01Jan

Stevie Smith may not have realised her words could resonate for new reasons with a generation immersing itself ever-deeper in technology. Not Waving But Drowning, the most famous of her poems, describes a man whose distressed thrashing in the sea causes onlookers to believe that he is waving to them.

Lisa Zilberpriver takes a look at obsessive behaviour and the possible side effects associated with ’social media addiction’, drawing an analogy with the ‘bends’ – an illness suffered by divers who go too deep for too long.

So think for a moment; when was the last time you checked your Twitter stream, made a post or checked for new email? How often do you log into Facebook, and do you Google Wave the most inane of things?

Is this just part of the natural cycle of being social and connecting with your friends and business network, or is there a darker side to the Real-Time Social Web?

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Internet addiction has a few things in common with the bends.

No no, bear with me – it does.

Both are awful, but with modern remedies about, neither is really very likely to kill you. Treatments for obsessive behaviour of all kinds have been around for as long as psychologists have, while the bends – or Type II Decompression Sickness – can be fixed in a hyperbaric chamber, which are found nearby most of the world’s major dive spots.

Another similarity is in the rising statistical likelihood of mishaps as participation increases, Diving and internet use have similarly exploded over the past decade, as their accessibility improved dramatically. The rise in participants has boosted the scope for (dive) accidents and (internet) misuse.

Both result from different kinds of ‘going too deep’.

And lastly, both require complicated, expensive treatment which insurance companies can refuse to pay for.

In the case of diving, that’s if you exceed certain time and depth limits, but in the case of problem computer use, that’s because it’s a barely recognized or researched condition though arguably as disruptive. The lack of research seems an absurd oversight in the developed world, which now runs itself mostly online, and where citizens can conceivably get everything they need to survive via a computer screen.

Hooked on internet or interaction?

Looking at the boom of social networking sites that keep expanding like fractals, old fears that the availability of Absolutely Everything online would isolate people seem unfounded – just like they turned out to be about the TV (or did they?).

At first glance it appears that – being social creatures – the masses simply recreated communities online, even connecting with others they may never have met had it not been for the online environment. It could be argued that those who spend ‘too much’ time socializing online are more addicted to interacting with people than they are to the medium. But the tendency to become obsessed with social media – to tweet dozens of times per day, to constantly check messages and to spend months per year on Facebook – is going unchecked, and could pose risks like any other addiction.

A medical decision on whether insurance companies will classify internet addiction as an illness and pay for treatment is only due in 2012, HealthNews reports. Meanwhile, social networking draws in millions of new users per year, and very little research has been done on its psychosocial impact.

Chicken-and-egg results

There has been some, however, and the news has been inconclusive but worrying.

In 1995, psychologists surveyed over 4,000 high school students in the United States. They checked them for baseline depression, then monitored their computer use for the next seven years.

By 2002, 7.4 per cent of them were depressed.

Far from providing answers about the effects of increasing amounts of time online, that research only gave rise to a chicken-and-egg conundrum:

Does internet overuse increase the risk of depression, or are depressive people more likely to overuse the internet?

A smaller and more recent study into the effects of sitting in front of a screen for prolonged periods found a high risk of depression among women – but ran into the same problem, as did several of its predecessors from a range of universities worldwide.

A new kind of addict…

So what about sleeplessness, feeling fidgety, and the compulsion to interact constantly?

Clinical Hypnotherapist Leon Cowen says the easiest way to recognize and addiction is when you need the activity you’re hooked on, rather than just wanting it.

He’s treating a growing number of patients who come to him complaining they are addicted to social media. They suffer loneliness, anxiety and depression, Cowen says, or they display lack of good social skills, compulsion, poor impulse control and low self esteem. Despite that, the reasons they come to him are more often marriage or financial problems. Many don’t identify computer use as the root of their troubles, but some have withdrawn from face-to-face interactions almost completely by the time they seek treatment.

“Whilst Social Media or Internet Addiction have been linked to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Impulse Control Disorder (ICD) it is recognised as a problem but more research is required before it can be classified as an illness,” Cowen said in an email.

In the meantime, different kinds of net addiction have been described in psychology journals. Cyber-relational addiction relates to excessive involvement in online relationships, Net Compulsions means the inability to stop activities like shopping and gambling, excessive surfing can spark Information Overload. As to why people get hooked, neither Cowen nor a number of researchers have many answers, but Susan Weinschank, PhD says it’s all about dopamine.

According to Weinschank, dopamine triggers our desire to seek and be gratified. And the internet offers instant gratification. Seek contact and chances are, Twitter will spit something at you within minutes. A big problem with dopamine, Weinschank says, is it doesn’t know when to stop. No matter how many tweets or Facebook interactions have gratified it, it will still want to do more seeking. That’s because dopamine is all about anticipation and reward. In other words it makes us enjoy anticipating more than getting what we wanted.

Weinschank says dopamine is also turned on by unpredictability. Each time you click on your Twitter, Facebook or email bookmark (let’s face it – who types them into the location bar any more?) you have no idea whether a little red message balloon will be waiting or an @yourname or a new message.

…or a new norm?

Being connected to social media all the time – via smartphone or computer – is of course not a bad thing for everyone. It’s probably not bad for the vast majority of the emerging hyper-connected tweneration.

Suzi Dafnis – who responded to a call for anyone believing they are internet-addicted – says she is ‘almost always’ connected to social media, and doesn’t suffer any side effects.

Ok, if tweeting and checking Facebook while in bed, having acupuncture makes me an addict… then so be it,” she said via email.

If staying ‘connected’ while travelling, visiting family, on vacation and at weird hours of the day.. then, maybe an addict I am.

(Woke up at 2am this morning.. couldn’t sleep… so spent 30 mins checking on my social networks on my iphone while in bed. 30 mins later my partner – also awake – was doing the same thing – the light from our iphones lighting the room).

Whether simultaneous iPhone surfing – or Facebooking or tweeting – alongside a partner in bed constitutes cohesion or division is a question for each individual. Where ‘staying connected’ ends and being addicted begins is a question for researchers, who haven’t done much to answer it yet.

Costs
This began with a look at the similarities between the bends and internet addiction so it’s worth noting the similar costs of treatment before moving on to their one grand difference. Treatment in a hyperbaric chamber – with pure oxygen and attendant doctors around the clock – unsurprisingly costs thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.

Treatment of any addiction involves expensive psychologists’ or psychiatrists’ fees. The fees of one retreat promising to cure internet addiction range from US$15,000 to twice that. Insurance only covers dive accidents if they occurred within internationally agreed limits. There’s no question of insurance paying to remedy internet addiction, because it hasn’t been wholly recognized as one yet.

One big difference

So to finish; a look at the major difference between internet addiction and the bends. Apart from the absence of water, of course.

Most SCUBA enthusiasts dive recreationally and well within safe limits, but those who go too deep for too long reach the surface gasping, writhing, vomiting and clearly in need of urgent care. They will invariably be spirited – via low-flying chopper if needed – to the nearest hyperbaric chamber where a team of doctors will treat them for as long as it takes (sometimes weeks) to avoid any damage to their long-term well-being.

In contrast, those who have gone too deep for too long in their online world may never show blatant symptoms, only interacting with others via a digital persona who seems just fine.

It is imperative that more research be done into the psychosocial attraction and effects of being permanently engaged via social media, before it’s too late for those likely to drown in it.

*Gaming addiction has been left out deliberately as it is more recognised than general internet and social media addictions.

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