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Fighting back against digital addictions in time of COVID-19

An Argentine youth uses his smart phone at his home in Bernal, Argentina amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (File/AFP)
An Argentine youth uses his smart phone at his home in Bernal, Argentina amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (File/AFP)
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31 Aug 2020 12:08:42 GMT9
31 Aug 2020 12:08:42 GMT9

As if its impact on health and economies around the world was not disastrous enough, it seems the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has engendered another pandemic as a secondary effect: Digital addictions have hugely increased everywhere. Just search “pandemic digital addictions” online and you will get a sense of the problem.

Digital addictions include dependence on digital devices (smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc.) and excessive digital activities (social networking and online interactions, browsing the net ad infinitum, watching videos for extended periods, etc.). They are a form of compulsive behavior, like excessive shopping, gambling and other undue activities.

What makes behavioral addictions most difficult to remedy is that, contrary to chemical addictions (nicotine, caffeine, alcohol or illicit drugs), they use things that we cannot do away with. Indeed, one can be cured (physically or psychologically) of cigarettes and learn to never touch them again, but not smartphones or laptops, which have become an integral part of our lives. In fact, with the ongoing pandemic and the drastic reduction in social interactions that everyone has had to make, most people have found themselves sitting at home with “no choice” but to use their digital devices, which can quickly become addictive.

Before the pandemic, various sources estimated that the fraction of people with some form of addiction was between a third and a half, most of them behavioral addictions. Many reports have been issued about digital addictions in various countries and the picture that emerges is that of a pervasive and universal problem.

When do we (parents, in particular) know that we have a digital (or, more generally, a behavioral) addiction on our hands? In a nutshell, when someone’s usage of a given product starts having clear negative effects on their life, whether physical (backaches, puffy eyes, chronic sleep deprivation, etc.), financial (excessive spending on something), or time-wise (neglecting duties, wasting time on some activities, etc.). These are signs that can be noticed by others, such as parents, or by the people themselves, in addition to the strong desires that one finds difficult to overcome.

People are often in denial about their addictions, claiming that they are in control of their behavior and that they only spend short amounts of time on this activity or that. Moreover, they say, their desires and use of that product come and go. In reality, and while addictive behavior does ebb and flow, it tends to worsen with time, if one pays attention.

In his recent book “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” Adam Alter tells us that China declared this the No. 1 public health threat and that, as of 2017, when the book came out, there were 400 treatment centers in China for 24 million digital addicts. Needless to say, the numbers must have substantially increased since then.

People have found themselves sitting at home with ‘no choice’ but to use their digital devices, which can quickly become addictive.

Nidhal Guessoum

The UK’s Office of Communications, the governmental regulatory authority, has noted that 15 million users (34 percent of all UK digital users) have tried a digital detox program. Interestingly, while being offline, 33 percent of them reported an increase in their productivity, 27 percent felt liberated, and 25 percent experienced greater life enjoyment. However, 16 percent of them felt the famous “FOMO” (fear of missing out), 15 percent felt lost, and 15 percent felt “cut off.”

Houston, we have a problem. And it’s getting worse.

What to do? First, one needs to identify and assess the problem with a given person. There are a number of digital addiction tests available. People should give them a try — many will be shocked. Among other tools, there are apps that can measure one’s daily usage, both in total and for each specific program (such as Instagram and WhatsApp); they can also pinpoint the times of exaggerated usage. Once an assessment has been made, one must address the issue as a serious problem.

Secondly, experts tell us that it is difficult to go “cold turkey” on one’s addiction, which is to stop it at once, even with psychotherapy or other treatments. Indeed, such an approach will only work temporarily, as the addiction often comes back. The better solution is to adopt a replacement activity: Some sport or new hobby, or a social activity such as getting together with friends (as long as they all agree not to use their digital devices).

If “simple” solutions such as these prove ineffective, there are more drastic treatments, such as what is done in the centers I mentioned above. These treatments include both medications to address mental issues such as anxiety and depression, as well as psychotherapy, individual, group, or family therapies.

I think the main issue for us as a society is the realization and assessment of the extent of the problem. I have seen too many people who are clearly digital addicts: Students who cannot sit in class for an hour without “checking” their smartphones; adults who cannot listen to an imam’s sermon (roughly 20 minutes) without reaching for their device; and so forth.

We all (parents, educators, communicators, religious leaders, and others) have an important duty to identify and assess the growing digital addiction problem and to propose solutions, from the “easy” or mild ones to the stronger ones. Time is a precious commodity that we must not waste so nonchalantly.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum
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