People want to spend less time online but need help to break free of the digital addiction

Life seemed simple until technology came along and showed us what we were missing. In short, technology made life easier but with easy life came the baggage of addiction — technology addiction. The dilemma of missing out or feeling lost in this global village is more than what users bargained for when they purchased the mobile devices.

Technology has become an integral part of our daily lives. The entrance of technology brought about computers but as the desire for portability and mobility increased, laptops, tablets, smartphones and smartwatches came along. Then came the longing to always be connected, to know more and to bridge gaps, giving rise to the internet and slowly to addiction.

Several medical experts who treat patients with addictions have raised the alarm about more people becoming uncontrollably attached to their digital devices. Most of these experts have given high-technology gadgets for some users a generic name digital heroin and ‘electronic cocaine.’

Acknowledging digital addiction and the problem it poses for the 21st-century humans, the World Health Organisation now includes ‘gaming disorder,’ the inability to stop digital gaming, as part of the International Classification of Diseases.

Addiction therapists who treat gadget-obsessed people say there is a similarity between their patients and other kinds of addicts. While alcohol, tobacco and drugs increase dopamine that a user’s body gets addicted to, in behavioural addiction, it is the mind’s craving to turn to the smartphone or the internet and that craving causes dopamine release. Dopamine is an organic chemical that plays several important roles in the brain and body.

Digital Addiction in Africa

As at 2011 in Kenya, internet addiction was already worse than substance abuse. According to the chairperson of the Kenya Counselling Association, Catherine Gachutha, Internet addiction is rapidly increasing in Kenya. “Incidentally, the number of youths addicted to various internet sites surpasses that of those addicted to drugs and alcohol.”

An ATKearney study, titled Connected Consumers Are Not Created Equal, found that of 10,000 connected consumers across the globe, over half (51 percent) noted they were online almost every hour of the day. It also discovered that South Africans and Nigerians are addicted to the internet. The African country with the highest rate of Internet penetration is Nigeria, which as of June 2016 had 97.2 million users.

A 2013 study of university students in Uganda and Namibia found that while students spent less time online than their peers in Western countries, they showed more instances of emotional dependency and mood modification behaviour showing that they would choose being online over going out.

Algeria has decided to become Africa’s knight in shining armour by opening the first internet addiction clinic in Africa. At the Bachir Mentouri clinic in Constantine, Algeria, internet addicts who are prevented from going online become fidgety, anxious, and sometimes aggressive, and they’re treated with counselling, physical exercises, meditation, and music therapy.

You are not the problem

It is very easy to criticize people for their inability to let go of their devices not knowing that it is no fault of theirs. Getting you glued to your devices is a top priority on social media developers and smart device manufacturers’ mind when making these devices and users are unaware.

Digital technology is designed to facilitate addiction with the constant buzzing of push notifications from online shopping platforms and the endless social media feeds are created as perfect distractions to keep users busy. Worse of all, the idea of scarcity is built around these digital devices, an example is the Instagram story, Whatsapp status and Facebook video disappear after a period of time, making users log on to view before they disappear, hence keeping them glued.

These days, technology is designed to utilize basic human needs to feel a sense of belonging and connection with others; social media designs capitalise on people’s fear of missing out, commonly known as FoMO. As of 2018, 3.1 billion people, roughly one-third of the global population use social media and most recent data posit that over 210 million people suffer from the internet and social media addictions worldwide. This is just internet and social media and does not include the whole of digital technology.

Social media use has been linked with depression, particularly among young people. A study noted that teenagers who spend above five hours daily on electronic devices are 71 percent more likely to commit suicide than those who spend less than an hour a day.

A 2018 study found that  5.71 percent of people sleep with or next to their mobile phones while 7.50 percent of people who use their smartphones while driving are checking their social media. The average person spends nearly 2 hours a day using social media, which amounts to 5 years and 4 months of a person’s lifetime. Note that social media is one of the numerous things that can be accessed with digital devices.

Help!!!

According to the United Kingdom’s communications regulatory authority, Ofcom Telecommunications company, about 34 percent of all internet users have attempted a digital detox, but the majority have failed to completely detox. After being offline for a while, 33 percent of the participants reported feeling an increase in productivity, 27 percent felt a sense of liberation, 25 percent enjoyed life more, 16 percent of the participants experienced the fear of missing out, 15 percent felt lost and the remaining 14 percent felt cut-off.

These statistics suggest that people want to spend less time online but do not know how to go about it. In a bid to promote well being and reduce the amount of time people spend on smart devices, Apple Inc. announced a new ‘digital health’ tool that will be found inside the settings app. This is to stop your phone from bothering you while you are sleeping.

Last month, Google also announced a similar tool on the search engine that will issue warnings if you have been watching Youtube for a long time. Facebook also introduced changes to its news feed, something the social network believes will lead to users spending less time but should users spend time, it will be more rewarding.

Instead of waiting for technology companies to find solutions on the same devices and applications that cause addiction, it’s time users made conscious decisions not to be ‘digital drug addicts.’

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

To overcome technology addiction, old habits have to change and replaced with new ones. So, instead of aimlessly checking the mobile phone during free time, insert a new and enjoyable activity like reading. Idle time should be eliminated as much as possible because it is usually during idle moments that people reach for their phones, says Jamison Monroe, founder and CEO of Newport Academy, a comprehensive treatment centre for teens.

Secondly, turn off notifications until you have to go check them. Given that digital technologies like smartphones elevate dopamine receptors, simply turning off notifications on smartphones will make a person less likely to look at the mobile phone every few seconds.

Understandably, internet, laptop, computers and smartphones are useful and helpful in our work environments and people are required to use them for more than 12 hours daily but these digital devices should not become a person’s entirety.

It will be interesting to see how our interactions with our phones change over time, maybe the pendulum will swing back the other way as cell phones, and social media, become less novel says, Alice Walton.