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Opinion: Life is for living, not browsing, so switch off that smartphone

Tell the truth: how long do you think you could go without looking at your phone?

Christine Allen Sports convert and IT engineer

“YOU’VE GOT A problem – seriously.”

It’s 7:35pm. Minutes into an hour-long episode of Eastenders and my mother is glaring at the smartphone in my hand. “I’m just replying to this message,” I say distractedly, my thumb working rapidly on the phone’s keypad. Facebook message sent, I ensure that the screen goes black.

When Phil Mitchell’s enraged expression gives way to the traditional dramatic drumbeat that signals the end of an episode, I break my 50 minute abstinence from social media, logging on to check my notifications.

That’s when I become aware of it – the relief.

Seeing two of the standard Facebook symbols lit in red, the irritability that has simmered within is instantly dispelled. It is this unexpected reaction that causes me to question whether I am, in fact, an internet junkie.

That evening, I find myself googling ‘internet addiction.’ My first hit reveals that Internet Use Disorder (IUD) – or internet addiction – has been accepted as a ‘condition for further study’ by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–V), an internationally recognised classification system of mental disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Further results lead to a website named The Addiction Counsellors of Ireland, where I learn that internet addiction is a behaviour whereby an individual desires to be ‘online most or all of the time.’ The main signs of addiction are listed as irritability and emotional distress, and such symptoms are tied to an inability to ‘access the internet.’

Is it all… a bit over the top? 

Yet the identification I feel with this particular symptom isn’t, in my view, a just cause for resigning myself to the label of ‘internet addict.’ My reasoning behind this conclusion is that the majority of people would become irritated if, outside of work or the classroom, someone demanded that they log off.

My logic is further backed when, on RTE Radio 1′s Sean O’Rourke show, Fergal Rooney, a Senior Counsellor and Psychologist at St John of God Hospital, airs his view that labelling high internet usage as an addiction is ‘a bit over the top’.

While, indeed, describing our constant presence online as a ‘consuming’ and potentially ‘problematic’ behaviour, he countered that compulsive internet browsing falls short in its capacity to result in the ‘destructive’ consequences akin to many substance addictions.

However, just when I think I’m in the clear, he states his view that internet usage which distracts an individual from ‘engaging with the people around them’, ‘completing work’, or being ‘out and active’, is something to be concerned about.

His final thoughts on the matter spark memories of countless ‘conversations’ I’ve had with my mother, in which I’ve asked her to repeat herself, too immersed in my Twitter news feed to fully absorb the meaning of her words – not to mention the many occasions I’ve been late to meet a friend due to the distractions of social media.

I set myself a challenge 

Feeling a little disconcerted as the suggestion that I am overly-reliant on the internet begins to carry weight, the following day I decide to set myself a task. No internet usage from 5pm to 10pm – a total of five hours. After one hour and 30 minutes, I’m back conversing with friends on Messenger. I can no longer deny that I’m a slave to the net.

Now, before readers suggest that I check myself into The Priory, ask yourselves this: could you easily stay offline for five hours in the evening? Would you feel no urge to check your Facebook account for notifications, no desire to tweet about an amusing conversation you had just heard on the no 4 bus, zero need to check in at Nandos?

The fact of the matter is this – being online for lengthy periods of time has now been normalised. Take commuters on public transport. No longer are passengers gazing out the window or reading a book. Instead they switch frantically between web pages. Less than a decade after hitting the shelves, we now view these pocket-sized machines as vital extensions to ourselves.

While our attachment to our mobile’s internet connection may not result in financial loss or damage to vital organs, according to one study logging on excessively can cause damage our neural pathways. Conducted by Chinese researchers, and published in the PLos One journal, the study in question revealed that young people with internet addiction exhibited ‘similar difficulty with emotional management and decision making’ as those who were ‘addicted to substances like alcohol’.

More worryingly, MRI scans of the participants diagnosed with internet addiction disorder revealed significant damage to their ‘white fibres’ – the nerves between the areas of the brain controlling emotional reasoning, decision-making, self-control and attention.

Studies undertaken in 2012 by Dr Beth Ebel and the Injury Prevention and Research Centre at the University of Washington, also found that individuals who used their phone when outside were four times more likely to ignore traffic and disobey lights.

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My new (more realistic) challenge 

While the internet is undoubtedly an excellent tool, one that allows us to conduct business globally and to communicate with friends living abroad, when used excessively, it impacts negatively on our offline relationships, increases our risk of injury and draws our attention away from our studies.

With one in four people spending more time surfing the web than sleeping, internet addiction is also clearly prevalent within our society. However, given that over 1.6 million Irish people now own smartphones, and 63% of our population uses social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, how can internet addiction be tackled?

“Internet abstinence is not really based on any reality – internet use is almost like breathing now,” Dr Garret McGovern, Medical Addiction Specialist at Priority Medical Clinic in Dundrum says. “Am I going to stop using the internet? No, probably not. Cognitive Behavioural therapy can, however, be effective. You can also work on getting out of the house and leaving the smartphone at home.”

Taking all of the above into consideration, I’ve decided to make a concerted effort to minimise my internet usage, allocating myself a daily allowance of two hours.

I’ve also sent close friends a landline number (I know, they still exist!) on which I can be reached during those periods that I’m offline, my reasoning being that if their need to communicate is so great, they will pick up the phone and call. Life is for living not browsing. In an age when being online 24/7 is the done thing, it feels empowering to power off.

Christine is 26 and entering her third year of Information Technology at DCU – a part time course funded for those that are unemployed. In between trying to get to grips with JAVA programming and looking for work, she loves nothing better than sitting down at the laptop with a cup of tea, and writing. She has been published in DIVA Magazine, on TheJournal.ie and Gaelick.com. She is also Opinions Editor for the DCU newspaper, thecollegeview. One day she would like to be known as the lesbian version of Carrie Bradshaw. Follow Christine on Twitter here

This article originally appeared on The College View

‘Digital retreats’ offered to internet burnouts

Chinese study points to possibility of ‘internet addiction’

About the author:

Christine Allen  / Sports convert and IT engineer

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