Let’s call her Zoya. She is in her early twenties. Fresh from her graduation in human resources management at Delhi University, Zoya arrived in Bengaluru bag and baggage enrolling at Jain University for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. An MBA would help her step into the corporate world and with hirers like Airbus, Amazon, Wipro, and Oberoi Hotels to boast for, Jain University seemed like the perfect pit-stop for Zoya (which, just so you are clear, is not this person’s real name).
The feeling was mutual at Jain. Zoya’s professors, impressed with her pleasing persona, thoughtful questions, intelligent answers, and high attention levels, seemed convinced that she would walk the path towards professional success with ease.
There was one thing odd about Zoya though: no one would sit next to her in class. Perhaps she was a private person, who liked to remain by herself. Perhaps her classmates preferred the company of others. It was only during the university’s annual examinations in May 2016 that alarm bells went off.
“One day, I was the classroom invigilator and when students got up to wish me, as they usually do, she gave me a very blank look,” says Uma Warrier, a counsellor and professor at the University. Once the exams started, Zoya wrote her papers in 20 minutes flat rather than the three hours permitted. It was only after the exams got over that Warrier found out the real reason for Zoya’s unusual behaviour: her student had developed schizophrenic tendencies during her Delhi University days.
Zoya’s father had hurriedly flown down from Kolkata, where he was based, asking for an urgent meeting with Warrier. “It was then I got to know that she would get physically violent with her mother,” she says. “Her dad told me that she would constantly spend time on a poetry website where many people liked her poems. She wanted to become a poet and didn’t want to finish her MBA.” Zoya’s mental health, already dented by schizophrenic tendencies, worsened. “She was so addicted the moment her father asked her to switch off the system and talk to her parents, she’d thrash people and damage things,” says the professor.
Zoya’s compulsive relationship with the internet isn’t just her own. Today, smartphones, laptops, tablets, ebook readers, gaming consoles, desktops … all with 24 x 7 internet access, have woven themselves into the fabric of our lives so deeply that they’ve created a silent epidemic: internet addiction. It’s an ailment that many urban Indians are afflicted with but, because we’ve convinced ourselves that we need to be connected all the time, we refuse to acknowledge its existence.
So far, there hasn’t been a nationwide study to determine how many Indians are screen addicts. But, in 2012, a survey of 2,750 people by the Services for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT), part of the Bengaluru mental health institution NIMHANS, found that four to seven percent of them were addicted to social networking and the internet, online gambling and pornography.
The problem of screen and internet addiction is rampant and deep in India with effects showing up in road deaths because someone was glued to his or her phone. Or, attention deficits among school students leading to poor grades. Or, triggering mental disorders that affect relationships at home and work. But it has received little attention. “Although there’s criteria to define addiction for substance abuse , we had to rely on Western research to develop our criteria for technology addiction,” explains Manoj Sharma, additional professor of clinical psychology at NIMHANS, Bengaluru, that runs SHUT.
Extrapolating the SHUT survey numbers to a country of 1.2 billion paints a scary picture. Even if the lower bound of the four to seven percent results is assumed, India is looking at 48 million of screen addicts among its countrymen. To put that in perspective, the second most populous nation in the world has about 11 million drug users and around 30 million cardiac patients. You are much more likely to have an internet and screen addict around you than a weed smoker or someone with a heart stent.
Sharma stops short of calling India’s screen addiction a full-blown epidemic. “If you build up awareness, people will acknowledge the problem and address it. If people do that, it may not become a big problem,” he says, adding the big problem in his eyes is the cost of spreading awareness and people accepting that screen addiction is for real. Especially among the young.
The percentage with screen addiction among those aged between 18 and 30 in the 2012 NIMHANS survey was much higher: eight to nine percent. Get that right: about one in ten people between 18 and 30 are screen addicts. And, it got worse with even younger people. A survey in 2014 by NIMHANS of 200 adolescents, from two schools and a pre-university college in Bengaluru, had the internet and screen behaviour of three out of four respondents throwing up red flags. One in five was addicted to gaming and 18 percent to the internet. The numbers just confirm what Indian parents have suspected for a while: young Indians have a problem with their screens. And it is showing up in students’ academic performance, social behaviour, participation in sports, and family relationships. More on this later.
NOT JUST BENGALURU
Located in the BTM Layout neighbourhood, a residential area that is home to thousands of the city’s techies, SHUT is a dimly-lit clinic where Sharma sees 200 patients every year. They’re mostly between 16 and 25 years old, who’ve been brought in by worried parents. A session with Sharma lasts an hour, during which he uses a “4C criteria” -– craving, control, compulsion and consequences -– to analyse how much an individual craves technology, neglects tasks, becomes a compulsive user and the impact of these on sleep cycles, communication skills and eating habits.
Worried that you might be an internet gaming or screen addict? Test yourself here!
