Health Risks of Technology Addiction

Gadget addiction and user wellbeing are two main topics that need to be dealt with immediately.  For the young people, their cell phones have become their lifeline, an ally and an extension of their arm.  Obsessive dependency on wireless gadgets and excessive screen-time engagement have started to interfere with people’s health.  It is noted that the nature of the current economy has changed from being material-based to knowledge-based.  Technology has enabled it to happen far and wide.  In the process, this technology is also beginning to enslave people to its agenda, dictating to them, their aim in life instead of enabling people to achieve it themselves.

All About Digital Technology Addiction 

Based on a study on 42 countries by World Health Organization (WHO) from 2002 to 2014, it was found that there was a dramatic increase in the use of wireless gadgets and social media.  WHO has warned that this increase in screen time is putting children’s health at risk.  There is a continuous steep rise in the use of technology by children for more than two hours each weekday.  Although the increase in usage is the same for both boys and girls, it was found that it tripled for girls over the age of 15 years. WHO, in its eleventh International Classification of Diseases (ICD), has included gaming disorder in its list of mental health conditions. A percentage of people who had gaming and Internet addiction also exhibited symptoms of depression, anxiety, somatisation, behavioural changes and insomnia.  Young people are being diagnosed with early-onset dementia due to the intense exposure to the digital technology, like the smartphone, computer, tablet and gaming console.  It is leading to poor memory and hampering the brain’s ability to transfer information to long-term memory.  The youth are more at risk as their brain continues to develop until the age of 25. Digital Technology addiction not only impacts the users, but also the psychological wellbeing of their caregivers.  Japan, South Korea, Italy, China and Australia have officially recognized technology addiction as a disorder.

Parents often do not hesitate to thrust a digital gadget in their children’s hands to prevent tantrums in a supermarket or to alleviate boredom while waiting at a doctor’s clinic.  Kids, as a result, are constantly plugged in and tuned out.  They cannot fathom the difference between real and reel world.  This problem starts very early when a wailing baby is given a cell phone to calm down.  The moment the baby holds this gadget in its hand, it stops crying and there begins its journey to the virtual world.  Instead, they should be looking at the world around them and interacting with people.  In some cases, children feel that their parents pay more attention to their phones than to them.  Parents tend to actively ignore their kids because they are addicted to the screen themselves!  More time is spent recording an event on the phone rather than experiencing it!  We all love and need our phones, but sometimes, instead of enhancing our life, they tend to inhibit it.

In China, excessive use of computer games among the children and adolescents is alarming. Chinese doctors consider this phenomenon a clinical disorder.  They have established rehabilitation centers where afflicted youth are treated.  The young people are confined to jail-like rooms and are cut away from all types of media.  Some cannot handle it and weep inconsolably, asking to be released, so that they can get back to their gaming.  A documentary called “Web Junkie” on PBS deals with the tragic effects of teenagers who become addicted to online gaming. They are so hooked on these games that they do not take breaks to eat, sleep or go to the washroom!

After 40 years of study, gambling disorder was finally included in DSM – V in 2013 and it became the first behavioural addiction to be recognised.  It opened up the mind-boggling concept that behaviours alone can be addictive and just as powerful as a chemical addiction. According to Hilarie Cash, psychotherapist, reSTART Center, Washington, a gamer’s brain lights up in euphoria and builds up a tolerance to the rewards, distorting the neuro-pleasure pathways over time. This is similar to cocaine addiction. The massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are highly addictive.  The global gaming industry is pegged at 91 billion dollars! 

Although the smartphones help us to connect with our loved ones who live far away, they also take up all our free time. There is no longer time to unwind, develop hobbies, sit in peace and quiet and get lost in thought.

