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Is Internet Addiction A Mental Illness Or A Social Problem?

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By Kritika Pramod Kulshrestha:

Mia is just an year old; with the latest smart phones and gaming consoles available in the market, her parents devote less time to taking care of her and more time to playing video games online or socializing with friends on Facebook. There are times when Mia’s parents forget that they have a daughter who is in need of their care. They feed her only once a day; on multiple occasions they have even forgotten to feed her. One day when Mia’s mother walked into her daughter’s room, she found the little girl had died. Do you think this is just a story? If yes then maybe you ought to think again. A 3-month old child died in South Korea in 2010 when her parents, obsessed with marathon online gaming sessions, fed her only once a day leaving her to die a slow death. This incident is only one of the many negative consequences of internet addiction.

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When the Bible of mental disorders – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-IV — decided that internet addiction needs to be designated as a serious mental illness in its May 2013 edition, a controversial debate sparked off across the globe. While researchers state the need for more research into the ways and means of accurately diagnosing internet addiction, the American Psychiatric Association is already comparing the symptoms of Internet Use Disorder (IUD) to substance abuse. Psychologists are also pushing for broadening the diagnosis of IUD to include much more than online gaming addictions.

Web addiction, indeed, affects the white matter of the brain that contains nerve fibres. Researchers have found that excessive internet use does affect the fibres impacting a person’s emotions, self-control, and decision-making abilities. As told to BBC by Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones, “white matter abnormalities in the orbito-frontal cortex and other truly significant brain areas are present not only in addictions where substances are involved but also in behavioral ones such as internet addiction”.

World over, kids obsessed with internet games and social media are slowly and steadily distancing themselves from the real world. Without access to their emails even for a few minutes these children experience frustration, anxiety, depression and irritability. According to psychologists, these are deemed as withdrawal symptoms; the same as those observed in substance abuse. Nearly 70 % of the kids being treated at addiction-treatment clinics in Sydney are unable to focus without their smart phones. They struggle to pry themselves away from their IPads and their tablet computers. Are these the children who will be the leaders of tomorrow? For children in South Korea, sleeping with a smart phone instead of a teddy bear is not a new phenomenon. Nearly 160,000 children between the ages of five and nine are addicted to the internet. In the race to be constantly ‘wired in’, children forget to eat lunch, ignore sports and other physical activities, forgo going to the toilet and end up being nervous and distracted when their smart devices are taken away from them. With digital and web addiction affecting nearly 2.55 million people in South Korea, medical practitioners are calling for the categorization of IUD as a mental illness and they are certainly right in doing so. With children as young as the age of 3 being addicted to the internet and technology, the inclusion of IUD in the DSM — V is justified.

Internet use needs to be monitored and the youth must learn to balance technology with other activities. When the darker side of internet addiction is exposed through display of violence, tantrums, and outrage then it becomes a serious problem; it can even be termed as a mental illness. In the last couple of years, we have been exposed to situations where the line between addiction and insanity has been blurred. In 2009, a boy in Ohio shot his mother and gravely injured his father when his parents prevented him from playing an online game because they were afraid that he was becoming obsessed with it. He was only a teenager who probably would have been sent to a juvenile home but if the same happens with an adult then he will be tried for manslaughter. If internet addiction is deemed a mental illness and there are no amendments made to the criminal justice system then it’s quite possible that the defendant will be let off on an insanity plea and may be offered a community sentence rather than a jail term. This will prove to be a serious disadvantage of including internet addiction as a mental disorder, especially in a country like the US where guns are freely available on sale in stores such as Wal-Mart. A teenager who is addicted to the internet and at the same time is charged with murder, which is actually premeditated, can plead to insanity as internet-addiction is a mental illness. This means that he could be given only a community sentence; is that fair to the murder victims?

The inclusion of internet-addiction in the DSM-V could actually be misused. To avoid this, there will need to be reforms and amendments to the existing laws of a country. Only then is it feasible to classify internet addiction as a mental illness.

Many of us use the internet, especially social media, to stay updated on current news and world stories. Often, we check our emails more than 30 times per hour. Are we all mentally ill patients? When someone tries to pry me away from Facebook or LinkedIn, I get upset but not violent. Am I suffering from a mental illness? As I was randomly searching the Internet, I came across an internet addiction test that includes some very familiar questions: How often do you find that you stay on-line longer than you intended? How often do you neglect household chores to spend more time on-line? How often do you snap, yell, or act annoyed if someone bothers you while you are on-line? I answered ‘frequently’ to these questions. Does this mean I am suffering from a mental illness called internet-use disorder? In such cases that I am sure most of us find resonance with, it becomes imperative to accurately define the conditions and symptoms of IUD.

As the debate rages on among researchers, medical practitioners, health officials and the millions of users; we need to understand that only classifying IUD as a mental illness is not enough. We need to amend laws and conduct in-depth research into the symptoms and extent of IUD. Once research shows that IUD can indeed be classified as a mental illness and laws are amended to incorporate IUD and its consequences, we must take steps to include IUD in the DSM — V. Technology and the internet is taking over our lives rapidly and we need to control them before everything is destroyed — humanity, emotions, and societal structure.

Photo Credit: escapedtowisconsin via Compfight cc

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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