Which is More Injurious to Our Health and Prosperity — Google or Tobacco?

A suspenseful, action packed thriller is now playing and thousands of people across the globe are watching it, deeply engrossed, oblivious of their surroundings. They are not watching the movie in a theater, nor with family or friends, but on their laptop, tablet, or their ever faithful, never inseparable friend, the smartphone. If not a thriller, they may be watching a romantic comedy or a family drama or a sitcom or perhaps one of the zillion videos streaming online. Evincing extreme improvidence, people, increasingly, are glued to their screens for several hours each day, watching multiple movies, or checking their emails and the incessant stream of WhatsApp messages, or the postings on any of the several social media sites, or surfing the internet — aimlessly. Addiction to screens is spreading like wildfire, scorching the health and emotional well-being of more and more people day after day.

For several decades, tobacco was considered the most addictive product. This dubious distinction now goes to some digital products and services which are exponentially more addictive than tobacco and significantly more injurious. Online entertainment portals, otherwise known as digital entertainment sites, proffering streaming movies, games, pornography, nonsensical videos, and virtual friends have captivated people. These digital products and services are proving to be more sinister than tobacco and not only detrimental to our physical health but also to our mental health, our intellect, and our relationships, both personal and professional. Digital entertainment is tainting people’s mindset and destroying human potential. A more appropriate moniker for such entertainment, thus might be, digital taintment or just “digitaintment.”

Among the several players in the digitaintment space, YouTube, a product of Google is the crown jewel. The YouTube platform includes not only videos but a gamut of products comprising of games, movies, and more. It is estimated that YouTube has over a billion users who consume over 3.5 billion hours of video every month, earning the company over $8 billion in revenues annually. Admittedly, YouTube content includes many useful videos, educational courses, and lectures that could be potentially life-changing but unfortunately, it is the sordid videos that captivates people who spend hours and hours viewing the noxious content.

People today are as nonchalant about the perils of screen addiction as they were to the health hazards of tobacco. During the 1950’s and through mid-1980’s, it was fashionable, rather aristocratic, to be a smoker. People from all strata of society, the poor, the rich, heads of state, industrialists and even doctors were avid smokers. Oscar Wilde even described a cigarette as “exquisite” and said it provides “the perfect type of a perfect pleasure.” In that era, if you did not smoke, you were not “cool.”

Today, how “cool” you are is determined by how digitally drenched you are. Communicating through messaging services and email is cool. Communicating in person is so passé! Parents and children who may be in adjoining rooms, or co-workers who may even be sharing a cubicle, prefer texting over talking. A person’s popularity and social standing is determined by how many friends, contacts, or followers they have on the many social networking sites and the number of messages they receive daily on WhatsApp and other messaging services. Competency is determined by one’s dexterity in playing online games such as Candy Crush, or Farmville, or Minecraft, or perhaps the number of Solitaire games one can win in a row. A person is considered learned and well-informed not by how many literary masterpieces, biographies, or other great books they have read but how many Netflix series they have devoured and their ability to understand the plots and twists from the episodes. Eloquence is the ability to narrate one’s thoughts in 140 characters or less, well-articulated expressions are so very ancient!

People have also developed a penchant for shopping online, whether it be for tangible goods or services or a job or friends or even a date. This trend is understandable because online shopping is generally more convenient, faster, and often cheaper, and the selection of goods and services is usually larger. On the flip side though, we need to be aware that online shopping is making us even more sedentary and also isolating us from the richness and experiences that personal interactions with other human beings can provide.

Living in isolation is living in misery. There is ample evidence proving that living in isolation causes intense suffering and severe psychological harm. Recognizing the excruciating damages that an isolated life can cause, our legal system also metes out isolated confinement to only the most dangerous and violent criminals as it is considered to be among the most extreme forms of punishment.

The harmful effects of digitaintment and screen addiction is also beginning to get the attention of psychologists, neuroscientists and other mental health professionals. According to the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry, digital addiction is a kind of solitary confinement and can cause an array of mental disorders. In addition, hundreds of clinical studies show that constantly watching a screen increases depression, anxiety, aggression, and can lead to psychotic like features where people lose touch with reality. “Such a dependence on screens”, according to Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “may be taking a toll on our biological capacity to connect with other people.”

While digital addiction is afflicting people of all ages and background, children and youths are the worst affected. Parents, eager to calm a crying child, provide a phone or a tablet to children as young as 2 years old and the addiction begins to take roots. As they grow older, their addiction also aggravates and reaches a point where all they care about is their screen, whether it is on a phone, tablet, laptop, or a television. Developmental psychologists emphasize that children’s healthy development involves social interaction, creative imaginative play, and an engagement with the real, natural world. The immersive and addictive world of screens in which the children are growing up, unfortunately, is stunting these developmental processes.

