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Technology is no doubt making our lives simpler, even as computers are growing closer and closer to our finger tips, our nerve endings and our brains. But before they actually implant themselves into our brains and into our well being we might well want to set limits. Especially so, after the American Psychiatric Association has included Internet Gaming Disorder as a potential clinical disorder.
Numerous questions throng our minds when Internet as an addiction is proposed. Are we all not dependant on so many other things for our daily lives as we are on computers and the internet? How can behaviour such as internet use become an addiction like a drug? After all, we are not introducing anything new in our blood stream like alcohol, right? But then, how much is too much?
Two decades of intense research has brought up some extremely surprising facts answering most of our questions.
For one, behavioural addictions exist. Addiction to the internet has found to take several forms - cyber sexual addiction, cyber relationship addiction, compulsive gaming, compulsive shopping and compulsive web surfing or database searches.
Both behavioural and substance addictions are characterised by an inability to control even when one feels the negative consequences. Both come with urges and cravings: you feel a sudden and debilitating need to check your social networking site or inbox in the middle of your work. Both are marked by an inability to stop.
The key determinant is functional impairment. If your internet use has started affecting your relationship with family and friends, your academics or performance at work, sleep and physical health, then its time you seriously consider unhooking from the net.
The neurochemical changes that these addictions evoke in the brain are surprisingly similar. Drugs, for example, are known to affect the mesolimbic dopamine pathway-the pleasure centre of the brain releasing dopamine.
Behaviours like internet gaming are found to activate the very same parts of the brain's reward circuitry. It is extremely easy to get in a dopamine induced loop. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or new text. How many times have you searched for something on Google, found the answer but realise after an hour that you are still online looking for more information? If you answered yes, you are very much in a soup or more precisely in the loop!
Addiction to the internet is no longer a fad, but a serious social and public health problem evidenced by the fact that more and more people are walking into the hospital with a debilitating inability to refrain from using the internet. As there is no doubt that we need to be involved in using the net which encompasses all aspects of our lives, it becomes extremely imperative that we also remain aware of not losing ourselves in the process.
Practising Digital Hygiene helps: Restrict your hours of gadget usage Adjust the settings on your gadgets so that you do not receive automatic notifications - as auditory and visual cues keep your dopamine loops firing. Don't use your phone while eating. Don't carry your phone with you to the bathroom. Give yourself regular digital detoxifications by giving yourself tech free weekends.
For those with more problematic usage, specialised forms of therapy offered by a mental health professional would be warranted.
It is time we acknowledge Albert Einstein's fears that one day technology would surpass human interactions and produce a dysfunctional generation might actually be coming true. Discipline is the key. Log out before it is too late! Good Luck!
Article by Dr. Yamini Kannappan DPM, DNB Psychiatry
Consultant Psychiatrist, Kauvery Hospital, Chennai