The word addiction inevitably draws correlations with drugs and alcohol. But according to Dr Abdulqader Al Khayyat, chairman of the Erada rehabilitation centre in Dubai, there is an equally disturbing poison eating away at society that urgently needs to be tackled. In an interview with The National, Dr Al Khayyat explained that children who have been over-exposed from a young age to games, social media and other cyber paraphernalia and are now displaying signs of digital dependency that are on the same plane as drug addiction.
The onset of a behavioural disorder at such a young age can stunt emotional growth. And when they grow up, these children might not have access to the psychological tools others can call upon to navigate relationships or the complexities of life. But it's not only children who are at risk. Adults are not immune to the scourge from social media either. A government survey has found an alarming rise in marital problems as a result of spousal neglect born of excessive social media use. No demographic is spared the effects of digital addiction, which rather than relieve, actually intensifies depression and takes its toll on finances, marriages, work and school performance.
Half a century ago, the late Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan issued a warning about the consumption of media through rapidly evolving technology. Their lure will grow “so pervasive”, he wrote, “that they will leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered”. The age of social media is vindicating McLuhan. The very positive benefits brought about the rise of social networking – from reform movements to social awareness campaigns and the simple pleasures of connecting with friends and loved ones – have been accompanied, as we are witnessing, by something altogether destructive.
Dr Al Khayyat has established a centre which treats social media addicts. But as he says, what is required to stop this from blowing into a crisis is early education, both in schools and at home. Weak familial relations also breed the conditions in which children, and parents, turn to the web for solace. Adults can create a healthy atmosphere by discarding phones and other gadgets to communicate with children. We can all afford to learn a different way of engaging – and that might mean putting the gadgets away to engage in conversation in real time.