Researchers have identified several negative traits typically observed in screen addicts:
• a staunch preference to spend most of the day and almost every day confined to their homes or in an indoor secluded space;
• persistent avoidance of social gatherings;
• working on their school or work assignments in front of multiple devices, with multiple windows open on each device, where one may be related to their task and the others a combination of YouTube, a gaming site, Facebook, Netflix, or even pornography;
• a feeling of restlessness and anxiety when away from a screen for even a few minutes;
• sleep deprivation, a fleeting focus, and a significantly reduced attention span;
• an uncontrollable impulse to fact-check everything instantly, whether it is a physician’s diagnosis, or any professional’s expert opinion, or just a statement made by anyone during those now rare moments of face-to-face conversations; 
• restlessness and irritability if they are not instantly gratified; 
• lack of appreciation or desire to build strong, positive relationships with other people.

Addiction to screens in children (and increasingly, in adults too) is so deeply ingrained that instead of playing a game of tennis or soccer or chess or scrabble with real people, they prefer to play online, on their device, in the comfort of their chair or bed. Upon waking up each morning, rather than stretching their limbs and preparing for the day ahead, their hands leap for their smartphones so they can play a game, or watch a video, or check their messages even before their eyes are fully open. The work desk doubles as a dining table as food is gobbled simultaneously while playing a game or watching a video. Focus on screens is prioritized over food, sleep, exercise, or physical movement, barely leaving time for engaging in any meaningful or constructive pursuits. In seeking momentary joy and pleasure, they severely undermine their career prospects and future well-being.

An artist’s illustration of the Hikikomori created by Yuta Onada. Downloaded from http://www.warscapes.com/opinion/hikikomori-postmodern-hermits-japan

Unwittingly, children addicted to screens are adopting the lifestyle of the Hikikomori, self-styled modern day hermits of Japan, who intentionally lead a reclusive life, isolated from society. Emotionally tormented by technology, they develop a fear of meeting people, and to avoid any contact with people, generally sleep all day and spend their nights surfing the internet. Devoid of any purpose in life or ambition, such people become depressed and stray into a life of crime and drug use. Or their life may mimic the path of Lee Seung Seop, a 28 year old who succumbed to a cardiac arrest following a non-stop gaming binge online for over 50 hours during which time he neither ate nor slept.

Lured by the cost-effectiveness of peddling goods and services online, accessibility to a global customer base, and higher profit margins, e-commerce is proliferating. While businesses cannot be faulted for setting up shops online or how visitors use their sites or how much time they spend on their portals, what is concerning is the way e-commerce companies promote their offerings and encourage binge behavior, whether it be watching videos, shopping, gaming, or browsing their content. Exhibiting a complete apathy for the effects their portals are having on human development, these companies design their sites such that people get hooked and stick around for much longer than intended because more time on their sites translates to more revenues for them. This is very akin to tobacco companies who enhance nicotine with chemicals to make it even more addictive. Once addicted, people find it difficult to quit despite repeated attempts. In the digital world, a probably harmless intent to play one game or watch one video extends to a marathon of several games or multiple videos, and in many instances, consuming their entire day.

The rapid pace with which screen addiction is afflicting people is bound to have troubling ramifications for the addicts as well as the economy. Screen addicts aren’t gaining skills or experiences that will equip them to solve life’s simple problems or find meaningful employment. These addicts, apparently, are also bereft of any worthwhile goals or the desire to build a brighter future. Devoid of any interest in learning a new craft or a new language or in improving their communication or any other life enhancing skills, the only ambitions they harbor is watching as many videos as possible, or playing online games as often as possible, and a race to garner more “likes” and “followers” than their peers. A life lived such apathetically will only lead to a lifetime of decreased wages, limited opportunities, and an unsatisfying career. In essence, a significantly diminished life awaits them.

The pace of technological advancements is rapidly altering our social, cultural, and professional landscape, often for the better but sometimes for worse. In the past couple of decades, many innovative companies have emerged and the crown jewel among them is again, Google. Undeniably, Google has introduced many products that have made our lives simpler, better, and easier and deserves applause for bringing such innovative products to market. However, as and when uproar arises over the havoc created by digitatinment, Google will likely get the bulk of the ignominy, followed by Facebook and Netflix. And a word of appreciation for Yahoo! for discontinuing its games portal.

One may think that screen addiction would be easy to give up. Unfortunately, it is going to be harder to give up than smoking or alcohol or even gambling. The primary reasons being internet is always available, quite inexpensive, and there is no social stigma associated with internet use as yet. Additionally, content on the internet is constantly and rapidly increasing. Consider that about 400 hours of video is uploaded on YouTube alone every minute. Including the content being uploaded on other sites, it may add up to several thousand hours each minute!

This is no time for complacency. If we have any desire to protect ourselves, our children, and our world from the potential havoc that digitaintment can unleash, we need to act, and ACT NOW.

Life is Precious. Live Well

My sincere thanks and appreciations to my friend Rajen Parikh for painstakingly reviewing my drafts and helping me refine the article.

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