High Time to Curb Internet Addiction!

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Why Should We Curb Internet Addiction?

The first reason why it is high time to curb Internet addiction has been formulated recently by Tristan Harris. Harris has been working as a “design ethicist” at Google. He said that smartphones are engineered to be addicting. He certainly knows what he’s talking about.

Actually, people are not addicted to smartphones, computers, or other gadgets used to go online, but to what those devices make available. People crave the information, amusement, and virtual connections enabled by a myriad of programs, platforms, apps, and tools. These things, however, also invade our cognitive landscape. They stimulate compulsive use by generating shallow social approval – “likes” on Facebook and Instagram, “retweets” on Twitter. So, especially in susceptible kids and teens they easily provoke what is called smartphone or Internet addiction, leading to various cognitive or psychological imbalances.

metaverse – The Next Step Towards Total Virtual Reality

‘In our DNA, we build technology to bring people together’, says Mark Zuckerberg, founder of the META company (formerly Facebook). In his Founder’s Letter of October 28, 2021 Zuckerberg describes enthusiastically metaverse, the ‘next frontier in connecting people’. Virtually, he should have specified in order to clarify where we are bound for. What lies ahead, apparently, is an ’embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.’ That means, in essence, that we are gong to be our own avatars, our bodily self and mind reduced to playing along as a mere appendage.

On metaverse you will be feeling your presence ‘like you are right there with another person or in another place” (Zuckerberg). That’s it: You don’t need to be somewhere in reality, you will be enabled to feel to be there. “Feeling truly present with another person” (Zuckerberg) will substitute for being really together with another person.

Many of us have been lured already ‘into a kind of simulation – one that is characterised not by unity of experience across users, but fragmentation into the pigeon-holes of experience, the selective streams of information (…) that characterise social media’. (Nathan Dufour-Oglesby) And now, finally, we are supposed to drift away fast into a hybrid world where ‘we become @ourselves, rather than being ourselves’ (Dufour-Oglesby1, emphasis added).

Beware of Social Technology!

If the Zuckerbergs from Silicon Valley are allowed to go ahead unchecked with that “ultimate dream of social technology” (Zuckerberg) we will soon slip into a situation where the virtual “world” will define and determine what in the real world is relevant or legitimate — and what is really real. Stemming the rise of this virtual nothing and nowhere is the second reason why Internet overuse should get curtailed radically. For the present we have our hands full already with finding ways and means to mitigate the havoc “social technology” has brought on hitherto.

You can easily get some idea of how spellbound many young people will find themselves soon by an all-round virtual world to immerse into like metaverse. Just turn to games like Fortnite and Roblox, virtual reality social media platforms like VRChat and AltspaceVR and consider all those isolated spaces converge and become increasingly interoperable.

These days already it proves more and more difficult to winkle kids out of the sea of fictitious experiences and shallow pseudo-relationships intruded on them by social media and many computer games. For more than ten years now (smart-)phone-addiction or internet-addiction is a matter of rapidly growing concern to parents, teachers and social workers as well as experts on education and behavioural psychology.

Eye-Opening Usage Data

Little surprise that (in 2020) in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, France and South Korea more than 75 out of 100 people are actively using a smartphone. In South Africa the smartphone penetration reached even 91.2% in 2019, up from 81.7% in 2018 and 43.5% in 20162. Undoubtedly this is due to the growing availability of mid- to low-cost smartphone brands.

A study conducted 2014 by researchers at Baylor University found that college students spent an average of eight to ten hours daily on their cell phones. Teens are no better, with 75 percent of them possessing smart phones and 50 percent of them expressing an “addiction” to their phones. A 2012 study found that teens between the ages of 14 and 17 send almost 100 texts in a day.

Sending texts and constantly checking for messages on a simple mobile phone appears to be comparatively harmless. However, in Britain only 5.4% of mobile phone time is taken up by the phone’s “dialler” function, meaning traditional talking. Nielsen data (cited by CustomerINSIGHT in 20123 also show that we’re spending 2.3% of the time with music and video apps, 11% with the browser and more than half with “other” apps. And text messaging consumes 13.4%.

The Birth of Social Media

This was the hour of birth for social media as people didn’t need bulky and expensive devices like PCs and laptops any longer to be able to connect to the internet. The boundary has blurred between problematic use of both smartphones and the internet, with portable devices now accounting for over half of all website traffic.

The lines have also blurred between smartphones, tablets, laptops, and even smart watches; virtual and augmented reality devices may further complicate these distinctions4. A huge software industry started to flourish, enabling not only young people to communicate with each other over the net. Youtube, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Signal, Snapchat, Telegram, and many other platforms and apps offered their “free” services. Not so free, however, inasmuch as they gained rights to gather and monetize a plethora of personal information naively provided by users. But this is a subject for another article.

