The current generation is becoming hooked to a shiny new bunch of drugs — and they aren’t the kind you snort.
Afew months ago, I paid a visit to my orthopaedist because a neckache had been bothering me for a while. It was a dull ache, at the nape, and a bunch of exercises (and even a massage) had had no healing effect. A precautionary X-ray revealed nothing either. My doctor gave me a knowing smile and asked me, out of nowhere, how much time I spent on my cell phone every day. I laughed.
“Aren’t we always on our phones?” I said.
“That might be the problem.”
“What are you trying to say, doc? Do I have a “cell phone neck” or something, like a “tennis elbow”? (I thought I had cracked a funny one.)
“They don’t have a name for it yet, but yes, I think so.” I don’t think “they” have a name for it, but if you take a look at the evolution of human posture, you will notice that homo sapiens has gone from standing erect to slouching, head bent, hands perpetually bent up from the elbows, thumbs working furiously. My doctor prescribed “three weeks off mobile devices” which, quite sadly, was almost impossible to follow – I guess he knew that too, because he also gave me painkillers and creams.
We had a conversation recently, when he shared stories of people who come to him with all sorts of surprising ailments. “I had a 15-year old boy come in with stiffened fingers. His index fingers and thumbs, of both his hands, had become so rigid that he couldn’t move them any more. I hadn’t seen anything like it. The kid spends all his time with video games, your Playstation stuff,” he said. “The parents never saw that as a problem. They didn’t even know that he would sometimes stay up all night, playing those games. It’s scary.”
So how did he treat him? He laughed. “Well, muscle relaxants and pain killers help, but I suggested that he be taken to a therapist. I realised he had a sort of dependency that was unhealthy. But as usual, Indians still think therapy is taboo. I hope they did get him some help, though.” But this was just a case of a bad habit, right? Or was there a possibility of this recurring? “Recurring? It’s not going away till the root problem is cured. See, the problem is not the pain or the ache. They are symptoms. You can only momentarily soothe the symptoms. I am increasingly seeing a lot of this these days. People always think it is a posture problem, but it is actually a lifestyle issue.”
What my orthopaedist said got me thinking. Are a lot of our ailments these days mere symptoms of larger health issues? These random headaches that a lot of us complain of, back aches, lower back problems, decreasing fitness levels – where is all this stemming from? That made me look around, and I realised that we spend most of our waking time with gadgets. This hadn’t been a problem earlier because, as a planet, a large portion of the population had been actively working on computers and laptops for at least two decades. It had led to back issues, mostly, and dry eyes. The real problem is that earlier, gadgets were mainly a part of work, not play. Our sources of entertainment and relaxation have, however, changed very drastically in the last five years, and what has also changed is our dependency on them.
Mira is 27. She works for an advertising agency, as a digital media executive. She loves to shop – online. “At any given point of time, my browser used to have at least ten tabs open of various shopping sites. And I had about a hundred bookmarked pages. Not to mention wishlists on every site, favourites and saved pages,” she says. “And it is not like I was buying something all the time. Whenever I was taking a break, I would scroll through sites, check stuff out. I didn’t think there was a problem.” Her colleagues started noticing the problem when she would stay back late into the night after work, scrolling through various websites. “I would just sit there, scrolling. I would sometimes cancel plans with friends, and not feel like going out. Even if I did, I had all the shopping apps on my phone and I would prefer to sit in a corner, “playing” with them. It felt like a game, you know, like Angry Birds or something. Only that I was always broke.”
Soon, Mira had become a recluse, and her close friends decided to stage an intervention. “They took away my credit cards, and I reacted very violently to that. I think that is when I realised that I needed help.” A string of counselors helped her understand that she had an online shopping addiction. It sounds hilarious, but from what I found out, it is mushrooming in cities around the globe. I spoke to five psychiatrists across cities in the country, and all of them had had at least 2 or 3 people come in with this problem, in the last year.
“We will soon need a new DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] update,” one of them joked. And he is not wrong, because Internet Gaming Disorder was put under “Condition for Further Study” in the DSM-5 (APA 2013). So, while they are not officially calling it a disorder, the APA has asked for further research into the matter. And interestingly, online shopping was having the same effects on Mira as video games or internet games. “That is the only form of entertainment or relaxation I enjoyed,” she says. I soon realised that an online shopping addiction might not be as destructive as an internet gaming/gaming addiction, and so I decided to find out what it really was.
David (35, and a freelance writer) has been in and out of therapy for his gaming addiction. What started off as racing games and versions of Mortal Kombat soon escalated to multi-player VR tournaments and online gambling. “See, I might use the word ‘tournaments’, but it was really just a bunch of people I met on Facebook communities and forums who were into the same thing,” he says, laughing. “And that is all we did. I used to have “offline” friends too, but I barely hung out with them. I barely hung out with anyone. I work from home, on my own time, so there is no office I have to go to or a boss I need to answer to. All I did was order takeout and play. Then I started working less. Yes, I can make do with a little less money this month, I thought. It all went downhill from there.” One of his online friends introduced David to a gambling game dressed as a cool version of mahjong. “I won a couple of times when I started out, and that got me totally hooked to it. Now I didn’t even have to interact with anyone to play, so I didn’t have any ‘online’ friends left either.” Finally, horribly broke, David moved back in with his parents and, after a lot of coaxing, agreed to go into therapy.
