Earlier this week, the first rehabilitation centre for ‘Internet addicts’ was opened in the United States. De-addiction camps in China were in the news recently for the death of a teenager because of the brutal methods used there to cure ‘Internet addiction.’
‘Internet addiction’ for now is a catch-all term that not only stands for addiction to specific activities such as gambling or gaming but also refers to longer hours devoted to the computer network at the expense of other activities. Though the Internet is only a medium of communication and information transmission like the printed book or television, ‘addiction’ is being used in this case with concern because of a fundamental dialectic: ‘quantity becomes quality.’ “A whole new world is just a click away with the Internet. It is a medium just like books and TV, but the amount of interaction it makes possible with others, sometimes replacing the need for real world interaction, makes it vastly different,” says E.S. Krishnamoorthy, consultant neuropsychiatrist, Voluntary Health Services, Chennai. Though chemical changes may not be induced by the broadly repetitive action involved in gaming and general ‘Internet addiction,’ social behavioural modifications do take place, including sleep deprivation and aggression towards the depriver of access to the Internet, he says. “It is somewhat between Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and addiction due to substance abuse. Substance abuse-led addiction focusses on gratification which this form of attachment provides, though there is no chemical ingestion. At the same time, the behavioural modifications are similar to those with OCD. It is almost like the ‘rush’ gamblers get out of a purely gratification-oriented repetitive action,” Dr. Krishnamoorthy adds.
Sunil Abraham, director-policy, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, says what constitutes ‘Internet addiction’ is sometimes misunderstood because of a generational gap between those who grew up immersed in technology and those who adopted technology later in their lives. Can a teenager’s extensive use of social networking be categorised as ‘addiction’? Not necessarily. Social networking could lead to forging new relationships which could be beneficial. For now, such activities may not be the norm, but it could be the way our society is configured in the future, says Mr. Abraham. The Internet itself offers solutions to balance your real and virtual activities. For instance, ‘Freedom’ is an application that disables networking on an Apple computer for up to eight hours at a time. In the settings of Google mail, you can enable ‘Email addict’ (a Google Labs feature) that disables your screen and makes you invisible on chat for 15 minutes. There are many such timer software that let you set a period for which a certain activity would be banned. Dr. Krishnamoorthy advocates counselling and concerted effort to increase real world social interactions for “treating” Internet addiction. He warns that the problem is larger in that we are creating an “inward-looking society.” “There is a big problem on hand if many people replace the real world with the Internet instead of using it as a device to enhance interactions,” he says. Mr. Abraham says controls should come from a more open and informed discussion, of which even children are a part. Dubbing an activity not fully understood an “addiction” and imposing old-fashioned controls are not the right approach, he adds.