Social Media Wreaking Havoc

Serious Concerns About Misinformation

Serious concerns arouse about misinformation, focusing on young people’s tendency to favour posts that seem to be popular. Indiana University’s Filippo Menscer says: “When social media tells people an item is going viral, their cognitive biases kick in and translate into irresistible urge to pay attention to it and share it.” (Cited in The Conversation, 2021; https://theconversation.com/facebook-became-meta-and-the-companys-dangerous-behavior-came-into-sharp-focus-in-2021-4-essential-reads-173417).

Engendered by Compulsive Use: Emotional Manipulation and Psychological Harm

Perhaps even more alarming are concerns related to emotional manipulation and psychological harm engendered by compulsive use. ‘Right at the time social media became popular, teen mental health began to falter. Between 2010 and 2019, rates of depression and loneliness doubled in the U.S. and globally, suicide rates soared for teens in the U.S. and emergency room admissions for self-harm tripled among U.S. 10- to 14-year-old girls. Social scientists like myself have been warning for years that the ubiquity of social media might be at the root of the growing mental health crisis for teens’.5

It should be seen as an alarm call that smartphone addiction is a real problem, that it has earned its own entry in the fifth edition of the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm). It’s especially noticeable in teens who’ve grown up with an iPhone or iPad in their hands, but even in non-digital-natives, the so-called ‘fear of missing out’ keeps users glued to their phones when they should be sleeping, working, driving, or otherwise engaged.

Serious Concerns About Misinformation

According to leading psychiatrists, individuals addicted to smartphones, characteristically feel compelled to use the device even in “dangerous or prohibited contexts.” They lose interest in other activities, show irritability and unease when separated from the phone, or anxiety when unable to immediately send and receive messages.

Smartphone, tablet or laptop – it’s very easy to lose yourself once you dive into the cyber-world. People (certainly not only kids) forget to eat or go to the toilet for hours. All of this because the Internet takes over them completely.

Constantly staying glued to a smart phone can also negatively impact posture, eyesight, and hearing. Another academic study found that poor sleep quality associated with late-night texting or calling was directly linked to a decline in mental health, manifesting in depression and low self-esteem that might persist for as much as a year after the maladaptive behavior. ‘Increased night-time mobile phone use was directly associated with increased externalizing behavior and decreased self-esteem and coping’.6

‘Overexposure to the flashy screens, high volumes, bold colours, and actions may cause irritability, restlessness and frustration among the young minds’, writes Anoop Mundhra. The author argues: ‘This excessive stimulation affects their vision, concentration and social behaviour’.7

Forgetting to Eat: The Amount of Time Spent on the Net

One manifestation of smartphone/internet addiction is the amount of time spent regularly on social media. Professor Twenge5 refers to studies showing that the more hours a day a teen spends on social media, the more likely she or he is to be depressed or to self-harm. One of those studies found that one-quarter of 15-year-old girls spent more than five hours a day using social media – and 38% of those girls were clinically depressed. Comparatively, among girls who used social media less than one hour a day, only 15% were depressed.

A Pew Research Center poll of 2018 revealed that YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are the most popular online platforms among teens. Fully 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45% say they are online ‘almost constantly’ or ‘several times a day’.8 According to the survey ‘these mobile connections are in turn fuelling more-persistent online activities: 45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis’.

Last years Pew Research Center Report proves again that extensive use of Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok is especially common among adults under 30.9

Facebook/meta/Instagram: They knew well about the damage they cause

That’s why Professor Christia Spears-Brown directs her attention primarily to Instagram (a Facebook-offshoot) because ‘[it] is a ubiquitous part of adolescent life. Yet studies consistently show that the more often teens use Instagram, the worse their overall well-being, self-esteem, life satisfaction, mood and body image. One study found that the more college students used Instagram on any given day, the worse their mood and life satisfaction was that day10

There is the peer pressure to consider as one of the possible causes. Professor Spears-Brown believes that Instagram exacerbates the specific worry that haunts many students in high school: Do I fit in? According to these and other studies, Instagram can lead teens to objectify themselves by focusing on how their bodies appear to others. It also can lead them to make unrealistic comparisons of themselves with celebrities and filtered and retouched images of their peers.

University of Kentucky psychologist Spears-Brown’s own research ‘shows that for teen girls – and increasingly teen boys – thinking about their own bodies as the object of a photo increases worrying thoughts about how they look to others, and that leads to feeling shame about their bodies’.