Digital Dementia 

Digital dementia is a term made famous by the German neuroscientist, Manfred Spitzer through his book titled “Digitale Demenz” in 2012.  In the early 2000s, young men in Korea started approaching their doctors due to burnout, fatigue and lack of concentration.  They could not carry out their normal day-to-day functions as they were used to playing video games for close to 20 hours per day! Digital dementia is characterized by memory loss, attention disorder, lack of eye contact, lack of empathy, difficulty feeling and showing emotions.  Some argue that scientists are trivializing the real problem of dementia by labeling this new-age problem as digital dementia, which is reversible, as opposed to dementia, which in most cases, is irreversible. But the German neuroscientist is pretty firm in reiterating that extensive dependency on the Internet and wireless gadgets does cause cognitive decline in young people and it is forever. 

Self-harm 

By 2020, the rate of death by suicide will increase by one every 20 seconds according to WHO.  In 2017, Indian Counsel of Medical Research (ICMR) revealed that suicide is the reason for more deaths than road accidents, among all age groups, highest among 15-39 year-olds in Tamil Nadu.  National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) stated that the suicide rate in Tamil Nadu is three times the national average.  According to Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates for teens have risen between 2010 and 2015 in the US, after it had declined for nearly two decades.  The report states that one factor could be due to the rise of social media.  Social media has been blamed for cyberbullying and depicting perfect lives, taking a toll on the mental health of young people, according to research.  Teens state that after scrolling through Facebook and Instagram feeds, they feel bad about themselves and feel left out.  Due to the constant buzzing of the cell phones, the ability to sit still and do nothing has vanished. It is important to feel emotions, connect and engage with people when we talk to them and make eye contact. All of this is taken away by the phones we use constantly.  Perpetrators or trolls who cyberbully will not see the pain they have inflicted on the victims.  Empathy is found to be lacking in children nowadays.

Sleep Deprivation and Insomnia 

Teenagers send and receive text messages and phone calls at night.  This contributes to poor sleep habits.  Over time, it impacts wellbeing and mental health, leading to increase in psychosocial issues.  Blue light from digital screen retards sleep and impairs the production of the hormone, melatonin, responsible for maintaining the circadian rhythm.  Melatonin is stimulated by ambient darkness.  This hormone is produced at night and helps destroy free radicals, which play a key role in many illnesses like cancer and heart disease. If the hormone production is disrupted, it can create conditions for various diseases.  Today, the teens sleep much less than the previous generations and their sleep quality is poor.  This can have serious social and health consequences.  At the same time, electronic media cannot be banned, as it has become a huge part of a teen’s life.

Age of Anxiety 

Wireless gadgets give us the power to access vast amount of information at the click of a button.  Due to this instant gratification, we have lost the art of cultivating patience, often jumping to conclusion with extreme thinking.  It seems like we are living in the “Age of Anxiety” as the social fabric is changing, with people being less socially connected, being individualistic and preferring greater autonomy.  Anxiety tends to predispose people to depression.  Depressed adolescents engage in risky behavior, have low self-esteem, suicidal feelings, and generally, impaired mental health.  Highly anxious people have a higher mortality rate and are prone to asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, and coronary heart disease.

Young people, under constant pressure to look good, get drawn into social media’s ever-changing, and sometimes, harmful beauty standards.  Some even go to the extent of getting plastic surgery done to resemble their filtered selfies.  A behavior mainly seen in celebrities, movie stars and models has gone mainstream because of social media, with every girl and women wanting to look picture perfect, according to author Renee Engeln of “Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women.”  People often post flattering photographs of themselves.  Others who scroll through it may feel that their lives are not so exciting when compared to their circle of friends, leading to negative social media comparison. 

Nomophobia (no mobile phone phobia) or Phone Separation Anxiety (PSA) is the fear of being separated from the mobile phone and the anxiety is due to the fact that the phone is not held in the hand, being unable to attend calls or to charge it. This separation from the smartphone increases heart rate, anxiety and blood pressure.  The symptoms are similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD). Some will compulsively check their phone for messages, imagine that it is ringing or vibrating, using the phone in the shower, bathroom or in the middle of a meal.  Low Battery Anxiety is another condition where people were found to live in constant fear of their mobile phone running out of power and they suffered from daily anxiety.  FOMO or Fear of Missing Out is also considered a form of social anxiety and is a compulsive concern about missing an opportunity for social interaction.

