With the once expensive Internet service becoming cheaper, it is no surprise that after China, India is now the second largest online market with over 460 million Internet users. And this number is expected to increase to 635 million by 2021.

The majority of India’s digital population consists of mobile Internet users and it is estimated to increase in the coming years. But this is apparently also leading to Internet addiction with medical experts pointing to psychological disorders due to long online chats, browsing and unlimited time zone games. It is manifested in the form of frequent checking of social networking sites like Facebook, Whatsapp, compulsive online shopping, preference for online chats rather than face-to-face interactions and  playing online video games.

Elaborating on the negative effects of continuously using these sites and applications,  a psychiatrist, at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, Dr Nitika Mehra, said, “Internet addiction disorder has now been made a part of study of psychiatry considering the staggering rise in the number of people complaining of addiction to social networking sites.

“Parents, who used to boast of their children’s ability to use mobile phones and computers without any training, now complain of their children’s decreased social activity and increased Internet and application-based activities. The youth are so overwhelmed with the latest applications that they use them at the expense of social activity, outdoor gaming and reading,” she added.

Dr Mehra said with the advent of mobile phones, accessibility to Internet and Internet-driven applications has increased. “Social life has become more virtual than real. People interact on Facebook and WhatsApp and most of the time are occupied with the latest activity in their online profiles. Most of the online activities, such as gaming, use of social sites, gambling and media can be highly addictive. This addiction can lead to problems like lack of social engagement, health issues like cervical problems, back ache, insomnia, lack of interest in outdoor activities, and damage to brain of adolescents and young adults,” she said.

A Panchkula-based psychological counselor, Dr Shashi Sethi, said Internet addiction is causing disorders in people of all ages as they are knowingly or unknowingly dependent on their phones. “From young children to elderly, people of all age groups are getting addicted to Internet. While youngsters chat online with their mates, old people use Internet to access sites like Facebook to  know what is happening in other people’s lives,” she added.

“We’ve probably always felt a slight tingling in our pocket. A few decades ago we would have just assumed it was a slight itch and we would scratch it,” Dr Sethi said.

“But now we’ve set up our social world to be tied to this little box in our pocket. So, whenever we feel any tingling in our leg we get a burst of neurotransmitters from our brain that can cause either anxiety or pleasure and prompt us to action. So, instead of reacting to this sensation like it’s a few wayward tingling nerves, we react as if it’s something we have to attend to right now,” she said.

Citing a few examples of Internet addiction, Dr Sethi said in one case a middle aged woman met with an accident as she was surfing Facebook while travelling on a two wheeler with her husband.

In many cases, students are hooked to their smart phones, ignoring sleep, food and studies.  A housewife Renu Bala said she was so addicted to Internet (Facebook and YouTube) that she even used to forget to feed her children and do her household work.

“I used to be so engaged in YouTube and Facebook for hours that sometimes I had no idea of the time it took of my daily routine.  Due to this, many times I used to fight with my husband about my  habit of using Internet till late in the night. Following this, I had to make some changes like avoiding Internet use for a few days to force some corrections in myself,” she added.