According to a Sept. 14, 2021, Wall Street Journal report,11 Facebook is sitting since March 2020 on results of extensive internal research that proves Instagram is bad for teens despite claiming otherwise. And it was dragging their heels over taking the edge off the problems documented.

An internal study commissioned by Facebook (now meta) probed more than 50,000 people from 10 countries12 Half of teen girls compare their appearance to others’ on Instagram. Those appearance-based comparisons, the study found, peaked when users were 13 to 18.

What Can and Should Be Done?

Tech-Giants’ Half-hearted Efforts to Mitigate Internet Addiction

Only in December 2021, three months after the “Instagram for kids” story13 exploded, Meta presented details about measures to protect teens online. Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, announced to the public that from March 2022 parents would be able to view how much time their kids spend on Instagram and set limits.

Furthermore, an “educational hub” for parents would also be developed, providing product tutorials and expert tips. Not before the day of announcement they have launched their “Take a Break” feature (in the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand for the present). It reminds users to take a break after a while. This might go some way towards limiting the time users hang around on social media. That is IF the feature is set on the phone. And that obviously depends on whether the given user is afraid to miss something important or get left out.

Apple, at least, implemented in its iOS 12 a feature that tells users how long they have been on their device each day. To gain that sort of information on Google’s Android phones you must install third-party apps. The Digital Wellbeing feature on Google’s latest Pixel phones also tells users how much time they spend on particular apps. It also allows you to set limits. Other new features mute all notifications when the user simply flips the phone over or switch the display to greyscale.

Apple is even lagging behind those modest efforts. According to a recent RT (USA) report they are still working with with the University of California, Los Angeles and the pharmaceutical firm Biogen to try to detect depression and other mental illnesses in iPhone users. Such research could one day result in an app warning the user they’re at risk of mental illness.14

All those features however require deliberate action on user’s side, requiring in turn user’s conscious willingness to forgo the respective “benefits”. More drastic measures like limiting the number of hours allowed and/or scheduled black-out periods during night-time don’t seem to be in the pipeline. Measures of that sort would probably hit severely not only the earnings from advertising but also the shareholder value of the tech-giants.

Tips, Willpower and Good Intentions Are Commendable

So, beyond those rather half-hearted efforts we can expect from meta, Apple, Google, and so on parents and guardians will remain largely on their own when it comes to curb smartphone or, in broader terms, Internet addiction. The media in general and the Internet in particular is teeming with recommendations and counselling. Guidance offered ranges from the simple advice to create a schedule and deploy a timer to limit usage, to well thought-out concepts in talking and dealing with afflicted kids.

Here’s as list of suggestions typically encountered when surfing the net in search of remedial measures. Of course it is neither comprehensive nor complete:

  • Consider to give your child a flip phone rather than a smartphone (enabling conversation/connection);
  • Create device-free times around dinner and later;
  • Mom and Dad need to stay off their devices during those device-free times (setting a good example;
  • Many parents are giving their kids iPads or tablets at the age of 2 or even younger. Don’t do that;
  • Encourage conversation or playing board games whenever possible;
  • Limit the time for TV, Social Media, etc. not only for the kids but for everyone in the family;
  • (Re-)Discover fun activities like playing outdoors, bird watching, camping;
  • Encourage reading and pick up a book for yourself, continue reading it;
  • Have your meals together – without the interruptions of mobiles and TV;
  • Restrict the use of smartphones or tablets to a common area of the house where you can keep an eye on your child’s activity;
  • Turn off push notifications;;
  • Kick the phone out of the bedroom;
  • Turn-on greyscale;
  • Set alarms specifying how often the phone can get checked for messages etc.;
  • Encourage and help your kids using social media and texting to set up real world interaction, not to replace it.

There’s nothing wrong with adhering to “rules” like these. But in most cases it will not suffice. You will still feel uneasy to bank solely on features provided by meta & co. and/or your ability to enforce those remedial actions negotiated with your teens? Then it might be time to educate yourself on the best products to block content, enforce screen time limits, etc.

ONE GOOD TOOL FOR THIS PURPOSE MIGHT BE the “Overcome Phone Addiction Guide”.

Don’t give in when you’re forced to realise that there are setbacks or the the kids have found ways to dodge one or another restriction. Many can turn very ingenious when it comes to that. And to them there can be much at stake.

