Social media users – beware, the psychiatrist is watching you

Is Internet Use Disorder a 21st century mental illness?

GUEST POST : Helen Durham is a part-time undergraduate of the University of Nottingham’s BA in Creative and Professional Writing, trying to learn Mindfulness to alleviate the stress of assignment deadlines piling up

The fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), used across the globe by many psychiatrists, is due out in May 2013. It is believed to include ‘Internet Use Disorder’ as a condition of addiction and social disengagement that merits further consideration. The consideration will be whether such a disorder should be included as a diagnosable condition in the next update of DSM-5.
Diagnosable conditions have implications for health and social care provision, health and social care insurance, and employability.

Back in 2008, an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry made a case for the inclusion of Internet Addiction:

Internet addiction appears to be a common disorder that merits inclusion in DSM-V. Conceptually, the diagnosis is a compulsive-impulsive spectrum disorder that involves online and/or offline computer usage and consists of at least three subtypes: excessive gaming, sexual preoccupations, and e-mail/text messaging. All of the variants share the following four components: 1) excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives, 2) withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension, and/or depression when the computer is inaccessible, 3) tolerance, including the need for better computer equipment, more software, or more hours of use, and 4) negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation, and fatigue.

Should we be worried about our internet usage health?

I’ve compared aspects of my life now, in this social media age, with life in the years before it became a significant part of my life. What do I do more or less of because of the time spent using social media?

Reading novels – less
Contact with acquaintances – more, but virtual
Contact with close friends – different, less frequently face to face
Chatting on the phone – much less due to texts and emails (I miss a good natter)
Dropping into people’s homes without prior arrangement – far less frequently, it’s almost becoming unimaginable
Writing words – more
Sitting – more, at the computer, with an iPad, phones etc
Watching TV – less, using social media as an alternative distraction or recreational activity
Playing a musical instrument – less
Gardening – less
Eating – more
Alcohol consumption – no change
Ability to be still and reflective – less
Sleep – often shorter, brain more active later in the evening from computer use

It seems I have become something of an addict in terms of the components of time spent using social media and the emotions that stirs or alters.

Is abstinence viable or necessary?

Unlike alcohol, social media, or at least time at the computer and aspects of the internet, are not something 21st century users can abstain from. In the UK the government is pushing citizens to it, right down to people who may be too poor to own a computer or too illiterate to use it. It will become a tool of exclusion if we’re not careful.

Perhaps it’s a question of balance

What might save us from this addiction and from being diagnosed with a mental illness?

The simple answer is ‘ourselves’. We are in control of the off button. But life is never that simple. So I’d like to suggest an alternative: Mindfulness.

During February 2013 the Wisdom 2.0 conference – think Silicon Valley on retreat rather than doing business – took place in San Francisco. Jon Kabat-Zinn , a leading exponent of mindfulness, said “We’re in the information age… …it’s a huge stretch for us to understand how we’re going to deal with all this information that is so overwhelming us that we are perpetually self-distracting, and instead find the threads of connectivity.”

Google has been aware of such issues for some years. Google’s ‘Jolly Good Fellow’ Chade-Meng Tan (Meng), whose job description is, “Enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace” invited Kabat-Zinn to speak to google employees in 2007, and google’s VP spoke in the opening discussion of Wisdom 2.0 in 2010
There’s a common phrase in mindfulness about ‘showing up in our own lives’, being present in ourselves and to ourselves in the present moment. Wisdom 2.0 considered “How can we live with greater presence, meaning, and mindfulness in the technology age?”

Brain changes
The constantly expectant state that comes with a constantly connected digital life raises the vigilant brain stress hormones, which are known to have an impact on physical as well as mental wellbeing. Equally mindfulness has been shown to profoundly alter, heal and nourish the brain – it enables us to dwell in ourselves and not in a state of being elsewhere with all the stresses that brings. It improves attention, sleep, relationships, mood and productivity – what’s not to like?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, writer of the foreword in Mindfulness: the practice of finding peace in a frantic world, said “We’re rediscovering something deep within ourselves that is timeless, and it is potentially profoundly healing and transformative, and globally so. So I see this as maybe the manifestation already of the early phases of what I would call a global renaissance of awakening, of true wisdom.”
That seems quite a claim. True? False? Possible? Impossible?

Try it for yourself. There are youtube videos and podcasts aplenty by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and by Mark Williams, co-author of Mindfulness: the practice of finding peace in a frantic world. Kabat-Zinn has written excellent books, too.

So join me, get yourself a book, a podcast or an audiobook, step away from the computer for a short while and have yourself a mindful time. It’s already paying dividends for me.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.


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