Disconnect to reconnect: Why restricting internet use is good for you

Story Gautam Viswanathan

While there is no doubt that connecting to the internet has transformed our lives, we seem to find it increasingly hard to sever that connection, no matter where we might be.

I was 27 when I first saw it happen. I wasn’t in Oman at the time, but in another country, one I’d travelled to with my family and several others. All of us were sitting in the lobby of the hotel in which we were staying, waiting for our tour bus to pick us up. I had buried my nose in a book – it had a rather heavy title – and so had temporarily cut myself off from the outside world, but only because the others had first chosen to do so as well, although it was in a different realm.

While I was flipping through the yellowing pages of my book, the others chose to flip from one page to another on their mobile phones. “Everywhere we go today, it’s the same,” said one of the husbands in this group, as he waited by the reception for our pick-up. “No one talks to each other, people are just engrossed in their phones. I think human interaction is overrated,” he said, that last sentence dripping with frustration.

This man – let’s call him Dave – was of course, right. The others, on hearing this, chose to delve deeper into their phones, probably from embarrassment in knowing that he was right, although a few did acknowledge he had a point. After all, it is sometimes unfortunately easier to run away from a problem, than it is confronting it.

We spend far more time on our phones than we need to these days, so much so that we are addicted to them. Our phones are today gateways to the internet, a one-stop shop, if you will, to spend potentially hundreds of thousands of hours’ worth on videos, games and social media, and even then, all we are doing, is barely scratching the surface when it comes to viewing a good portion of content on the web. That, of course, is excluding the many, many other things we can do on our phone that we now take for granted. Mobile top-up? Use the phone. Got some bills that need paying? Use the phone. Want to go shopping? Let’s use the phone to call a cab! No, wait, scratch that…let’s just shop online instead!

While there is no doubt that connecting to the internet has transformed our lives, we seem to find it increasingly hard to sever that connection, no matter where we might be, and sometimes, even fail to pay attention to the dangers we pose when we’re distracted by our phones, when we need to be focused on more important things.

Simply put, internet addiction is a serious problem, and it is high time we addressed it as such. Whether at home, at work, at the mall or, and this is where it gets really dangerous, even while we’re on the road, some of us just cannot seem to put our phones down. Instead of taking in nature and decompressing while we’re at the beach, the park or up in the mountains, we’re too glued to our phones to appreciate the simplicity and calm that nature provides us.

Connectivity is the fabric that binds society and the human race together, and comes to life when we spend quality time with each other. The threads of this fabric begin to unravel when we don’t pay attention to connecting with others. Yes, a certain amount of distancing yourself from those around you is definitely necessary from time to time, but we must always remember that we function best together, not alone.

We’ve all come across scenes of frustrated parents asking their children to shut off their phones and other personal gadgets, particularly when they’re engaged in a family activity in a public space. It may be a frustrated father who simply plucks the phone out of his young daughter’s hands, having become fed up with going through the same routine every day, or a mother who sternly reminds her young sons while they’re at restaurants that iPads are not allowed at lunchtime.

It’s the same act playing itself out over and over again. What changes is the manner in which it plays out, and who the players are. It is stopping this cycle that is important, according to Anuya Phule, a clinical psychotherapist from Al Hatat Polyclinic in Muscat.

“Internet addiction can be defined as preoccupation with internet or excessive use of internet,” she explained. “A person with internet addiction has disregard for everyday normal tasks and productive lifestyle. It is diagnosed as a mental health condition as you can see the person become more and more disconnected from people in life, disconnected from self-growth and self-development, exercising, reading, hobbies or discussions and socialising.

“You can also observe the alteration in the person’s moods and emotional state,” explained Phule. “These include extreme moods of restlessness, agitation and being on edge as well as feeling depressed, sad and numb. We humans experience stress in our everyday lives. It is to a great extent a normal neurological process to go through anxiety and depression for humans. The demands of life and its disappointments can cause this.

“Humans are well equipped to heal and handle this level of anxiety and depression, as well as other life stressors,” she added. “But, today people choose the easier option of numbing and disassociating themselves from life when faced with stressors. The internet is among the easiest of means to numb the mind, and this is the main reason people get addicted to it.”