Impolite and altered behaviours are evident in people with the addictive use of digital gadgets.  Phubbing, which is the practice of snubbing others in favor of the smartphone, is becoming widespread.  Even brain-imaging studies have shown that being isolated socially registers as an actual physical pain in the brain.  Most people get very attached to their phones and social media, and in the process, get more stressed and depressed.

Loneliness and Social Isolation 

The Dunbar’s number, set by Robin Dunbar, 150 is the maximum number of people a human being can maintain a regular relationship with.  Within this group, the closest relationships will be maintained with 15 people, and within this group, the number of people human beings depend on for emotional support in times of crisis is only five.  But according to several studies, young people today are the loneliest generation in the history of mankind. 

Half a million young people in Japan, in the age group of 15 to 39 years, barely leave their homes, according to a survey released by the government.  These social recluses have shunned society and have chosen to live isolated lives.  The phenomenon is called “hikikomori.”  These millennials have stayed in their homes for more than six months, without going to school, work or socializing.  It is not that they do want to go out in the world, meet people and make friends, it is just that they are unable to do so.  It is prevalent in more well-educated men from middle class than women.  Rather than interacting with people, they play video games and read comics. The psychologists state that it is not because of laziness, but that they are tormented in their minds.  Hikikomori can occur in various forms.  In one case, the person will lack the energy to get up from the bed and even go to the toilet, another might have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), taking a shower several hours a day or cleaning for hours, and yet another will play video games all day.  It is also prevalent in US, China and Spain.

Loneliness is described as a distressing feeling that makes one feel that their social relationships are inadequate.  This is different from social isolation, as people can be socially isolated without feeling lonely or some may feel lonely in spite of being surrounded by many people.  Loneliness is a subjective feeling.  Research has shown that young people who use social media often are prone to social isolation.  Social media is blamed for distracting people, getting them addicted to it, and physically separating them from interacting with friends and family.  Social isolation is found to be a risk factor for mortality.  UK has even appointed a Minister for Loneliness to tackle the problem of isolation and loneliness suffered by an estimated 9 million Brits!

Sedentary Behavior 

Doctors note that when a child or an adult is hooked to an electronic device, they are in a passive, frozen and hypnotized mode.  This is mostly an urban lifestyle dysfunction where children are sedentary, consume processed food and do not cultivate any hobbies or outdoor activities. On an average, people sit for more than 9 hours a day compared to 7 hours of sleep.  Increased screen time is also linked with obesity.  Smartphones are the new cigarettes and sitting is the new smoking, according to the media and academia!  The most astonishing fact was that some 19-year-olds were not active enough for their age.  Their activity could be compared to that of a 60-year-old!  Due to their alarmingly sedentary lifestyle, more than 50-75 percent of the adolescents did not meet the WHO recommendation of at least 60 minutes of normal-to-high physical activity daily for children and adolescents. Life expectancy has risen since the 1930s, but children’s health has fallen as a result of obesity, inactivity and consumption of sugars and junk food.  Research claims that if this trend continues, youngsters will be less healthy than today’s 65-year- olds by the time they reach that age. 

Increased Aggression 

Evidence is mounting that there is an increase in the number of young people who are brought in by their parents to cure gadget addiction. Children tend to spend close to five hours per day playing games on their mobile phones.  Once the gadget is removed, they become extremely angry, violent and abusive with their parents.  Clinical psychologists state that addiction starts as a toddler and progresses into pre-teen years, and if left unsupervised, young patients go to an extent of neglecting their personal hygiene, avoid eating, shun people and become easily irritable and aggressive.  The devices are hyper-arousing and the young minds are perpetually stimulated by them. When they are offline, they tend to become bored quickly, apathetic and uninterested in the world around them.

