I am Going on a Digital Diet!

Recently I attended a panel discussion at my son’s school on students’ wellbeing and the most hotly discussed topic there was the overuse of computers, internet and smartphones by adolescents. This set me introspecting about my own use of digital technologies. I believe, while I am definitely not addicted to ICTs, I will be better off changing some of my technology-related behaviour.

For example, the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is to check my email on my smartphone, which I keep next to my bed. Another area of concern is frequently looking at how many people have viewed my blog posts and ‘liked’ them! The third culprit is the number of times during the day I glance at my smartphone to check my email and Whats App.

My diagnosis: I need to go on a digital diet, which I hope will also lead to permanent behavioural change.

It will not be an anorexic diet. Luddite abstinence from ICTs will be madness, given all the positives these technologies have to offer, like access to good quality learning content. It will be more like Atkins or Paleo diet where you deliberately choose not to eat certain types of foods, which in my case are the three areas of behaviour noted earlier. I surmise I should go on a digital diet now so that I can nip any possible future technology addiction as there is a fair chance of me becoming a technology addict given the proportions compulsive use of internet and smartphones is taking.

Consider: In South Korea, internet addiction and gaming is deemed to be a national crisis. To tackle this problem the Korean government has set up National Centre for Youth Internet Addiction Treatment, where participants admit that they play online games for up to 10 hours during school days and up to 20 hours during holidays, staying awake till 4 a.m. In a recent health poll in Australia, 58% of parents said that their top health concern for their children is excessive screen time. A study conducted by Pew Research Centre in the US noted that – ‘young users are particularly likely to use a smartphone to avoid boredom – and ignore other people’. Researchers are finding that pathological use of ICT is impairing familial, social, academic and occupational aspects of life.

While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the Bible for the mental health professionals, does not yet include smartphone and internet addiction as a mental order (the latest addition notes that this area merits more research), psychology practitioners are finding similarities between gambling addiction (which is included in the DSM) and pathological use of the internet.

Feeling depressed, hopeless, or pessimistic about the future sometimes leads to binge behaviour, which could be excessive eating, alcoholism, or even binging on television. This happens because such binge behaviour presents itself as a relief and escape from negative emotions, even though it is temporary and illusory. Today, gaming, the internet and smartphone apps are emerging as another type of binge behaviour that serve as powerful distracting sensations and provide relief, though momentary.

In his book Sapiens, author Yuval Noah Harari makes an interesting observation about the advent of agriculture in human history. He infers that ‘wheat domesticated humans’ and it was not the other way around. Before agriculture humans were free roaming, hunter-gatherers but once they started cultivating wheat, the crop made humans do backbreaking work so that it could survive and thrive. Humans cleared forests, tilled the land, watered the saplings, removed weeds – all so that wheat could flourish. And in so doing, humans became domesticated. The word domesticated comes from the Latin root ‘domus’ meaning house, or living in a house, and it is not wheat but humans who have ended up living inside houses!

Like wheat, ICT seem to be controlling humans so that ICT can flourish! As one Korean teenage gamer at the National Centre for Youth Internet Addiction Treatment admitted, “I feel like the game is controlling me.”

A good lens to look at your internet and smartphone use is ‘locus of control’. In psychology, ‘locus of control’ is the extent to which you believe you can control events affecting you. You have a strong internal locus of control if you firmly believe that events and outcomes in your life derive primarily from your own actions. You could ask yourself if the use of technology is leading to a shift of your locus of control from being internal to becoming external?

For example, I write these blog posts because doing so gives me clarity about my own thoughts and ideas and because I enjoy writing them. But if the lack of readership or a single negative comment makes me distraught then I am letting my locus of control become external.

Whether internet addiction makes it into the DSM or not, the question we should be asking ourselves is if our use of technology is becoming compulsive? Are we becoming so dependent on our smartphone that its absence leads to withdrawal symptoms like feeling angry, tense or depressed? In children, is internet taking precedence over necessary life tasks and basic drives? Is its excessive use leading to a loss of sense of time? Is it stopping them from being physically present with their family, friends and with nature?

I should highlight that it is not the amount of time you spend on the internet, or on your smartphone that is a cause of worry; it is how you are using technology that could lead to problems. If your use of ICT is compulsive, if it is leading to an attention deficit (you can’t focus for long periods of time on a single task because you can’t resist checking email, Facebook, Whats App or Instagram frequently), if you are ignoring family, study and work, or if technology is impacting your wellbeing, then you should investigate if you face the danger of becoming a tech-junkie.

In another post, quoting from a story from the Indian lore, I have described ICT as a ‘Bhasmasuri Vardaan’ – a boon that can become a curse if you lose self-control and the ability to self-regulate. To make sure your ‘ability to be’ or what Aristotle calls ‘eudaimonia’ (long-term wellbeing) is not being impaired, check your use of digital technologies and if required, go on a digital diet now before you are forced to go on a digital detox!