Thursday 20 June 2019

Smartphone addiction time-bomb 'ready to explode'

Smartphone addiction is a ticking time bomb
Smartphone addiction is a ticking time bomb

Allison Bray

A SMARTPHONE addiction time-bomb is primed and ready to explode, addiction counsellors warn.

A third of internet users now access online content on mobile phones - up from just 10pc two years ago - and internet users are expected to surpass PC users by next year, according to the latest research by Dublin-based Statcounter.

Counsellors now fear internet addiction, fuelled by 24/7 access via mobile phones, will be the next wave of compulsive disorders that they will be treating.

Gerry Cooney, an addiction counsellor at the Rutland Centre, said they are already seeing a massive surge in the number of people - typically young men under the age of 30 - who are seeking treatment for online gambling and pornography addiction, which is exacerbated by 24-hour access through smartphones and other mobile devices.

And while the people he is currently treating at the centre's residential treatment programme have sought help for gambling and other impulse control disorders, he believes smartphone addiction will be the next wave of illness due to the "mood-altering and compulsive" nature of social media, gaming and other forms of online entertainment.

"It's not necessarily a young person's issue," Mr Cooney told the Sunday Independent.

"Facebook is something that a lot of people are now struggling with, the constant need to stay in touch."

The so-called 'FOMO factor', or 'fear of missing out', can also fuel an obsessive need to be constantly online, to the detriment of engagement with the "real" versus virtual world.

"You can have three people sitting there communicating online but not talking to each other," Mr Cooney said.

"It's a surreal world but the big impact is on social skills."

Sean Harty, executive director of Addiction Counsellors of Ireland, said his members are also bracing themselves for an onslaught of smartphone addiction the same way that sex addiction became mainstream about a decade ago after being largely unheard of outside of the addictions field.

The so-called bible of psychiatry - the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association - included what it calls Internet Use Disorder (IUD) as a "condition for further study" in its fifth edition published in 2012.

Counsellors in Ireland are already hearing concerns expressed by mostly parents of young adults and children about excessive use of smartphones to the point where they are no longer speaking or communicating without using technology, or are worried that they have not been able to develop normal social skills.

Mr Harty told the Sunday Independent: "They don't know any other way to communicate. They lack social and interpersonal skills."

Yet of equal, if not greater concern, is that some smartphone users, whether they are children or adults, are starting to exhibit the same kind of withdrawal symptoms that alcoholics and drug and gambling addicts go through when they are denied a drink, fix or a flutter.

"They'll become anxious, nervous, have sweaty palms. Although the withdrawal from alcohol or drugs is more obvious, with shakes and tremors, there is still an inability to cope without technology," Mr Harty added.

If deprived, it can create stress, anxiety and sleeplessness in some people.

Recent research into the area shows that the constant positive reinforcement from online activities, such as getting a "like" on a Facebook page, triggers the levels of the "feel-good" neurotransmitter serotonin, which can reinforce an unhealthy attachment to social media.

"I believe it can become obsessive," Mr Harty said.

Brian O'Neill, the Director of Research of Enterprise and Innovation at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), co-authored a study called Net Children Go Mobile last year, which found that one in three children under the age of 16 reported feeling "very" or "fairly" bothered when they couldn't use their smartphones.

Half of those surveyed "felt a strong need to check my phone to see if anything new has happened very or fairly often", while a quarter of children reported that they neglected family, friends or school activities "very" or "fairly" often due to their smartphone use.

The study concluded kids are more likely to develop an "over dependent" attitude towards their smartphones because they see them as "extensions of their body" that they carry around at all times.

However, he said balance is the key to prevent an unhealthy attachment.

Sunday Independent

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