Digital overuse and Mental Health: Cause or consequence?

Consequences of Digital Media on Mental health

Dr. Nilam Behere-Kolekar
Consultant Psychiatrist, Researcher and Public Speaker
Aster Aadhar Hospital, Aster DM Healthcare

Remember that popular sequence in ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons where Jerry is being chased by Tom and after a turn of events, Spike, the dog, starts chasing Tom. As the three of them circle around each other, Tom is the one who is chasing as well as being chased. In our story, Jerry is a ‘good mental health state, Tom is a digital device or internet and Spike is a ‘bad’ mental health state. As they circle around each other, let's meet each of them.

1) Spike, the pre-existing ‘bad’ mental health

Although not as simplified as it is termed here, certain complex mental states predispose us to digital overuse. These predisposing factors may lie in our genetics, run in family or may be associated with the way our parenting took place. Scientists have studied how negative life events in early childhood, like trauma, emotional or physical abuse, are linked to poor patterns of human relations; this, in turn, relates to internet addictions. 
Our lives through our childhood and adolescence, influence our personality in adulthood. Certain personality traits like low self-esteem, low empathy, impulsiveness, low self-directedness and low conscientiousness are crucial here. Internet or digital devices, in these individuals, provide a controlled environment to compensate for these traits. These traits, otherwise, make us difficult to adjust to our social circles. 
We have often heard of individuals who are depressed, tend to drink alcohol to handle their low emotional states. A similar picture happens with internet addictions where a person with low mood may continue to indulge in excess digital use to elevate his mood. Pretty much like Spike, the bad mental health, chasing the Tom in our story!

2)Tom, the persistent chaser: digital devices and internet

Why is internet a persistent chaser? 
Have you seen any website that looks ugly? The answer would be ‘almost never’. The digital platforms, applications, websites are fashioned in such a way that they never fall short to appeal you. This ‘appeal’ is the USP of digitalization. Not only is it appealing, but it is also easy to use, quick, cheap and ready with assistance to ease the user operations. Let’s recall the last time someone reacted with a ‘love’ emoticon on you picture on facebook. No matter if he/she actually loved your picture, you felt ‘loved’ for a moment. Facebook, here, creates a virtual world where you feature the best part of yours and get appraised. Online shopping sites are full of rewards and pornographic sites give you orgasms. Naturally you are bound to fall in the endless loop of its overuse, scientifically explained by activation of reward pathways in your brain.
While the internet chases you incessantly, your good mental health is a priority & one should follow the steps to handle stress & maintain mental health or its likely to derange just like the Jerry who tumbles while being chased.

3)Jerry, a good mental health that tumble

What does a ‘good mental health’ mean, at the first place? It is a state where we are able to maintain ourselves, carry out our roles and are able to contribute to the society. A common example to understand this is depression. In this, we are not able to sleep and eat well (maintain ourselves), not able to work efficiently (carry out roles) and not able to interact well with friends (social contribution).
Excessive use of digital devices & internet compromise our mental health. It causes disturbances in daily essential tasks, make us direct most of our activities to indulge in the device, makes us restless when the device is off and progressively increase our time and efforts spent on it. It also increases our positive anticipation towards its use, by making us feel cozy, comfortable and confident while using the device. Virtual relations with people become more intimate and valued than real human relations. All these factors may eventually lead to mental disorders like depression, social anxiety, paranoia (mistrustfulness), suicidal ideas and many more. 

Identifying this vicious chase and breaking it, is the need of the hour. Remember! ‘Tom and Jerry’ was just a cartoon but this is our life and our mental health is at stake.

Dr. Nilam Behere-Kolekar
Consultant Psychiatrist, Researcher and Public Speaker