Do you experience anxiety when your smartphone or tablet computer is nearly out of power or out of WiFi range? If so, you could be suffering digital addiction. Photo: IC
It is an epidemic sweeping the nation that affects men and women, adults and children, migrant and white-collar workers. At any given time of the day you can see addicts reaching into their pockets to get a hit, ignoring people around them as they slip into a zombie-like state of swiping and texting. As the world's largest smartphone market, China is experiencing digital addiction on an epidemic scale.A team of psychiatrists in Singapore recently called on medical authorities to recognize digital addiction, characterized by excessive use of smartphones and the Internet, as a mental disorder. Their warning follows the release of a 2013 report by media monitoring firm Nielsen that found the Asia-Pacific region has some of the world's highest smartphone penetration rates, which are blamed for causing physical and mental harm to users' health. In China, there are more than 24 million digital addicts whose average age is progressively falling, the survey found. Taking over livesDigital addiction has become a growing problem in China, where there are an estimated 300 centers to treat the problem, according to a report in February by China Central Television. Deng Weiwei, 21, describes herself and many of her friends as "heavily addicted" to their smartphones. "I will unconditionally accept it if one day smartphone addiction is classified as a mental disorder," said Deng, who said she is transfixed on her smartphone when she is "not working or sleeping." "Sometimes I find myself suffering great anxiety when my smartphone is out of battery or I can't access WiFi. It's like an obsessive-compulsive disorder that controls me."Tao Ran, director of the addiction center at the People's Liberation Army General Hospital in Beijing, said people who spend countless hours on their smartphones or tablet computers could be addicted without even knowing it. "All Internet addicts are hooked on their smartphones. More accurately, they are digital gadget addicts," said Tao, who runs a digital addiction boot camp based in Daxing district that currently has 80 addicts. Tao, who previously specialized in treating narcotics abusers, has dealt with digital addicts as young as 9 and as old as 56, but most people who seek help are aged in their teens or 20s."The concept of digital addiction has been around for about 20 years. My first patients were three boys who came to me in 2003. They were addicted to online gaming and refused to go to school," recalled Tao. "Now, nearly all children have smartphones. If they are banned from computers they can still play online games with their smartphone." Violence is one reason why few parents dare confiscate their children's smartphones or restrict their Internet access, said Tao, who estimates around three-fifths of children attack parents who enforce such measures.
China, the world's largest smartphone market, has an estimated 24 million digital addicts, according to a 2013 study. Psychiatrists are divided over whether gadget addiction should be diagnosed and treated as a mental disorder. Photo: CFP
Diagnosis of addictionTao has treated 164 patients using nuclear magnetic resonance, which allows observation of specific quantum mechanical magnetic properties of the atomic nucleus. Results show that the oxygen metabolism of addicts' frontal lobes, which play a role in behavior and personality, and parietal lobes, which process sensory information such as touch, temperature and pain, are weaker than people who aren't addicted to digital gadgets. The part of the brain responsible for experiencing pleasure among addicts is 20 percent more active than non-addicts, said Tao.Addictive behavior can be physical and psychological. Physical dependence involves addiction to substances, such as alcohol or other drugs, while psychological dependence involves addictive behavior, such as with digital gadgets, gambling, sex and so on. "The pathogenesis of gambling and physical dependence of substances, such as alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, are the same," said Yang Kebing, director of the alcohol dependence department at Huilongguan Hospital, Changping district. "If the neural circuit is too frequently stimulated, it can manifest into a mental disorder. If stimulation stops, a series of physical and mental symptoms can appear."However, Yang said it was too early to classify digital addiction as a mental disorder based on current pathological data. "Since the trend of smartphone addiction is increasing, I don't exclude the possibility of it being labeled a disorder [in future]," added Yang.Seeing the harm causedAside from mental woes, digital addiction can also wreak physical harm to smartphone junkies. The Xinhua News Agency reported on June 10 that a woman in Wuhan, Hubei Province, suffered floaters, or small mass particles inside the eye that affect the field of vision, triggered by excessive smartphone use. A doctor who treated the woman said the disease was not too serious, advising rest and avoidance of digital gadgets the simple remedy. A more serious case occurred earlier this year when a woman in Zhejiang Province suffered a detached retina after spending two to three hours daily looking at her smartphone in the dark. The woman, surnamed Liu, saw an ophthalmologist after she noticed vision in one of her eyes had become cloudy and distorted, Xinhua reported on February 23. Zhao Bingkun, the ophthalmologist who treated Liu, said in the report that long hours staring at a bright screen in the dark can cause the ciliary muscle, which changes the shape of the lens within the eye, to over-contract when viewing objects at varying distances.The report said ophthalmologists are seeing a growing number of patients suffering from the condition caused by users staring at screens of computers and smartphones for too long without a break.Children at riskFlurry, a mobile analytics company headquartered in San Francisco, estimated that the number of smartphone addicts worldwide increased by 123 percent in the year leading up to April 2014 to hit 176 million. Flurry's study was based on feedback from more than half a million apps used by 1.3 billion smartphone users globally. Addicts were identified as anyone launching apps more than 60 times per day.Another report of Flurry showed China has surpassed the US to become the largest market for smartphones. From January 2012 to January 2013, the smartphone market in China grew 209 percent. During this time, 150 million new phones or tablet computers were purchased in China, compared to 55 million in the US.A survey by Tao of 11 residential communities in Beijing in April found that most parents who have toddlers use smartphones or tablet computers as "electric nannies" to amuse their children. Even when eating or bathing, many parents surveyed by Tao admitting using digital gadgets to keep their children settled."Some young parents themselves are digital addicts, and they are just passing on their addiction to the next generation through gadgets some consider useful to early education," said Tao. "Parents only know that digital gadgets settle their children down. Little do they know they are actually grooming them as digital addicts."Harm or hype?Despite the fears and dangers surrounding digital addiction, some psychiatrists insist there is no need to panic about current levels of smartphone use among most people. Yang described the condition as "just a bad habit rather than a disease." Chen Fuxiang, marketing director of domestic smartphone maker Xiaomi, said much of the hype surrounding digital addiction would pass with time, noting popular devices and pastimes among youths are often chastised by society. "When I was a student, there were no computers, and our society worried about youngsters getting carried away by their addiction to kung fu novels. After computers came along, society worried about Internet addiction. Now we have smartphones, and naturally there is worry about smartphone addiction," said Chen, conceding that more can be done by smartphone makers by offering users advice and guidelines related to safe use of their devices. "In future, we will still have other addictions to worry about."