Easily distracted? Can’t be separated from your smartphone? Constantly checking your device for no real reason? Chances are you’re an addict – and you may even need professional help.
Psychiatrists in Singapore are pushing for medical authorities to formally recognise addiction to the internet and digital devices as a disorder, joining other countries around the world in addressing a growing problem.
Singapore and Hong Kong top an Asia-Pacific region that boasts some of the world’s highest smartphone penetration rates, according to a 2013 report by media monitoring firm Nielsen.
Some 87 per cent of Singapore’s 5.4 million population own smartphones.
Singaporeans also spend on average 38 minutes per session on Facebook, almost twice as long as Americans, according to a study by Experian, a global information services company.
Adrian Wang, a psychiatrist at the upmarket Gleneagles Medical Centre, said digital addiction should be classified as a psychiatric disorder.
“Patients come for stress anxiety-related problems, but their coping mechanism is to go online, go on to social media,” Wang said.
He recalled having treated an 18-year-old male student with extreme symptoms.
“When I saw him, he was unshaven, he had long hair, he was skinny, he hadn’t showered for days, he looked like a homeless man,” Wang told AFP.
The boy came to blows with his father after he tried to take away the young man’s laptop computer.
After the father cut off internet access in the house, desperation drove the boy to hang around neighbours’ homes trying to get a wireless connection.
He was eventually hospitalised, put on anti-depressants and received “a lot” of counselling, Wang said.
“We just needed to break the cycle. He got better, he was discharged from the hospital and I saw him a few more times and he was okay.”
Tan Hwee Sim, a consultant psychiatrist at The Resilienz Mind clinic in Singapore, noted that the symptoms exhibited by her young adult patients have changed over the years.
Obsession with online gaming was the main manifestation in the past, but addiction to social media and video downloading are now on the uptrend.
In terms of physical symptoms, more people are reporting “text neck” or “iNeck” pain, according to Tan Kian Hian, a consultant at the anaesthesiology department of Singapore General Hospital.
Singapore’s problem is not unique, with a number of countries setting up treatment centres for young internet addicts, particularly in Asia where South Korea, China and Taiwan have moved to tackle the issue.
In Singapore, there are two counselling centres – National Addictions Management Services and Touch Community Services – with programs for digital addiction.
Trisha Lin, an assistant professor in communications at the Nanyang Technological University, said younger people face a higher risk because they adopt new technology earlier – but can’t set limits.
Lin defined digital addiction by a number of symptoms: the inability to control craving, anxiety when separated from a smartphone, loss in productivity in studies or at work, and the need to constantly check one’s phone.