Medical professionals in the UAE are warning that addiction to smartphones and technology among young people can be as powerful as addiction to gambling and drugs, with its own host of health and psychological problems.
In many developed nations – the UAE included – it isn’t uncommon to see young children on a tablet or smartphone, with their parents besides them seemingly oblivious to any potential health risks.
“Mental health risks of increasing addiction to technology, specifically internet usage, are clear and present,” said Dr Binu George, Consultant Paediatrician (paediatric neurodevelopment and neurodisability) at King’s College Hospital London Medical and Surgical Centre in Abu Dhabi. “Excessive access to digital media, the internet and especially online gaming has in fact given rise to new mental health conditions. …a couple of these new conditions are called Problematic Internet Use Disorder and Internet Gaming Disorder.”
According to Dr George, studies have shown that ”problematic” internet use is extremely widespread among young people.
“The prevalence of ‘problematic’ internet use among children and adolescents is between 4 per cent and 8 per cent, and up to 8.5 per cent of US youth 8 to 18 meet the criteria for internet gaming disorder,” he said.
Another expert, Dr Andrea Tosatto of the Dubai-based Synergy Integrated Medical Centre, noted that compulsive use of devices among young people – and adults – triggers the same processes in the brain as other vices.
“It dispenses dopamine and other hormones, and they (devices) trigger the production of these hormones within our brain. If you get a ‘like’ on Facebook or write something cool, you get dopamine,” he said. “The effects of gambling, porn and cocaine trigger the same hormones. The effects on the brain are the same.”
While Dr Tosatto said he doesn’t believe children are any more prone to compulsive Internet use in the UAE than in other countries, he noted that the high levels of Internet-penetration in the country mean that young people here are more exposed to the threat of addiction.
“Given the average lifestyle of young children, access (to technology) might increase compared to peers in other countries,” he said. “In Italy, for example, there is still a good number of teenagers without access to Internet, not by choice, but for economic and social reasons. In some way, this protects them.”
“Here, (young people) have smart phones and computers, and are a bit more exposed,” he added.