Bone and Joint Problems 

Excessive texting or gaming leads to trigger finger, trigger thumb or gamer’s thumb, where the thumb gets stuck in a bent position and snaps when straightened.  This is caused by inflammation, which inhibits free movement of joints.  There is pain and swelling of the thumb, stiffness and pain in the neck and back, muscle strain in wrist and hands due to repetitive nonstop use of thumbs and fingers.  The flexibility of the thumb and fingers will be affected by the constant use of cell phones, leading to long-term damage to the tendons and joints.  Tendinitis of fingers and wrists, arthritis of the thumb joints, numbness in the hand, and early-onset cervical spondylosis are some other problems, which can be triggered by the prolonged use of wireless devices.  Text neck is another condition, where tilting the head 15 degrees from the neutral position, causing stress on the cervical spine and muscles, leading to sever pain and discomfort.  Cubital tunnel syndrome is another condition where the ulnar nerve in the elbow becomes compressed, causing numbness and tingling.  Although the touchscreen on the smartphone requires less pressure, the thumb is still being strained as it is used to scroll and text, odd positions are taken to hold the phone, straining the neck, elbows, back and wrists and hunching the back in the process.  This is seen in children as young as 7 years old, who bend their heads over the wireless devices for long periods of time.  Poor postural positions over prolonged period of time can cause tension in the neck and shoulders, inflammation in the neck and joints, chronic headache, severe back pain.  Without timely intervention, it can lead to the hunchback, abnormally curved spine, slipped disc and permanent arthritic damage.  Humps in the thoracic spine, known as kyphosis, and lateral curvature of the spine, known as scoliosis, will result from the slouching body posture of children and young adults when holding their wireless gadgets for prolonged periods of time.  Also, most children have become less flexible these days, as very few seem to take to sports.

Impaired Eyesight 

The use of smartphones and tablets has significantly increased myopia or short-sightedness apart from dry eyes and blurred vision.  Myopia is due to too much time spent looking at screens at close distance and not enough time spent outdoors during daylight hours.  Using digital gadgets for a long duration of time decreases the frequency of blinking, which moistens the eyes.  Decreased blinking will cause dryness of eyes.  If left untreated, it can result in scarring, ulceration, narrowed blood vessels, and infection of the eyes.  Blue light of the shortwave length emitted by screens can cause health effects like eyestrain, damaged cornea, pain, and impact vision. Blepharospasm or myokymia is the eye twitching that is caused by the involuntary spasming of the eyelid muscle, which can last a few minutes.  A twitching eye can be one sign of stress, especially when it is related to vision problems, such as eye strain and also due to lack of sleep.  Temporary loss of vision in one eye, called transient smartphone blindness, is also being reported.  Viewing smartphone screen while lying on the bed before going to sleep, and doing the same while waking up, leads to such eye problems.

Hearing Loss 

Prolonged talking on the mobile phone can affect the normal hearing capacity of people. Young people are drawn to benefits like free talk time and unlimited free calls on their cell phones and end up talking for six to seven hours daily, which can damage their hearing capacity.  Continuous use of headsets can lead to hearing problems.  There is a condition called as Phantom Vibration Syndrome or CTRL-Z syndrome, where the user feels the buzzing of the phone even when it is nowhere close to the person.  Tinnitus, due to constant or intermittent buzzing noise in the ears, is on the rise.

Shallow Breathing 

One study showed how people held their breath or changed their breathing while texting on their cell phones and/or while working on their laptops. Breathing was found to be shallower in frequent smartphone users. 

Carrier of Germs 

Another phone-related health risk is that it harbors a lot of germs, as the users take their phones everywhere.  More than 17,000 bacterial gene copies on the phones of high school students were found. When phones are held against the skin, they can affect the skin leading to acne, age spots, premature hyperpigmentation due to overexposure to bright screen light, rashes, allergies, and contact dermatitis.

