• A one-year-old child is handed a mobile phone by his mother, so he can watch a video and stop throwing a tantrum.
• A boy, 11, has lately been wanting to spend time alone in his room, even as his school grades have dropped.
• A motorist, 60, on the road cannot stop himself from picking up the phone at every red light. He says he needs to do it to check messages and the cricket score.
• A family routinely gathers to have dinner and watch a post-dinner TV show, but both parents and the children, aged 18 and 14, hardly talk or view the show as they are in their own realms with their mobile phones.
• A couple are on the verge of separation as the man refuses to put his phone away even in their intimate moments. On one occasion, the angry wife takes the phone away from his hand and flings it far into the room.
These are not isolated cases. As psychologists in the UAE will tell you, the problems of the patients they counsel are a reflection of a global malaise.
“Call it phone addiction or by any other name, it can just take over our lives if we don’t watch out,” warns Dr Roghy McCarthy, Dubai-based psychologist.
“These days, adults and children alike are working, communicating, eating, playing, even sleeping with their phones,” she says, pointing out that many of her patients don’t even realise that their dependence on the phone amounts to or borders on addiction.
“For most of them, it’s a compulsive urge to just pick up that phone and scroll up or down the screen. It doesn’t matter in what surroundings they are or who is with them. It doesn’t even matter what they are doing on the screen, whether it’s on the Net, WhatsApp, Insta or FB - they just need to be there,” she explains.
Face it, this is an addiction
Mobile phone addiction is like any other addiction, according to Dr Sriram Raghavendran, specialist psychiatrist at the NMC Royal Hospital, Dubai Investment Park.
“Increased screen time results in release of dopamine which is the ‘pleasure’ hormone which literally gives a big ‘kick’ to the individual and makes him or her addicted to the mobile. Therefore, you cannot have a gradual weaning away. It requires complete and drastic reduction, with cold turkey withdrawal symptoms, just as in the case of any other addiction.”
He says very often, mobile phone addiction is a manifestation of a deeper problem like depression, anxiety, loneliness or anger. “We must look for the deep-seated cause that led to the addiction. We can confront the real mental health issues with professional help if necessary. If the issue is deeper than just breaking a habit, the psychiatrist can hold therapy sessions and provide medication.”
The tell-tale signs
Dr Muhammad S. Tahir, director of the American Wellness Centre and a specialist in child, adolescent and adult psychiatry, says nearly 60-70 per cent of the cases that he attends to among teens are linked to mobile or internet addiction.
Dr Tahir said many parents fail to recognise mobile addiction in children and come in with complaints of aggression, anti-social behaviour or inability of the child to have a good night’s sleep.
“When I examine the case in detail, I find that in most cases, the root cause of these symptoms is getting too many hours of screen time exposure over a mobile phone. So much so, that the child feels disassociated with his environment, is lost in the world of moving pictures and feels irked when the device is taken away.”
Dr Tahir says most children spend at least three to four hours of unbridled time on the phone and when that is taken away, they demonstrate a low form of frustration, aggression and temper outburst. However, when the child is handed back the device, he is immediately compliant, calms down and is engaged with it. “These are all confirmed signs of addiction. However, parents fail to recognise that this behaviour is the fundamental symptom of a form of dependence or addiction to the electronic device,” he added.
When adults blame it on work
As the psychologists point out, it’s not just about kids, adults too can be addicted. And in most cases, work demands are cited as the perfect excuse to justify the undue time spent on the phone.
Samar Debs, Consultant HR for The Phillips Group, says phones in the workplace do pose a challenge.
“It’s becoming ever more challenging to distinguish whether someone is using it for work or simply playing on their mobile phone,” she explains.
However, she says the opportunities outweigh the cons when it comes to using phones in the workplace.
“WhatsApp can be a great team building tool as a less formal platform to share team videos and pictures, arrange impromptu team gatherings or simply casual bantering amongst team members—especially as more organisations have employees working remotely. This is also a good indicator for managers to sometimes predict whether someone is about to resign by refusing to join in the conversation on WhatsApp,” she says.
According to her, many organisations are using mobile apps to run their operations. “For example, some food and beverage companies have restaurant managers complete their daily checklists on a mobile app with the ability to upload photos of finished tasks. This provides a real time perspective on how all the numerous restaurant locations are doing at any given time. Furthermore, it is a veritable business platform with deals and contracts being signed on mobile applications.”
Social media usage policies
Vishanti Coutancar, founder, V Mai Stars HR Consultancy, says, “Most companies do not allow using personal mobile phones during duty hours, specially spending time on social media and websites to watch entertainment.”
Coutancar says there are specific checks and balances in place to discourage personal screen time of employees. “Several organisations use IT technology such as firewalls and Proxy to limit access to social media websites in the workplace .”
Policies on social media usage on phones depends on the nature of the profession as well. “Some organisations allow using mobile phones if they are required to perform specific job tasks. Most organisations clearly highlight their policies on such issues at the time of recruitment. They ensure that all employees are aware about the mobile phone usage policy followed at the work pace. In case of non-adherence to such policy, the immediate supervisor would conduct a counselling session with the employee and agree on a time to discontinue using mobile phones excessively to receive calls or playing games.”
She says in case of non-compliance, a second warning letter and disciplinary action such as salary cut or loss of bonus is initiated. “If the employee is unable to wean off and continues to violate rules, there is a chance he or she could lose the job too,” she adds.
‘Everything is app-driven these days’
But how feasible is it to ban mobile phones for personal use at the office?
“We’ve seen numerous companies implement a policy to ban phones during training. This is challenging as Gen Z and Millennials often use their phones to take notes. Managers must be careful to inquire what they are doing. What may look like a rude text message to a friend during a meeting is often a bona fide expression of interest in the manager’s advice and narrative,” says Samar.
Few would disagree that the mobile phone today is like a double-edged sword. The amount of time we spend on our phones is perhaps a sign of the times. Forget entertainment, Dr Rima Sabban, Dubai-based sociologist, says, “We use the phone for everything these days. Everything is app-driven. I myself use it to pay my bills, manage my calendar, read the news, make notes and a variety of other purposes. And you know what? The phone has actually made my life easier.”
Dr Sabban says the key is to use the device mindfully.
Dr Sabban says the key is to use the device mindfully. “The problem arises when we don’t know how to use the phone, for what and for how long? When we get this wrong, it becomes an addiction. We need to redress this issue before it is too late. This is particularly important where children are concerned. We need to teach them where and when to draw the line.”
Recognise the problem, address it
Where addiction is suspected, Dr Raghavendran says parents need to recognise the problem in themselves or their children to deal with it. He recommends a drastic weaning away from overuse of the phone through digital detox and substitution.
But the mistake that families often make is to substitute mobile time with some other screen time.
“It is essential to find varied replacement or substitution hobbies and not replace one screen time with another. For instance, taking away the phone and allowing the child or adult to watch a movie in that time on television, theatre or play an indoor game on the laptop, or listen to an electronic musical instrument will not be advisable. The replacement must be completely different to break this habit,” he advises.
According to him, digital detox involves drastically reducing screen time engagement to a fixed period and time of the day when it is necessary and taking away the device in case of kids and switching it off in case of adults. Once the family is on the same page, it is a lot easier to move to the next step, he says.
“In the case of adults, the time can be utilised for meaningful interaction between couples, prolonged ‘me-time’ with cultivation of value added learning (could be hobby such as golf, public speaking or something which can fulfil self-actualisation needs of an individual). With children, parents can introduce more stimulating outdoor games, greater interaction with friends and family with board games, walks, pursuing a hobby like gardening, cooking or music which is deeply satisfying.”