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BLOG: When virtual sickness becomes too real

AvantiKumar | Aug. 16, 2012
Even Silicon Valley is said to be worried about the addiction known as 'Internet use disorder.'

AvantiKumar, Editor Computerworld Malaysia

 

There has been an increase of calls from technology leaders, as well as psychologists, who think it is high time we look more deeply into the problem of addiction to digital gadgets and the Internet. This year, the 'virtual sickness' of online addiction has taken on an even more serious note.

The psychotic breakdown of Kony 2012 filmaker Jason Russell has been linked to extreme Internet exposure, which in the 1990s was just a notion, now it is a sickness regularly treated by doctors. You will remember that Russell's film went viral, 70 million people watched it, and apparently after spending days online with little sleep, Russell had a psychotic breakdown - record via social media on his Twitter and YouTube accounts, according to reports in the Observer. His wife was reported to have said that he had been diagnosed as having "reactive psychosis", which doctors had linked to his extreme Internet exposure.

Compulsive surfing on phones, tablets and laptops has become all-pervasive: you see people (including ourselves) online out in public places, homes and in offices. Psychologist Seth Meyers said that 'even checking to see what the ex is doing online becomes a drug' and can degenerate into obsessive-compulsive behaviour.

In China, Taiwan and South Korea, Internet addiction is accepted as a genuine psychiatric problem with dedicated treatment centres for teenagers who are considered to have serious problems with their Web use. Next year, America's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the authority on mental illness, could include 'Internet use disorder' inits official listings, according to recent news reports..

 

Big Brother

Some governments seem to be making sure they add to the online stress. For instance, Britain has quietly made moves to increase the power of the security services to more openly intercept online communications. Though some reports said that  the UK Home Secretary Theresa May has to  tried to allay fears that the draft communications and data bill, which is now going through the British parliament, saying that this will not involve checking the content of e-mails and social media, secretly we all know 'big brother' has always been watching us.

Nick Pickles, director of the privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, was reported as saying: "We're seeing moves at an international level to make it easier for the content of communications to be intercepted. For Home Office officials behind the communications data bill, spying on who we are emailing or Skyping is not their final objective. Officials from Britain are working internationally to force service providers to ensure that their systems are easy to tap into."

Not just psychologists are deeply concerned about the effects digital relationships are having on real ones. Industry executive Stuart Crabb, a director at Facebook, said that people needed to be aware of the effect that time online has on relationships and work performance. Facebook is trying to tackle anonymous 'stalking' by allowing users to see who has visited any group of which they are a member, and may extend this to allow people to see who has looked at their page.

In February next year, leaders of the largest social media companies will gather in San Francisco for the Wisdom 2.0 conference. The theme for the conference, which will be attended by some of Silicon Valley's biggest names, is finding balance in the digital age. Richard Fernandez, Google's development director, has called it 'quite possibly the most important gathering of our times.'

However, you may doubt the very concept of technology addiction, pointing instead to the rising demands of the workplace, where you are working longer hours and then going home still clamped to your devices. Perhaps it may be an addiction to work that outweighs the attachment to the gadget? Perhaps our addiction to all things online and to gadgets hides something even more sinister? Or perhaps not: the internet, like television, or any other activity such as gaming, is not inherently negative. All of these are just tools.

For instance, the Internet is both a mirror as well as an escape. It all depends on how you use it. When the Internet becomes your master then this addiction to constant activity could be hiding or delaying our facing up to deeper issues. It all depends on just where you would place yourself on the 'Internet use' spectrum. I will now go away and try and answer these questions myself.  


- AvantiKumar, Editor, Computerworld Malaysia & Malaysia Country Correspondent for Fairfax Tech Channels

 

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