Opinion & Analysis

Digital addiction an emerging crisis in Kenya

We are facing a digital addiction crisis in Kenya. The fact that we often don’t collect data on digital-related incidents makes it even worse.

The number of people suffering from digital addiction could be even higher than those suffering from alcohol addiction.

I came to this realisation following an incident at a club that I frequent for my routine exercise. I had just parked my vehicle and taken a few minutes to flip through the newspaper before I got onto my day’s programme.

A young woman entered the vehicle parked next to mine, switched on the engine and started reversing while still on phone. Suddenly, a vehicle emerged from behind her.

The subsequent hooting and screeching of tyres startled her, sending her into panic mode and she ended up hitting my passenger door.

What intrigued me most was the ensuing discussion. She came out cursing the motorist who had tried his best to avoid hitting her. And when I emerged from my car, she was surprised that there was someone inside.

But instead of apologising, she kept interrupting our discussion to answer her phone calls. I politely asked her to ignore the calls until we sorted out the mess. She struggled for a few minutes and I could see her fight the impulse to check her phone messages.

I concluded that she may have been a digital wreck and any further discussions would have been a waste of time since she appeared completely disconnected and disoriented from the environment we were in.

When I narrated the experience to my friends, they told me similar stories. Some talked of toddlers who cannot sleep without iPads on their bedside.

A digital addict is someone who uses digital technology impulsively and compulsively. The condition is referred to in many names: “digital heroin,” “nomophobia,” and “internet addiction disorder.”

Research has shown that any form of addiction is when we seek the feel-good effect, which is attributed to the release of the hormone dopamine.

This chemical, psychologists say, helps the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. Repeated need for the feel-good effect leads to addiction.

Experts suggest several possible causes of addiction but I will restrict myself to two. First, people may engage in harmful behaviours because of an abnormality, or “psychopathology” that manifests itself as mental illness.

Second, people may learn unhealthy behaviour in response to their environment.

In 1970, American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler, known for his works on digital revolution, predicted in his book Future Shock that “people have a limited biological capacity for change and that when that capacity is overwhelmed, people end up feeling disconnected, stressed and disorientated – future shock.

When there is too much information and too much change, people will have difficulty understanding an issue and making decisions.”

That future is now. Countries like South Korea that were ahead in the diffusion of ICT technologies have seen a phenomenon similar to what psychologists describe as addiction.

The term Digital Dementia was coined to refer to people whose cognitive abilities have deteriorated as a result of over-using smart phones, computers, playing video games and the Internet in general.

British American author Simon Sinek, attributes the growing disconnect between millennials (those born after 1984) and other generations as a result of poor parenting, technology, impatience and the changing environment.

It is the reason why millennials have the lowest esteem than any other generation before them. Other research studies show that those who spend too much time on social media suffer from depression.

Digital addicts often have no idea they have a problem, just like drug addicts and gamblers, to seek remedy. We only get to know there is a problem when it manifests itself in an incident similar to what I was involved in with the young woman.

Digital addiction like any other addiction, Sinek says, destroys relationships, limits creativity and innovation as well as social coping mechanisms yet we have not developed any guidelines like in other harmful addictions.

In advanced countries, they have noted the effect of digital addiction on productivity. Most corporations have developed policies on use of not just social media but cellphones in the work place.

Some countries are looking into separating work environment from family. France just passed an email law that gives employees the “right to disconnect” from email, smartphones and other electronic leashes once their working day has ended.
American journalist Robert Trout once said: “Although the Chinese had used opium as a medicine, there was no widespread addiction before the British arrived.”

Going digital is great, but too much use of it is simply an invitation to addiction.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.