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  • The web of compulsion - Internet goes viral in new India. Can detox bootcamps help?

    Internet addiction spreading in India
    At first, it was a headache. Then, a bellyache and a backache. When it was time for school, 17-year-old Ayush* (name changed) would always have an ailment up his sleeve. But it was not any teacher or test that he was trying to avoid. He simply wanted to stay home. Alone. Because when his working parents walked out the door each morning, Ayush would fish out his concealed data card and trawl the worldwide web.

    He was addicted to the net and didn’t know it. Neither did his parents, till they sought help for their son’s disturbing behaviour. Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD)—a condition where an individual compulsively, and almost always unproductively, uses the internet and finds any attempt to limit its use distressing—is no longer a threat only facing netizens on the other side of the Pacific. And though India isn’t about to start internet de-addiction camps like the US just yet, drugs and alcohol de-addiction clinics are increasingly opening their doors to those caught in the vortex of the virtual world.

    Step up in Internet junkies!
    Internet junkies - internet addicts
    MindTemple, a counselling centre in Mumbai, treats around 10 internet addicts a month. Their course of treatment begins with an interview and psychological assessment. “Thereafter, the patient goes through psychotherapy, family therapy, support groups, and in some cases, medication, to deal with underlying depression or emotional concerns,” says founder Dr Anjali Chhabria.

    The first challenge is to put a finger on the cause, stresses Dr Pratima Murthy, professor of psychiatry and chief of Nimhans’ Centre for Addiction Medicine. But the problem is that, most often, the patient doesn’t know he has a serious disorder. As Delhi-based psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr Deepak Raheja says, “A lot of people are unable to identify interpersonal difficulties that begin to crop up in their lives because of excessive use of the Net.

    It is when grades start to go down, or productivity at work drops, and relationships with friends and family get strained, that the alarm bells ring.” He says that being hooked to the web also feeds other kinds of addiction: gambling, paraphilia, pornography, all of which cyberspace is awash with.

    Teenagers most vulnerable...

    A 10-city survey by Assocham last year revealed that over 50 per cent of respondents aged between eight and 18 years went online for more than five hours a day. “Children of working parents are more internet-addicted in the absence of parental supervision,” it detailed. While the below-20 user is the most vulnerable, Net dependence is not age-specific. Dr Raheja recalls a challenging case: a 73-year-old addicted to X-rated websites.

    But despite the growing number of Net users, IAD still goes largely undiagnosed in India because of a lack of awareness and warning signs that are easily overlooked. Arun*, a 29-year-old software professional, thought nothing of his craving to chat with strangers, enrol himself on networking sites and play online games till the wee hours, until he found himself doing the same at work. “I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. I literally felt hunger pangs,” he says. Ironically, it was a virtual friend who told him it was about time he logged off.

    Media professional Mihir Fadnavis, who is not an addict but a netizen who takes the role seriously, would understand. “Recently, my Android phone was sent in for repairs. Since I did not have a laptop, I did not have access to the Net and experienced withdrawal symptoms during the first three days. I realised my attention span had waned as I couldn’t even finish two pages of a book. It dawned on me that I used to check up on Twitter every 15 minutes to snoop around my timeline, indulging in inane conversations under the pretext of keeping up with real-time news.

    The de-addiction formula

    Deaddiction clinics have similar stories to share, though treatment is never a one-cure-fits-all formula. “Some questions need to be answered: is it low self-esteem? Or a lack of real-life skills that one is trying to compensate for? After the diathesis is identified, they are made to understand the problem and break through denial,” Dr Raheja says. The next step is anti-anxiety medication and cognitive behaviour therapy. Lalitha Sharma treats about eight cases of Net addiction a month at the Institute of Mind Control and Personal Transformation, Bangalore.

    She adopts techniques from Neuro Linguistic Programming (especially helpful in behavioural disorders) along with sessions of hypnosis. “I talk to them and explore replacing this addiction with pleasant recreation,” she says. Dr Anjali Sharma, deaddiction consultant at Ethos Healthcare in Delhi, uses an alternative therapy for hardcore junkies: acupuncture. “We use it in addition to counselling, psychotherapy and hypnotherapy, to improve thinking patterns, will power and self-management and reduce psychological distress.”

    Muktangan Pune - Internet de-addictin center
    Pressing the reset button Patients at the Muktangan rehabilitation centre in Pune.

    For some, the wean-off requires residential rehabilitation. Dr Mukta Puntambekar has already admitted three patients into a five-week rehab programme at her deaddiction centre Muktangan in Pune. All were adolescent boys from well-to-do homes, and would log on for 12-15 hours a day. “One would gorge on chips and cola while he sat hunched over his laptop, and as he got no exercise, he became overweight. His sleep pattern was disturbed. He would hardly leave the house,” she says. Like the couch potatoes of the ’80s, when kids sat glued to their TVs and snacked on burgers and cola, feels Dr Raheja. “Young people are living and breathing the Net. This is the age when they acquire formative skills for inter-personal relationships, but instead they are caught up with virtual reality.”

    Tricky return for some!

    For those who’ve gone over the brink, a comeback is tricky, since the Net cannot be wholly deleted from our lives. The chances of relapse, therefore, are high. “For recovering addicts, we recommend a fixed number of hours on the Net—an hour a day, maybe—but not at a stretch. We suggest what sites to visit and which ones to avoid. We advise parents not to install computers in their children’s room, but in a common area to enable parental supervision,” Dr Puntambekar says.

    While recovery may take anywhere from three months to a year, regular follow-ups are crucial. Especially for those who are more at risk than others, as Dr Chhabria says: “Many resort to the internet as an escape route from problems that they would rather sweep under the carpet. Studies suggest men with sexual dysfuntions and children from unstable family backgrounds are likely to get addicted.” As Indians turn cybercitizens at 3G speed, the threat of the Net living up to its name only gets more real. Luckily, addiction busters are at the ready, fingers firmly on the Refresh button.

    Article credits: Outlook India