According to Anuya, symptoms of internet addiction do manifest themselves when those who need the internet are unable to get access to it. These include irritability, agitation, anger, loss of concentration, short attention spans, impulse control disorder, i.e. not being able to control one’s own behaviour and impulses, insomnia, isolation and social withdrawal, awkwardness, and a low level of brain activity, which directly impacts one’s job or academics.

While reducing screen time for the current generation is certainly important, what is equally – if not more – pressing is that the next generation does not get hooked to their phones and tablets from a young age…a process that can be quite difficult to reverse, given that while we are already somewhat immersed into technology, the next generation will be even more so.

In an attempt to reintroduce the art of speaking and connecting the old-fashioned way, some cafes, restaurants and hotels across the world have chosen to do away with Wi-Fi, instead asking people to communicate verbally and asking people to get to know one another, instead of burying their noses in their LED screens, their faces illuminated by the unnaturally blue backlight.

Kibbitznest in Chicago, for example, a bistro that has opened up in one of its neighbourhoods, has chosen to do away with Wi-Fi. Similarly, in the northeastern US state of Vermont, August First, another café, decided to stop their wireless internet service after seeing people spend more times on their laptops, and less with each other.

In Oman, there are certain establishments – particularly those that encourage people to reconnect with nature – that have purposely not installed Wi-Fi on their premises, and Jassim Al Balushi, the deputy head of training and professional development at the National University of Science and Technology, says internet addiction is prevalent among youngsters in Oman as well.

“Internet addiction is really there among youngsters in Oman,” he explained. “To them, life without internet is like life without water. Do you know why? Because the internet is a means of communication, and everyone needs to communicate. I can understand why people choose to use the internet at work, because at work, it is a means for communication. You need it for daily transactions, emails, etc. Even for reading the news, people feel reluctant to buy newspapers. They just go online.

“The problem with the internet is that people really feel they need it, and this feeds their addiction,” added Jassim. “There is a necessity now among people to have the internet, because if there is no internet, we feel like we are not capable of doing things, and we are not connected to the outside world. People are addicted to the internet…in my home, if I don’t pay the bill and the internet is disconnected even for one or two days, you will find everyone pushing me towards paying the bills.

“It should not be like this,” he explained. “It should not take up so much of people’s time, because of the harmful effects of the internet. It can take people away from the normal means of communication. Nowadays, we use the internet and social media to communicate with others. If we miss someone, we just send them a message on social media. We don’t visit people anymore, and this takes us away from our traditional values and behaviour. There must be a time for internet, and there must be time for regular interaction and other responsibilities in life.”[email protected]

How to wean yourself off of the internet, one step at a time

There are ways, however, to sever your dependence on your phone, or indeed, any other electronic device. Anuya Phule, a psychotherapist from Hatat Polyclinic, has more.

For adults with internet addiction

  1. They have to acknowledge that they are addicted to the internet.
  2. They have to seek support from family or friends to start the process of weaning. Doing it alone is difficult.
  3. Confession and admitting that one is addicted and needs help
    is a very important step.
  4. Seek professional help. This is where a person can be guided step by step, given psychological or healthy mental techniques to wean away from the addiction.
  5. Lot of lifestyle changes need to
    be made.
  6. Usage of the screen has to be limited and prioritised to what
    is important.
  7. Develope a term called ‘no phone zones’. You cannot carry electronic devices to certain areas, e.g. dining table, bed, and bathroom.
  8. Turn off notifications for certain social apps that are not urgent and not used for work and family emergencies. After these are established, the person has to make healthier lifestyle changes.

For future generation and the youth

  1. Parents have to make some major changes to keep their child from becoming addicted to the internet and games.
  2. Delay introducing your child to videogames. If your child is 8-10 years old, then it is okay for you to introduce video games to children. Teach them impulse control and the importance of exercising discipline over screen time.
  3. Avoid giving child a television with internet connection in their bedrooms. Televisions should be restricted to living rooms only.
  4. Avoid giving every child a separate tablet or electronic device. We as parents have to developed guidelines and teach impulse control to children.