Are our smart phones affecting our mental health?

For many of us in 2018 our smartphone feels like an extension of our body, permanently affixed to our hand like an extra appendage. It’s the first thing we look at when we wake up and the last thing before we go to sleep. Many of us can’t go five minutes without checking our devices, or feel anxious if we lose it or leave it at home. It has become commonplace in casual conversation to refer to such behaviour as an addiction.

But can our “addiction” to our phones actually be classified as a mental disorder? Do we have enough scientific evidence to know exactly how the excessive use of electronic devices is affecting our health?

The use of smartphones, the Internet, and other electronic devices has dramatically increased in recent decades. China now has the largest Internet market in the world. More than half of China’s population are connected to the Internet and more than 90% of them access the Web by smartphone. With the increased usage come clear benefits and convenience to our lives, but also growing questions and concerns about the potential negative impacts.

In a move that addresses one set of concerns about the public health implications of excessive use of electronic devices, the World Health Organization, for the first time, recently included “gaming disorder” in the draft 11th International Classification of Diseases (ICD) under mental and behavioural disorders. The decision follows several years of consultations with experts, and will result in both increased attention by health professionals to the disorder when seeing patients and, hopefully, more research into the best ways to prevent and treat the disorder.

WHO describes “gaming disorder” as recognizable and clinically significant syndrome associated with distress or interference with personal functions that develop as a result of repetitive gaming behaviour. For gaming disorder to be diagnosed by a trained health professional as a type of behavioral disorder, the pattern of gaming behavior must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas, and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.

For many who have struggled while a loved one succumbed to gaming disorder, the classification brings some clarity, and in naming the disorder offers a way of understanding and categorizing the problematic behavior.

However, it is important to be clear about what has not been included in this recent announcement.

For example, while the classification puts a name to the disorder and defines its features, it does not offer concrete guidance on treatment.

Further, in the process of evaluating available evidence and research, participating experts did not find sufficient evidence to include in the draft any other type of technology-driven behavioural addictions, such as “smartphone addiction.”

It is also important to clarify that recognizing gaming disorder does not mean that all people who engage in gaming will develop a gaming disorder. Studies have shown that gaming disorder only affects a small proportion of people who engage in digital/video-gaming activities.

“Most people who play video games don’t have a disorder, just like most people who drink alcohol don’t have a disorder. However, in certain circumstances overuse can lead to adverse effects,” says Dr Vladimir Poznyak, from WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

“Most people who play video games don’t have a disorder, just like most people who drink alcohol don’t have a disorder. However, in certain circumstances overuse can lead to adverse effects,” says Dr Vladimir Poznyak, from WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

Going forward, China can contribute much to improving our understanding of the link between electronic device use and our health. Its world class research system can be a vehicle to expanding the base of scientific studies, offering the health community with evidence about impact and the efficacy of various interventions and providing the public with critical information about healthy Internet and electronic device use.

Going forward, China can contribute much to improving our understanding of the link between electronic device use and our health. Its world class research system can be a vehicle to expanding the base of scientific studies, offering the health community with evidence about impact and the efficacy of various interventions and providing the public with critical information about healthy Internet and electronic device use.

It is also important that we remember the positive role such technologies can have in our lives. From mindfulness apps or health trackers, to the monitoring of disease treatment for conditions such as diabetes, or apps that help us track our medication, it seems reasonable to assume that consumer-facing technology will always play a critical role in public health.

It is also important that we remember the positive role such technologies can have in our lives. From mindfulness apps or health trackers, to the monitoring of disease treatment for conditions such as diabetes, or apps that help us track our medication, it seems reasonable to assume that consumer-facing technology will always play a critical role in public health.

An abbreviated version of article was published in People’s Daily on 20 March 2018.

Contact:

Ms Wu Linlin
WHO China Representative Office
Media Focal
Email: wul@who.int
Tel: +86 10 6532 7190 ext 81220

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