“What’s the dependency like?” I asked him.
“Have you ever craved for chocolate cake, dude? Gooeyfudgy chocolate cake with ganache and everything?”
“Of course. Now that you talk about it, I want it right now.”
“Exactly. Now imagine that craving all the time. That would drive you to get some cake, wouldn’t it?”
“Now imagine that, even after eating that cake, you want more cake. And then some more. And if you don’t have it or try to stop yourself, your head splits with a headache and your skin feels like it is on fire. So, you just have more cake.”
I share this conversation with Mira and she agrees.
“I understand that. While it might not have been that intense for me, I can relate to the withdrawal symptoms.”
Anita (24, a student) shoots at least a thousand selfies every day. I actually counted a random day’s log, and it clocked in at 1211. Her Instagram handle is just a blur of tight close ups of her face from top angles. “It’s not about photography,” she giggles, when I start mumbling about bad lighting. “I just have to shoot photos of myself. All the time.” And doesn’t she think that there is something wrong with that? “Why? People think I am pretty. You should see the comments I get.” We start scrolling through the comments section under her photos on Instagram, and it is filled with random people telling her that she is “hawt” and “prettttyyyyyy”, with words and emojis. “Do you know any of them?” I ask. “Nope. But look at how many hearts I have!” she squeals, and then proceeds to take a selfie – “Feeling happy” is how she captions it.
One of my exes was nomophobic, and I don’t use the term loosely at all. I have seen the person sleep with their cellphone tightly clutched in their hand. There have been times when I have hidden the cell phone for a while, and I have seen the person be overcome with anxiety. While nomophobia (No Mobile Phone phobia) is not listed in the DSM-5, it has for long been proposed as a “specific phobia” based on the definitions of the DSM-IV. While it might not be an actual “phobia”, the withdrawal responses align it to a possible addiction. “If you ask me to make an approximation, presently, 6 out of 10 people have a cell phone dependency. I am sure none of those 6 know it yet.” I speak to Dr. M.N. Sahoo, one of Delhi’s most prominent psychiatrists, who has been working with technology addicted patients for a while now. “The character of the problem is multi-limbed. Different people derive different pleasures from cell phones,” he explains. “Some have the constant need to stalk other people, albeit harmlessly. Others like to project a false reality on social media to come across as cool. That stems from jealousy, and insecurity, and a dissatisfaction with one’s actual reality. Then there is an increasing rate of narcissism (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, DSM-5, Cluster B-Personality Disorders) which has always been registered as an actual personality disorder. It is just manifesting itself differently at present. This constant need for gratification of self-worth and appearance is unhealthy.” I try to have a conversation with Anita about this. She disconnects the call, after an “It’s my life” monologue.
With substance abuse, it is easier to ‘see’ the harm being done to yourself and others. But how do you tell people that too much Instagram is not a good thing? Or porn. Who decides how much porn consumption is fine? “I used to watch porn all the time. At work. While travelling. The moment I got home. That’s all I did.” Suresh (35, a media professional) has been in and out of therapy for his pornography addiction for the last four years. “I had friends around me who watched porn too, here and there, so I thought it was fine,” he says. “I realised that something was wrong when I spent a whole weekend cooped up in my apartment with my laptop. I felt exhausted, dirty and disgusted with myself. I remember how the next day, at work, everyone was talking about how amazing that weekend had been – quick holidays, parties, the works. I had to lie through my teeth.” We hear a lot about the effects of excessive porn consumption. “They are all true. I became a secluded man, would rarely go out. I would voraciously swipe right on Tinder and even when I did meet a few women, I would be quite dissatisfied with the experience. Porn is amped up, right? I know that now, but when you are knee-deep in that shit, you keep asking yourself why the reality does not match up. Then I started blaming myself. Maybe I wasn’t good enough or endowed enough. It was just downhill from there.”
It’s important, and healthy, for all of us to review our habits and behavioural patterns. How much time do you spend on social media websites and apps every day? That would be a good starting point to understand how dependent you are on them. I have two more questions: 1) What do you do when you are on these sites and apps? 2) When you feel like you have nothing to do, do you immediately revert to social media to keep yourself engaged? While a lot of us might use Facebook and Instagram for work, the problem arises when we turn to social media outside work.
Do we need to scroll through our FB feed during dinner and while catching up with friends? I remember going out for dinner one night with a bunch of friends, and I realised that all of us had our phones out at the table, barely talking to each other. Even if we were chatting, our thumbs were still active on the screen. We made a rule that night — phones were not to be allowed at dinner tables. Calls were to be ignored (only calls from parents were excused) and whoever failed to abide by this decree had to pick up the tab for the rest of the group. Trust me, it’s worked beautifully.