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Digital addiction | The World Weekly

As cheap smartphones and Wi-Fi sweep the world, extreme Internet use is growing rapidly. Digital ‘addiction’ is now a widespread concern, particularly when it comes to the younger generation which has spent their whole lives connected.

A major OECD survey looking at the habits of 15-year-olds across the world found that 16% of youngsters on average spend more than six hours online outside of school (its definition of extreme Internet use) during weekdays. It is not just developed Western countries who are hooked, either: while 37.3% of 15-year-olds in the UK reported extreme use, Brazil and Chile’s teenagers scored the highest, logging over four hours on an average weekday. 

Numerous studies have linked extreme Internet use to mental health issues. A report published in June by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), a UK-based think-tank, found that 27% of children who spend more than three hours a day on social networking sites on school days displayed “symptoms of mental ill health”, up from just 12% of children who spend no time on such sites.

Links have been drawn not just with social media but with modern technology in general, affecting children and adults alike. A 2016 study in peer-reviewed journal Computers in Human Behaviour found that high engagement with mobile phones has a significant link with anxiety and depression, for example.

Studies like these have fuelled a media frenzy - understandably so, given how easily they confirm the anxieties widely shared by all denizens of the Internet age. Parents fret over reports that social media can take a painful toll on young people’s self-esteem and confidence, creating an always-open space for social comparison and cyberbullying. Alarm over the now-ubiquitous smartphone, meanwhile, strikes a chord with professionals who find their work-life balance eroded by the 24-hour pinging of their email inboxes, and their sleep apparently degraded by the late-night glow of screens.

Cause or effect?

The scientific community, however, is divided over how to treat the problem. Many are eager to draw the line at correlation: the EPI report, for example, stressed that there is no clear indication as to whether technology use acts as a catalyst for mental health problems or if the causal link runs the other way. Indeed, the study on mobile phone use suggested that while using devices for emotional coping is linked with anxiety and depression, using devices to alleviate boredom is not.

“We can perhaps see that those who use the Internet a lot, and who encounter online problems, have poorer mental health,” says Sonia Livingstone OBE, professor of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics, who has worked extensively on young people’s relationship with the Internet. “But we don’t know why. Is the health finding the result or the original cause of Internet use?”

Extreme technology use is thought to be most prevalent amongst young people

Even the correlation itself is at question, particularly when it comes to children and teens: “We don’t have good evidence that mental health problems are rising over time, as Internet use increases, nor that Internet use is greater in those with mental health problems,” Professor Livingstone told The World Weekly.

The ‘Good Childhood Report 2015’ surveyed British teenagers from 2009-2013, revealing little change in self-reported well-being. When studies suggest that psychiatric conditions like depression are becoming more prevalent, they are still subject to an ongoing debate as to whether this is really due to worsening mental health or simply changing awareness and diagnostic methods.

Tackling extreme Internet use

Many societies across the world, however, have not hesitated in tackling extreme Internet use, in sometimes extreme ways. China, the country with the greatest number of Internet users, has taken what is perhaps the hardest stance. The Chinese government was the first in the world to recognise ‘Internet addiction’ as a condition in 2008, and it believes that around 10% of its Internet users aged under 18 are addicts.

China’s angst over the issue has manifested itself most visibly in the form of its infamous Internet addiction boot camps, where thousands of parents send their children for months at a time, reportedly shelling out fees from $5000 to upwards of $22,000.

The camps, many of which enforce strict military-style regimes, have repeatedly made the headlines for their apparently brutal treatment of children, with reports of unexplained deaths and ‘patients’ emerging traumatised by treatments which have included beatings and electroshock therapy. The government has banned corporal punishment at these camps, but deaths still occur. Demand from parents is still going strong.

A Chinese teenager plays with toys as part of his treatment at the Internet Addiction Treatment Centre in a Beijing suburb

China may be just one extreme case of digital intolerance, but the idea of technology addictions is increasingly popular around the world. Countries like the US and UK are notably home to strong disdain for extreme tech use, with many labelling it the curse of a generation.

‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ (IGD) was included in the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a widely-referenced ‘bible’ of psychiatric conditions, showing just how far Internet use has progressed from a bogeyman for concerned parents to an item of scientific concern.

It is, however, tucked away in the ‘research appendix’, which recommends conditions for further study due to a lack of evidence for counting them as official diagnoses. The term itself already raised eyebrows, begging questions as to why obsessive non-gaming Internet use or offline gaming do not warrant similar scrutiny. There is still little agreement as to what symptoms make up IGD, how it is measured, or how prevalent it is.

“Terms like [Internet addiction and IGD] are probably more a product of moral panic over new technology than they are a product of good science,” says Christopher J. Ferguson, professor and co-chair of psychology at Stetson University in Florida.

“To some degree, some individuals may overdo just about anything ‘fun’ - eating, sex, work, religion, exercise, shopping, etc. - and there’s been no good evidence that things like video games or social media are any more addictive than a myriad of other activities,” he told TWW.

A social issue

Today’s public anxiety over extreme technology use might therefore be more grounded in social issues rather than any genuine scientific consensus. “It is important to remember that every new media from writing and reading onwards has been associated with addiction,” says Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent.

“Reading addiction in the 18th century was a veritable moral panic. Today, concern with people spending too much time on the net is also medicalised,” he says. “That individuals may have problems with digital technology is not in doubt - but the diagnosis of 'digital addiction' is a simplistic formula for condemning behaviours that we don’t like."

Children play video games on smartphones while attending a public event on September 22, 2012, in Ruesselsheim, Germany

In the face of a lack of scientific consensus, society’s reaction to today’s tech obsessions could end up doing more harm than good. “It distracts attention from fostering a climate of intelligent digital use,” says Mr. Furedi - a sentiment shared by the other experts interviewed by The World Weekly.

Parental anxiety about the Internet, argues Professor Livingstone, “undermines trust between parent and child, undermines children’s rights to learn and express themselves, and distracts parents from [effectively] supporting their child’s online and offline exploration.” Meanwhile, pathologising technology use through special diagnoses risks harming “the entire concept of mental illness which some may come to see as a joke rather than something to take seriously, the more we pathologise normal behaviours with junk diagnoses like these,” according to Professor Ferguson.

The key, they argue, is not to treat modern technology as its own problem but rather a new platform on which age-old human foibles can play out on a grander scale. This does not make extreme technology use and its links with health issues any less concerning, but the race is on to better understand them.

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