Sleep, eat, net, repeat: Net addiction in co-Covid world
Many people today are not able to function a few hours without social media
Just a few days ago, Mumbai lost power for 15 hours and the whole city came to a halt. I spoke to a team member of mine, asking them what the situation was like at home. I was expecting concern, of course, but I had not thought I would hear such distress in their voice, "Life has come to a standstill! To be honest, I feel paralysed. I don't know what to do with myself..."
In a lockdown world where much of our functioning happens online, workers were understandably concerned about getting the ball rolling for the day. But this wasn't regular concern. This was fear, and such fear is unfortunately common. Many young students and workers today would not be able to function a few hours without the constant stimuli that social media throws at us.
This is a self-perpetuating addiction. Once it's kick-started, it needs no external force to sustain it. This is because social media milks your brain for the "want" hormone 'dopamine'. Your brain releases dopamine when it senses that a particular situation will lead to a reward, such as when you see a plate of food or a notification from Instagram.
Your brain is anticipating a reward and thus gives you a burst of feel-good hormones, and this is the root of all addiction - the more dopamine our brain becomes used to, the more it takes to get the same kind of high. So what starts off a harmless break for 30 minutes per day becomes a constant 24-hour necessity.
Moreover, the co-Covid world is possibly set to make it worse. With people spending more time at home and a lot more time on screen, the exposure to such advertisement and enticement increases. Furthermore, the radical shift in the nature of the whole world's functioning will only push a stressed population to any form of escape available.
The trend over the last 20 years has been a shift from substance abuse to internet addiction as the most common dependency. The promise of a co-Covid world is potentially to enable the exact conditions that would exacerbate this trend.
The Facebook and Tumblrs of the world will have us believe we can't survive without them. They capitalise on our need for community, for external assurance of our own humanness and belonging. More so in a co-Covid world, these virtual communities become all the more important. When social distancing norms must be followed, virtual interactions become our only interaction. Capitalising now on people's heightened sense of loneliness, platforms like TikTok, Instagram, Omegle allow for a semblance of human to human connection.
This is not a victimless phenomenon. Like any other addiction, internet addiction changes the very structure of the brain. It determines which parts of your brain are able to function and control the others. Today, the average person has a reduced attention span, which impacts the ability to reflect, retain, introspect, and think critically. YouTube's 2x speed feature is proof of this trend. This dependence on instant gratification ends up "undermining willpower and enhancing impulsive behaviour." Immediate shots of dopamine take precedence at the expense of long-term goals.
How did we get here? First, the current generation was exposed to technology at an incredibly young age. Parents often sit their toddlers before a fun video so they have a moment's rest. Learning their ABCs or taking a break, their whole day is accompanied by a device and a WiFi connection. It's intuitive that these early exposures are crucial in habit-formation.
That is not to say this is bad parenting. The pressures on working parents today are huge and keeping their children engaged in education videos is a better solution than many. However, it does come with the side-effect of a higher dependence on these same escapes later in life. Second, the market has an incentive to glamorise productivity. The more the cogs in the machine turn, the more the machine runs.
The youth have been told time and again that the 'Ideal Student' or the 'Ideal Employee' does as much as they can in as little time as they can. Work more, work faster, work harder. This not only leads to higher screen time for work purposes, but also for entertainment to distress from the constant competition. Studies have shown a correlation between high levels of stress and high screen-addiction. Our excessive obsession with productivity is driving us to depend on screens for an instant escape.
Third, tech companies have an incentive to keep you hooked. Everything is calculated to ensure you spend more time and money on their platforms. Ever wondered why message notifications that appear on your desktop icons are red? Red instils a sense of urgency in humans, so we're compelled to check the app. YouTube will keep suggesting videos, Netflix will automatically play the next episode, Instagram will curate your perfect endless scroll. As with all addictions, it's not the addict's fault. Some products are designed to make you cripplingly dependent.
So what's the solution? Many developed nations have been quiet to identify and treat internet addiction like any other. Net addiction camps are quite an extreme answer and perhaps harmful in their own ways. We don't need to go as far, rather just start off with a dopamine detox. This involves setting out one day in the week where you engage in no or only non-technological stimulation. No Netflix, no YouTube, no checking Facebook for five minutes. Nothing, for 24 hours, you de-stimulate, give your brain a break from the harsh and constant barrage of stimuli from screens.
Next, set a time cap for every day. Install an activity-tracking app on your phone and allow yourself only a set duration for mindless scrolling and binge-watching. This may not seem necessary. Many people are entirely functional and successful despite their addictions. But think of it this way - there is no down side to de-stimulation. It only improves people's decision-making abilities. The media we don't watch today will still exist tomorrow. There is nothing to lose.
Lastly, figure the root cause of the addiction: What are we looking for in social media that we don't think we could get from elsewhere? Is it stress relief? Is it validation? These factors existed (perhaps even more so) before the internet. We just have to rediscover their other sources in our lives. Setting our own fitness goals without worrying how many likes our selfies will get.
Talking about a new hobby, but not showcasing it to the world for affirmations. Deleting our Bumble accounts and spending time on the reflection and introspection that the internet doesn't let us indulge in. It's time to push back by making spaces of self-building for ourselves that don't involve a screen!
(The author is Founder - Upsurge Global & Senior Advisor - Telangana State Innovation Cell )