Peer Group Pressure and the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)

A few authentic statements from the Pew Research Center report cited above8 illustrate in a graphic way that many youths might well be clutching at straws when they “overuse” social media, messenger services chatting apps:

  • “I think social media have a positive effect because it lets you talk to family members far away.” (Girl, age 14)
  • “I feel that social media can make people my age feel less lonely or alone. It creates a space where you can interact with people.” (Girl, age 15)
  • “It enables people to connect with friends easily and be able to make new friends as well.” (Boy, age 15)
  • “It has given many kids my age an outlet to express their opinions and emotions, and connect with people who feel the same way.” (Girl, age 15)
  • “Because a lot of things created or made can spread joy.” (Boy, age 17)
  • “[Social media] allows us to communicate freely and see what everyone else is doing. [It] gives us a voice that can reach many people.” (Boy, age 15)
  • “We can connect easier with people from different places and we are more likely to ask for help through social media which can save people.” (Girl, age 15)

As one teen girl interviewed by Facebook/meta for its internal research12 plainly bewailed:

“The reason why our generation is so messed up and has higher anxiety and depression than our parents’ is because we have to deal with social media. Everyone feels like they have to be perfect.”

A Dual Calling

So, in principle, you must prepare yourself for an up-hill battle. A battle against many young people’s deeply ingrained fear to get left out by their peer group. It’s twin sister is the wide-spread anxiety to miss out on something exciting.

I firmly believe the major challenge is how to temper this anxiety to lose something important the moment they cut back their presence on those platforms (FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out). They’re craving to be part of an “in-crowd” and for many their “friends” on the web will be the only one they can be part of.

This implies a challenging dual calling:

  • Encourage them to accept that by limiting smartphone use, they’re likely going to miss out on certain invitations, breaking news, or new gossip. This sort of matters, however, are rarely very important and irretrievable.
  • Every effort must focus on encouraging of and assisting in building and cultivating “real-world” in-groups inviting those isolated kids to join.

Sources

1 Nathan Dufour-Oglesby, Facebook and the true meaning of ‘meta’. BBC Future, 15 November 2021); Find this article here: https://www.bbc.com/fture/article/20211112-facebook-and-the-true-meaning-of-meta

2 According to the 2020 State of the ICT Sector report https://www.icasa.org.za/uploads/files/State-of-the-ICT-Sector-Report-March-2020.pdf

3 How People Use Smartphones. CustomerINSIGHT Autumn/Winter 2012. Unfortunately, the relevant page where you could find this article has been deleted recently. You can search for related articles from CustomerINSIGHT here.

4 Smartphone addiction is increasing across the world: A meta-analysis of 24 countries Jay A. Olson Dasha A. Sandra Élissa S. Colucci Alain Al Bikaii Denis Chmoulevitch Johnny Nahas Amir Raz Samuel P. L. Veissière (Preprint of manuscript accepted in Computers in Human Behavior. Corresponding author: J. A. Olson; jay.olson@mail.mcgill.ca).

5 Jean Twenge: Facebook’s own internal documents offer a blueprint for making social media safer for teens. The Conversation, 7 October 2021. Find this article here: (https://theconversation.com/facebooks-own-internal-documents-offer-a-blueprint-for-making-social-media-safer-for-teens-169080)

6 Lynettte Vernon, Kathryn L. Modecki,Bonnie L. Barber, Mobile Phones in the Bedroom: Trajectories of Sleep Habits and Subsequent Adolescent Psychosocial Development. Find this article here: https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12836

7 Anoop Mundhra: The Gadget Addiction – How to Fight the New Menace! Ezine Articles, Submitted on November 12, 2019. Find this article here: https://EzineArticles.com/expert/Anoop_Mundhra/2730856.

8 Monica Anderson and jingjing jiang: Teens, Social Media and Technology 2018. Pew Research Center | May 31, 2018. Find this article here: https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/

9 Brooke Auxier and Monica Anderson: Social Media Use in 2021. Pew Research Center, April 7 2021. Find this article here: https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/04/07/social-media-use-in-2021/

10 Christia Spears-Brown: Facebook has known for a year and a half that Instagram is bad for teens despite claiming otherwise – here are the harms researchers have been documenting for years. The Conversation, September 16, 2021. Find this article here: https://theconversation.com/facebook-has-known-for-a-year-and-a-half-that-instagram-is-bad-for-teens-despite-claiming-otherwise-here-are-the-harms-researchers-have-been-documenting-for-years-168043.

11 Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman: Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show. The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 14, 2021 7:59 am ET. Find this article here: https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-knows-instagram-is-toxic-for-teen-girls-company-documents-show-11631620739

12 Find this article here: https://s.wsj.net/public/resources/documents/appearance-based-social-comparison-on-instagram.pdf

13 Find this article here: https://9to5mac.com/2021/07/27/facebook-instagram-children-under-13/

14 Find this article here: https://www.rt.com/usa/535475-apple-mental-illness-detector-hypocrisy/

“The reason why our generation is so messed up and has higher anxiety and depression than our parents’ is because we have to deal with social media. Everyone feels like they have to be perfect.”

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