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The new digital addiction

Are we becoming a nation of digital technology addicts? Surely the figures speak for themselves. The average iPhone user unlocks their device 80 times per day, according to figures released by Apple earlier this year. Researchers from Nottingham Trent University in 2015 showed that young adults spend around one third of their waking hours using digital devices. But we  are only now investigating the possible psychopathologies associated with this overwhelming technology usage.

I often work with adults and teens who have run into life-inhibiting mental health problems, and my first-hand experience and survey of the research, all suggest to me that this type of digital addiction will soon be second only in seriousness to addiction to the most toxic hard drugs such as crack cocaine. This is in terms of the social , physical and psychological health consequences for the individuals involved, and for the whole of society. And unlike hard drugs, many of the worst affected are extremely young. Even primary school age children are being ensnared in this 21st-century hazard, often while their parents remain quite unaware of what is happening under their own roofs.

We seem to have totally got it wrong on how to constructively use this technology, allowing it to enslave our thoughts and lives rather than using it as an occasional tool. It doesn’t help that, fuelled by unscrupulous gaming, tv, phone, and social media companies who buy the help of psychologists to guide them, keep users glued to their screens. Such companies and industries can’t yet be prosecuted as drugs-pushers because there are no illegal chemicals, but the effects of the digital epidemic are absolutely insidious. Those malevolent industries know that youngsters who become addicted at a young age, are likely to be in their thrall for decades to come.

And it truly is an addiction when your child or teenager spends several hours on these devices every day, which is now becoming the widespread norm. I know parents whose primary school children have stayed up all night playing video games rather than sleep. Children automatically exhibit symptoms of hyperanxiety if an adult threatens to take a phone away from them at bedtime or mealtimes. The Dolmio advert. now trending online and in commercial TV, caricatures a valid point – that many households now go through a hollow semblance of family time because children play video games or surf the Internet while they refuel on ready-meals, barely looking up unless the wifi connection goes down.

So what are the consequences, apart from sky high charges and unexpected phone bills? For one thing, children and young people who are addicted to a virtual world become stultified when it comes to dealing with real life. I have seen young patients who know how to kill zombies in a game, but don’t know how to read facial expressions or interpret tones of voice. They can’t figure out when someone is upset or hoping to establish a friendship, but they know how to send an Instagram pic or like a Facebook page.

In short, a child and teenager’s skills for making the most of real life either very seriously under-develop, or atrophy very dramatically. They grow into physically stagnant and psychologically incompetent young adults, who cannot cope gracefully with real-life challenges, which will profoundly affect their relationships, jobs, and physical health. Their most visible symptoms will be anger and frustration, or withdrawal and depression, because they are so far behind in the interpersonal and problem-solving skills which make engagement with real life so rewarding. Most often the emotional pain of their ineptness causes the individual to withdraw even further into an escapist fantasies of their own devising, or into some off-the-shelf digital worlds, and to compound this mess, they routinely resort to oral drugs, whether prescription anti-depressants from their  GP, or the supermarket ‘painkillers’ that range from booze, to fast-foods, to ibuprofen.

The tragedy is, as human animals, we are all too easy to manipulate and imprison through seriously damaging habits – habits of consumption that are expertly designed and marketed by unscrupulous industries so that their products selling ‘poisonous substitutes’ precisely appeal to our most deep-seated animal needs: for social connection and group-belonging, (tv, phones & facebook); for a feeling of dynamism and potency, (interactive computer games); for fresh information (google and news); and for sexual opportunities (on-line pornography. Check out the website called ‘YourBrainOnPorn.com’, which is the superb initiative of retired American School Teacher, Gary Wilson. Its clinical critique of the situation, and the brave testimonials by young men, is both shocking and moving. I’d wager that 90 per cent of teenage boys in the UK and the USA will be addicted at some seriously life-inhibiting level to on-line pornography, as will 30 per cent of teenage girls. Ditto for adult men and women.

We are literally ‘sitting targets’ for the digital ‘blitzkrieg ‘that began with TV in the 1950s and has evolved and spread, like a contagious disease,  and is now in danger of damaging our society to an extent that would make the damage of ‘cigarette smoking’ seem trivial by comparison. After all, digital addiction causes life-ruining psychological and interpersonal problems, not only the physical inactivity, atrophy and obesity of a sedentary lifestyle.

This is why I encourage parents to ensure that young children do not have access to smartphones or tablets on a regular basis or even at all. Older children should be given strict curfews and it is essential to monitor what they are doing online too. Better still, parents should group together to demand that their schools prioritise ‘an awareness of the pros and cons of digital worlds by comparison to focused and physically dynamic engagement with real life’, so that young people realise the addictive and poisonous potential of seemingly innocuous and widespread activities. The most innocuous sounding games can involve mayhem and bloodshed on a sickening scale, delivered to young brains that are primed to learn actions and values. It falls upon parents to protect their children until health protection legislation can get a grip on this unprecedented phenomenon that is arguably the greatest scourge of the 21st century.

Dr Nick Baylis
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