A rise in cases of internet addiction might make you look at your smartphone a little differently. By Kate Springer
Walk down any street in Hong Kong and you’ll notice the same scene: thousands of adults and children walking around with their eyes fixated on a smartphone. When not checking their phones, most Hongkongers are glued to a computer screen at work, playing games on a tablet at home, reading on an e-reader or watching a movie on a TV screen.
While technology is both a wonderful tool, it’s fast becoming for many a worrisome obsession. As it becomes more and more omnipresent in our lives, scientists and psychologists are increasingly concerned about the rise of internet addiction, which can start as early as adolescence. A 2015 study by The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which followed adolescent students over the course of six years, found that 17 percent of young women and 26.8 percent of male students had internet addictions.
Likewise, a 2015 report by the Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) Watch outlined internet addiction as a growing concern. The NCD cited serious negative effects on family, relationships, social development, mental health, finances and academics – not to mention physical issues such as eyestrain, headaches and poor sleep.
Dr. Quratulain Zaidi, a clinical psychologist who specializes in family psychology and internet addiction at her Hong Kong clinic MindNLife, has worked with many families – adults and kids alike – who show signs of internet addiction.
“The hardest thing is to get some bankers, business owners and CEOs to actually recognize that it’s playing a part in their anxiety and stress levels”, say Dr. Zaidi. “It’s very hard for them to admit that they can’t pull away”.
Back in 2013 Dr. Zaidi says she was partially guilty of this as well. She would regularly find herself answering emails at all hours, and “working” on her laptop – when really she was spending more time browsing Amazon, skimming Facebook or reading a psychology article.
“It wasn’t productive work-wise. Being focused on the task at hand is more important than being logged on”, she says. “I took email off my phone so that I had to do it on my laptop so it’s not available constantly anymore”.
Dr. Zaidi initiated new rituals with her family as well. “I have a 9-year-old, a teenage daughter and my husband finds it a challenge to put his phone down too”, she says. “We go on digital diets – we started in 2013 because I was so fed up with everyone being on their phones all the time”.
Entrepreneur Charlz Ng, CEO and Director of event planning specialists Hybrid Group, is no stranger to the constant pull to be plugged in. “I’m definitely attached to my phone and technology”, he admits. “Our business is a people business; we need to connect with people, keep up with them, be active on social media and respond to questions”.
He says that works demands are a common problem among his contemporaries. “But what is so important that it can’t wait until you go back to the office?” He wonders. “Here in Hong Kong we are all workaholics, whereas people in Europe are happy to go offline and stop working. It’s a totally different mentality”.
A trip to Europe is actually where Ng got the idea for OffGrid, a digital detox event that debuted in 2015 and is returning again this summer. About 30 people camped out on Lantau Island, ditched their phones for the weekend and spent their time doing yoga, Muay Thai, meditation and dance classes.
“When I was in Switzerland on a trip with my parents, we were at dinner and everyone in my family had their phones on the table and were absorbed in Whatsapp or posting photos to social media”, he recalls. “I looked around and no one else was on their phone. That’s how the idea came about”. OffGrid is all about letting go of technology and putting your phone away – literally handing it over – for a weekend. “I got a few heart-touching messages afterward from people saying they felt like they had a 10-day holiday, even though it was only two days”.
But why does it take such a concerted effort to put down the screens? Zaidi says there are all kinds of psychological reasons we’re so attached to technology. For some, she says it’s the fear of missing out, of falling behind on news articles or viral YouTube videos. But, she says, “Information overload increases your anxiety, and being at the receiving end of constant information isn’t helpful”.
Others find the online space open and inviting, where people can be themselves and overcome social anxiety. Unsurprisingly, social media has its own special place in the world of technology addiction, as validation from Facebook likes or Instagram followers can impact a sense of identity and self-worth.
Increasingly, many people use technology as an escape mechanism. “There are a lot of people here who are quite lonely, especially the expat moms who come here with their husbands and suddenly find themselves at a loss and with too much time on their hands”, says Dr. Zaidi. “For someone who is really unhappy, has social anxiety or is slightly depressed, these online platforms give them a form of escape”.
Others turn to technology to avoid responsibilities, whether it’s a crying baby or an uncomfortable conversation. “It becomes problematic when there’s lack of communication between couples, or parents and children, because they are so dependent or absorbed in their screens”, she adds.
Technology is of course a remarkable tool, but Dr Zaidi warns against letting it become your life. “There are so many opportunities in real life”, she says. “You don’t need to spend it looking at a screen”.
It’s bad for your health, too! In addition to your mental health, excessive screen time can also tax your body, leading to…
Back and neck problems
Poor posture associated with long hours logged at a computer can lead to back and neck pain down the line. “Text Neck” is also becoming a problem; bending your head down to peer at your screen increases pressure on your cervical spine.
Excessive screen time is leading to an increase in near-sightedness, not to mention dry eyes, headaches and light sensitivity. Be sure to look away from your screen regularly.
Studies have shown that staring at the blue light of a phone or laptop screen can make it harder to fall asleep and mess with your body clock. Apps like fl.ux can automatically warm the colour tone of your screen in the evening – or better yet, put down your phone altogether a couple of hours before bed.
Before you unplug for good, try out these life-saving apps that will actually help you minimise your tech time.
Moments: This app is both awesome and awful at the same time. When you log on, it keeps track of the cumulative time you and your family have spent on your phones. You can also set daily limits to keep yourself in check should you need some boundaries.
Headspace: A digital meditation specialist, Headspace is a beautifully designed app that walks you through the basics of meditation as well as more advanced practices. Use it to clear your head, find some clarity or simply to help you fall asleep at night.
Am I Addicted?
Run through this 10-point questionnaire. If you find yourself agreeing to four or more of these statements, you need to revisit your relationship with technology.
Do you stay online longer than you expected more and more often?
Do you ignore and avoid other work or activities to spend more time on-screen?
Do you often check messages or emails before doing something else you need to do, even delaying meals?
Do you frequently get annoyed or irritable if someone bothers you when you are trying to do something online or on your phone?
Do you prefer to spend time with people online or through messaging rather than being with them face to face?
Do you think a lot about when you can get back online when you are offline?
Do you argue with, or feel criticised by friends, partners or family about the amount of time you spend online?
Do you get excited, anticipating when you can next get online, and also thinking about what you will do?
Do you prefer on-screen activities now to going out and doing something else?
Do you hide, or become defensive about what you do online?
Courtesy of Dr. Quratulain Zaidi