Exposure to non-ionizing radiation from wireless devices

Symptoms of fatigue, tiredness, dizziness, irritability, loss of appetite, loss of body weight, restlessness, anxiety, nausea, skin burning, tingling and dermographism, and EEG changes were reported with excessive use of digital gadgets. During pregnancy, the developing human life is exposed to contaminants from food, air, water, and environment.  Since childhood is the time for significant brain development, using digital gadgets as babysitters could cause problems with the basic social, verbal, and learning skills.  Impacts of wireless devices on the fetus via parental exposures, use of baby monitors, wireless surveillance, Wi-Fi routers, cordless phones, and device use in childhood, preschool and academic environments, may all contribute incrementally to these emission exposures.

Keeping Us Hooked and Head Down! 

Smartphones have become so ubiquitous and the whole wireless technology is exploding on the scene right now.  People are hooked to their phones, and often, with their heads down!  For the young people, it is entertaining, throws many challenges, increasing their satisfaction and happiness!  People who have been around drugs feel that the pull of a smartphone is similar to that of the chemicals.  Some experts feel that the digital gadgets seem to be a substitution for drugs, although strong evidence is lacking.  Being so irrevocably drawn to smartphones and social media can be detrimental to the health of young people in the long run.

Digital technology has become so good that they understand what people are drawn to and nudge them to spend more and more of their time online.  They hijack the human instincts and prey on human weaknesses. One has to exert an enormous amount of energy to control them and avoid the manipulating tactics of digital platforms and wireless gadgets.

Approaches to Cure Tech Addiction 

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective way to treat addictions.  
  2. Neurofeedback is a non-invasive and safe way to read and interpret a person’s brainwaves and it can be used as an add-on therapy, but it cannot replace mainstream medications or proven therapies.
  3. There are new alternative and complementary methodologies for treatment like Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and Advanced Integrative Therapy (AIT).
  4. Deep Touch Pressure (DTP) is a method of using the proprioceptive input to ground the body with a weighted blanket to ease the feelings of anxiety.
  5. Support services and treatment options for relief include yoga and meditation.
  6. To treat emotional traumas, the root cause must be addressed.  Limiting beliefs, self-sabotaging behaviors, compulsions, obsessions, and dissociation makes one vulnerable to illnesses, over and over again.
  7. The key is to make the addicts understand their self-worth through counseling, and unlike other addictions, it is possible to quit gadget addiction cold turkey.  Full, non-judgmental support of parents, siblings and other loved ones is very crucial for recovery.

Need for More Research 

Digital technology addiction among youth is on the rise.  Issues such as privacy, peer influence, cyberbullying, diminishing attention span, touchscreen and blue light effects, sleep disturbance, unhealthy eating habits, and distracted driving need to be addressed.  The health impacts of wireless device emissions and behavioral changes in children and adolescents need to be investigated.  For laptop computers and tablets, the minimum distance from the body is 20 cm.  The cell phone manual, in fine print, instructs the user to hold the phone at least 15 mm from the ear. Best distance from a wireless router is 5 meters. When the phones are connected to the wireless network and placed in a pocket, the exposure from non-ionizing radiation will be more when compared to the phone being placed in a bag or holster.  According to research, excessive exposure can impair the repair of DNA, affect male fertility, cause depression, heart irregularities, and decrease bone density.

Big technology companies should make products, which are “less intrusive and less addictive.” They are urged to create awareness about the responsible use of technology, especially among children and for the greater good.  Long-term health impacts of excessive wireless gadget use is a highly debatable topic.  The best thing to do under such circumstance is to follow the precautionary principle of ALARA or “As Low As Reasonably Achievable,” related to the use of these wireless gadgets as well as their exposures.

Excerpted and adapted from the book ‘The Digital Pied Piper Effect’ (2018) by Sivani Saravanamuttu, available in Kindle and Print editions.

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