileptic episodes”. 

Individuals grappling with anxiety, depression, other forms of addiction or other mood disorders, as well as those experiencing loneliness due to limited social interactions or support, are particularly susceptible to succumbing to internet addiction.

The initial help to them often comes from people living around them. If you notice a family member, friend, or colleague indulging in online activities to the point of losing track of time and neglecting their responsibilities, it's crucial to sound the alarm.

An addict frequently displays evident signs of guilt or defensiveness when questioned about their online habits. Moreover, there might be a marked shift in mood when asked to disconnect from the online realm. Physical symptoms can manifest as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, recurring headaches, back or neck discomfort, unexplained fluctuations in weight, dry eyes, and sleep disturbances. 

Much like any other form of addiction, internet addicts also exhibit withdrawal symptoms, including restlessness, anxiety, anger, and irritability. Unlike in drug addictions, where one can ask the addict to stay off from the substance in question, the necessity of smartphones makes it unfeasible to instruct a patient to cease usage altogether. Consequently, the biggest challenge is to help him learn how to use it in moderation.  

In fact, self-assessment, acceptance, and controlled abstention are crucial to the treatment. “Previously, parents might have withheld access to these devices, but the transition to online education made smartphones with internet access indispensable for continuing their studies,” says Kurra. “So, the concept of moderation applies even to online knowledge consumption”.  



1-Cybersex Addiction: This involves the compulsive use of Internet pornography sites. 

2- Cyber-relationship Addiction: This addiction revolves around virtual relationships, where individuals become obsessed with their online acquaintances, often prioritizing these connections over real-life relationships. 

3- Net Compulsions: This pertains to the irresistible urge to engage in activities like online gaming or participating in online auctions and bidding, which can lead to detrimental financial consequences in real life. 

4. Information Overload: This occurs when individuals engage in obsessive web surfing or database browsing, overwhelming themselves with an excessive influx of information.

5. Computer Addiction: This entails an obsession with activities such as computer programming or gaming, resulting in excessive time spent on these activities to the detriment of other aspects of life. 


Ways to reduce the internet addiction  

1. Establish Boundaries: Set timings for checking social media and stick to these timings.  

2. Embrace Digital Detox: Take regular breaks from your smartphones and laptop. You can do it for a day, on weekends to begin with. This will help you build and nurture your offline connections.  

3. Engage in physical activities: Sports, social gatherings, hobby classes, and other activities help lessen reliance on digital interactions. 

4. Practice Mindfulness: mindfulness techniques can assist in spotting and managing addictive tendencies and help prevent dependency on your gadgets. 

5. Seek Support: If you feel that you are a compulsive user of your phone and end up spending more time than you have allocated, seek medical help. Talk to your friends and family or an expert counsellor. 

6. Leverage Technology: There are apps that can track your screen time, set utilization limits, and offer reminders to prevent excessive usage.  


The story was first published in Citizen Matters

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