Technology addiction affects the chemistry of the brain in the same manner as substance abuse or shopping addiction. It can even aggravate existing medical conditions like attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (commonly known as ADD and ADHD). “Chemically, it’s like dope,” explains Kuldeep Datay, a psychologist in Mumbai. “When dopamine increases , you feel happy. That’s why it has an addictive potential because the underlying chemical is the same – be it cocaine, shopping or social media.” These have damaging consequences on a person’s cognitive abilities that developed during childhood and adolescence.
“What screens and social media do is provide us instant gratification,” says Amit Sen, a psychiatrist in Delhi. “Reading and studying, which people do when they’re young, don’t do that. Yes, there’s gratification but it comes after a long time.” In her piece for The Indian Express, journalist Pooja Pillai wrote about how the internet had wreaked havoc on her attention span. The chief culprit in her case was also dopamine, which makes people crave information. “This means that in the age of instant Internet-induced gratification, we can easily go into what is described as dopamine-induced loop, where any new information, whether it’s a tweet, a text message, email, video or GIF, keeps us wanting more. And what is the other name for wanting more, more, more, regardless of the consequences? Addiction.” Both Datay and Sen narrate stories of patients who sought counselling for different degrees of screen addiction. A couple whose relationship hit rough weather because one partner spent too much time online. A teenager who started working part-time at a juice shop to pay for data charges on his smartphone while playing online games. Or the more common scene in most middle class homes when kids demanding access to the iPad as a bribe to have a meal. (Think you want to test yourself or someone you know for internet, gaming or screen? We have tests you can take later in this story.)
Unlike cocaine abuse or retail bingeing, technology addiction can often go unnoticed, given the convenient alibis that people can cloak it with.
For Nikhil Jois, a 26-year-old Bengaluru resident, being in front of a screen is akin to breathing. He’s the founder of startup that helps plan and book events online, which means he has to always be staring at a laptop or phone. He convinced himself that watching YouTube videos, posting tweets or reading articles is “part of my job, part of my growth, part of my career”. “It’s very easy to be in denial and not accept that what you’re actually doing is staring at a screen and doing multiple things,” he adds. Jois has gone off Twitter and Facebook for long periods of time, stopped blogging, deleted old tweets and went on a trip with a feature phone, as phones before the smartphone era were called. “It’s hard. There are times I’ve taken Twitter breaks, thinking it’s negativity but if it’s not Twitter, I’m checking Facebook. If it’s not Facebook, I’m checking Snapchat. If it’s not Snapchat, I’m checking Instagram. If it’s none of these, I’m playing some time-pass game. So it’s always there,” he says. (Jois wrote about his personal experience with the ‘Hot or Not’ dating app for FactorDaily in June.)
Jois has never sought counselling or medical help. “It’s very scary on two levels,” he says. “Number one, it becomes very real. It’s just self-diagnosis. Maybe I’m having a bad day so I need this. Maybe I need validation. But if I actually go seek help, it becomes very real. Number two, I’m already hard pressed for time so if I’m told I need to come in for therapy twice or thrice a week, my schedule goes off.” He already has a lot on his plate, he says. “I already juggle way too many things – I run a company, I have a hobby and a bunch of other things.” When he wakes up, Jois spends the first 45 minutes checking his emails, Twitter feeds and WhatsApp groups. He’s tried keeping his phone in a different room and the kitchen but it hasn’t worked.
“Even before I’ve taken my first leak of the day, I go towards my phone,” Jois says. He spends a total of nine hours on his phone and needs a full charge of his Macbook to get through the day. Jois’s parents have come to terms with their son’s relationship with his many screens. “Five-six years ago, they thought I’m just texting but two years ago, they understood the word ‘tweet’. They just don’t bother anymore. They call me when it’s dinner time or when someone’s home.” Even when Jois is talking to them in person, his phone is with him. “Even when I’m having breakfast, I have to be told to keep my phone away,” he adds. All because he wants to always be in the loop. “It’s just a need to stay updated. I can’t be the last person to know something.”
Pillai, in an interview, spoke about how her short attention spans have led her to multi-tasking at work — supposedly meant to increase productivity but, in reality, has the exact opposite effect. “On Sunday, I had nothing to do except to relax at home and I’d deliberately kept my phone in another room so it wouldn’t distract me,” she says. “But I still heard a WhatsApp message arrive on my phone and told myself ‘I’m not going to get up and I’m going to sit here and read my book.’ But I couldn’t. I lay there in bed for half an hour, trying to read the book but my mind was thinking about what that WhatsApp could be. Finally, I went and I checked it.”
For technology companies, human attention is the most prized resource and each of them wants as large a share of it as is possible. “We live in an attention economy, it’s a finite resource,” says Aditya Dev Sood, CEO of the Centre for Knowledge Societies, a consulting firm that examines the interaction between people and technology. “All the number of people living in the world, coupled with the amount of time they have to pay attention to any kind of content, that is the total value. And everybody is fighting for a piece of it.” It is this formula that technology startups incorporate into their products to lay the ground for user engagement. “Anything that is stimulating is stimulating to the point of compulsiveness. So if you have engaged users, at least you have set up the condition wherein that engagement could become compulsive tomorrow,” he adds.
