On my radar: iDisorders and other digital addictions

2014-10-17 13:45

Our “always on, always connected” virtual lives should have come with a health warning. We are now slowly discovering that the digital era is giving rise to physical and mental ailments, and doctors are only beginning to understand the magnitude of this growing problem.

The first physical manifestation of our cyberlives started out with incidents of carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful condition which is felt in the hands and fingers, and is caused by the compression of a nerve where it passes over the carpal bones in the wrist. The cause? Too much typing on a keyboard with your wrists at an unnatural angle.

Now that many people have migrated to mobile devices, new physical ailments have surfaced. One of them is “iNeck” pain, aka “text neck”?–?a result of having your head bowed while interacting with a smartphone.

While these physical ailments are easily treatable, the mental or psychological ailments are more difficult to treat and identify because the ripple effect of the technology we constantly adopt and adapt to is so new.

‘iDisorder’ is a term coined by Dr Larry Rosen for digital addiction. He claims “people are attached to their devices and often driven to use them obsessively by fear and worry. M

issing out on social information, work information and our personal pursuits can put us in a state of anxiety and even cause panic attacks.” This is Fomo (fear of missing out) at a higher level and linked specifically to your attachment to your devices.

Rosen claims that many of us are on the verge of an iDisorder. “Our daily interactions with technology cause us to show signs and symptoms of one of many psychological disorders including narcissism, obsessive compulsive disorder, addiction, attention-deficit disorder, antisocial personality disorder, hypochondria and even body dysmorphic disorder.”

All these symptoms point to a new concept of digital addiction. Can we really be addicted to our digital lives? Apparently, we can.

Although digital addiction is not (yet) officially classified as a “real” illness, many psychologists are now saying it sparks the same brain chemistry as “real” addictions, which can result in the same addictive behaviour.

A “pleasure pathway” in the brain lights up when we experience pleasure as the body releases a combination of neurochemicals, including dopamine and opiates, which give us a “high”. This can be brought about by ingesting certain psychotropic chemicals found in alcohol or drugs, but can also be triggered by thoughts and activities like falling in love, a gym workout, gambling, gaming or, indeed, surfing the net.

For people driven by social-media experiences, their ego or narcissistic tendencies can get the same “high” when they receive social-media responses such as likes, comments and increased follower count, which adds to the dopamine addiction. When you’re addicted to a digital experience, just touching your gadget or being online can trigger the subliminal “high”. These cravings can become so strong they override the part of your brain that makes rational decisions.

Research is already under way to specifically measure mobile addiction. An average smartphone user checks the device 150 times a day and launches apps 10 times a day. A “mobile addict” is someone who launches apps six times more than the average and will check their phones more than 200 times daily.

Analyst and internet trends expert Mary Meeker says the number of mobile addicts has surged to 176?million people?–?a 123% increase from last year.

In Asia, with its many tech-driven societies, digital addiction is being taken more seriously. Psychiatrists in Singapore are urging medical authorities to formally recognise internet and digital-device addiction as a disorder?(87% of Singapore’s 5.4?million people own smartphones and there are already two counselling centres in the city-state dealing with digital addiction).

In mainland China, there are already about 300 internet addiction centres in operation. A recent survey shows more than 24?million young Chinese people have been classified as internet addicts. Here, digital addiction is defined by the inability to control craving, anxiety when separated from a smartphone, loss in productivity in studies or at work and the need to constantly check one’s phone.

While the ripple effect of digital addiction is only just being explored, the number of new iDisorders grows daily. They now include the following:

.?Phantom call syndrome: Hallucinating that the phone in your pocket rings or vibrates, but nothing happens

.?Nomophobia: Fear of being left without a cellphone

.?Cybersickness: Dizziness, disorientation and nausea when interacting with electronic devices

Take this test to see if you are a digital addict: http://psychcentral.com/quizzes/netaddiction.htm

TALK TO US: How long can you live without your smartphone?

SMS us at 34263 using the keyword DISORDER and tell us what you think. Include your name. SMSes cost R1.50 each

Chang is founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit www.fluxtrends.com

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