Abu Dhabi: As smartphone penetration and internet use continue to grow in the UAE, more and more people are likely to suffer from associated problems like internet gaming disorder and social anxiety, experts warned in the capital on Thursday.

This is why there is an urgent need to study the effects of internet and social media use, and to employ effective interventional strategies, they said at the sixth edition of the Seha International Child and Adult Behavioural Health Conference.

“The UAE has one of the highest rates of internet penetration in the world, and it is estimated that 93.2 per cent of people regularly spend time online. We now estimate that up to 10 per cent of residents may therefore be suffering from Internet Gaming Disorder, which has been known to kill those affected, with the first reported case in (South) Korea in 2004,” Dr Ahmad Al Kashef, head of research at the National Rehabilitation Centre, told Gulf News.

“And while online game playing is more common among male users, studies have shown that women use social media heavily. This is a more recent phenomenon so we may see its adverse effects reported more widely over the next few years,” he said.

To study the problem further, the National Rehabilitation Centre in Abu Dhabi, which offers counselling and treatment for substance abuse disorders, is currently surveying students at public schools. The goal is to study the prevalence of internet use, gaming disorders and other related concerns in about 2,000 students.

“Data on this issue is rather limited still, although a 2012 study at the American University of Sharjah had indicated that 40 per cent of respondents considered themselves to be addicted to internet use. This means that users keep increasing the amount of time spent online, and when disconnected, they display symptoms of addiction, including trouble withdrawing and preoccupation,” Dr Al Kashef said.

“If the problem is indeed as widespread, there is an urgent need to increase parental awareness about it, and the need for behavioural modification therapies to reach out to those suffering,” he added.

According to the expert, previous studies have indicated that students with Internet Gaming Disorder in the UAE may be spending as much as 10 hours gaming everyday.

“Gaming developers use incentives to draw gamers back, so parents must keep a watchful eye on their children’s internet use at all times.”

At the same time, researchers as the Human Relations Institute and Clinics in Dubai are carrying out another study among about 1,000 university students in Sharjah to study the relationship between social media-related anxiety and depressive symptoms.

“We’ve seen that students find it particularly hard to disconnect during class hours, and we want to determine whether this may indicate that they suffer from depressive symptoms. For instance, many people who are heavy social media users end up undertaking activities because they have a ‘fear of missing out’, which means that their actions are driven by fear rather than desire,” said Chasity O’ Connell, mental health counsellor at the institute.

“Because such behaviour can be detrimental to overall well-being, we also want to explore what kind of strategies can help alleviate such anxiety,” she added.

The two-day conference that focuses on mental health is expected to see about 1,000 medical professionals in attendance, and it is being organised by Seha (Abu Dhabi Health Services Company), which manages and provides public health services in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.