Sood uses the American food industry as an example to explain how companies create an environment for compulsive behaviour. Senior executives of companies that manufacture potato chips evaluate success based on their “refresh rate”. “By refresh rate, they mean that when you are sitting under test conditions –– in front of a TV screen, with a bowl of chips in front of the participant –– they observe, from another room, how frequently his hand goes to the bowl, picks up the potato chip and shoves it in his mouth,” Sood explains, adding the potato chip makers then study what element of a flavour makes it compulsive to the brain. “You could say that some of our major social media platforms are similarly engineered to maximise compulsive drivers.”
To pin the entire blame on the internet, though, would be missing the woods for the trees. After all, it has allowed us to create new businesses, read books, watch movies, buy clothes, pay off bills, communicate sans hierarchies, geographies and time zones, and, in general, made the world a much more efficient place in the way businesses are run. It is we who created apps and websites that would fulfill all our needs — whether it’s reading books on a Kindle or campaigning on Change.org. But, while navigating these multiple worlds on multiple windows, have we ceded too much control of our lives to technology?
The invisibility of internet addiction, coupled with our ignorance to its mental health implications, means that the ailment often goes unnoticed. “There are very few people who will reach out saying that they are addicted to the internet,” says Sonali Gupta, a Mumbai-based psychologist. “Most people reach out for other concerns and then you figure out that the primary problem is an existing addiction.” These include forgetfulness, digital amnesia, bedtime procrastination, and disturbed sleeping patterns. Sharma, the NIMHANS professor, estimates one-third of psychiatric patients he sees at the Bengaluru institute are screen addicts.
Gupta recalls the case of three-year-old child who had clawed her parents’ face because they took away the iPad – a symptom of iPaddy, a syndrome where children throw tantrums when kept away from tablets, smartphones and even TVs. In Gupta’s opinion, “unstructured thinking” amongst children has vanished, as a result of screens and internet playing nanny. It’s a mental space where the mind is required to “get bored” and be alone so that it can incubate ideas. Now, the Internet has encroached upon this sanctum sanctorum, leaving no time for the brain to introspect and be mindful of surroundings. “Children who are in therapy can only meet me on Sundays because their schedules are packed,” says Gupta. “Parents have left no space for not doing anything.”
If detection is difficult, its treatment isn’t easy. After she met him, Warrier asked Zoya’s father, for a meeting with his daughter. Zoya refused saying she didn’t recognize a single professor. Warrier referred her case to NIMHANS which also asked Zoya’s father to bring in his daughter. Zoya refused again. The pervasive nature of the internet and the easy availability of alibis to use it, make it hard for users to disconnect from it.
Sharma says he takes a “harm reduction” approach and that has yielded results. He talks about a 19-year-old patient brought in by his parents for his gaming addiction. The boy wouldn’t sleep until dawn, would wake up at 1pm, hardly ate, wouldn’t allow anyone into his room, would skip school, paid no attention to personal hygiene, and was just not available for his family. The first step, the counsellor says, was to get the boy to acknowledge the problem. “Taking away the technology away from them is not the solution. Idea is to get the child to get some control,” Sharma says, adding the boy cut back on his daily gaming to four hours from the earlier 12 hours.
Jois, for his part, has tried a mix of things. “When I’m in front of a screen, I try and do things that help the company move forward,” he says. “Even if I’m on Snapchat, I’m snapping about what we’re doing inside the office. If I’m on YouTube, I’m watching videos on how to figure out our next business plan.” What Jois has found particularly therapeutic are his improv comedy – short for improvisational comedy, where the performance gets created on the fly – sessions. “I have two-hour practice sessions every weekend, so four hours a week I’m completely away from the screen,” he says. “I don’t carry my laptop and keep my phone aside till my two hours are done. I keep my phone on silent, turn off the Internet and don’t think about work and I only check notifications once I’m completely done.” Last year, Jois realised he was overweight, hit the gym (where he says he doesn’t check his phone) and became a “fitness freak”. “But again, because of my fitness obsession, I spend a lot of time online. I’m always reading journals, watching videos and finding ways to track my calories.”
Is the internalisation of our need for constant connectivity harming our mental health without us even realising it? These are questions to which there are no researched answers yet in India. Perhaps because these are questions that aren’t even be asked. After all, India is the land where thousands of tech startups are blooming, with a billion mobile phone users as their potential customers, who will all use 4G to access the internet, which is all cool and with it. Why should uncomfortable questions be allowed to ruin a good party?
Aayush Soni is an independent journalist in New Delhi. His writings on books, food, cinema, technology, art, popular culture, politics and media have appeared in The Guardian, The Caravan, The Indian Express, Scroll.in, and other publications.
Edited by: Josey Puliyenthuruthel