Even as the country transitions to the endemic phase, it has become hard to shake off the long-lasting changes in lifestyle brought about by Covid-19, which has increased the dependence on digital technologies.
According to an analysis by Sortlist, Malaysians spent an average of nine hours and 17 minutes per day on the Internet, placing the country sixth in the world in terms of screen time.
Topping the list were the Philippines, Brazil and Colombia. And on the other end of the spectrum was Japan, with the least time online – just four hours and 25 minutes daily.
The Internet marketing company, which polled users aged between 16 and 64, also discovered that Malaysians spent an average of three hours and one minute each day on social media, amounting to 46 days per year.
“Digital devices helped people stay connected when movement control measures were put in place, but the situation has become a double-edged sword,” says Anna Tan, founder of SNS Child & Family Development.
It’s not only adults that have become dependent on devices, but children and teenagers too.
“Pre-pandemic, experts were already concerned with screen time among children and teenagers, but during Covid-19, kids were given the licence to use the Internet,” she says.
As parents were busy securing their livelihood, they may have overlooked their child or teenager, who had unfettered access to the Internet due to online classes, spending more time glued to the screen, she adds.
Some may struggle to cope with online classes and choose to browse YouTube, social media or play games or other activities that fill their social needs.
The issue of cyber addiction is not new, says Tan, but the pandemic acted as a catalyst.
“Basic needs of freedom to move about and socialise physically were restricted or deprived during the peak of the outbreak. The only window to connect to the outside world was through the Internet.
“Work, studies and social activities were all conducted remotely. The stress and anxiety levels were high as it was the only means to seek connection, comfort and solace,” says Tan, a registered and licensed counselling psychologist.
However, while the pandemic aggravated screen dependence, it may not be the underlying cause.
“Like most forms of addiction, cyber addiction has existed before the pandemic, and it’s due to the desire to seek bonds, sense of relief, purpose and reward,” she points out.
Who is at risk?
According to Tan, individuals who were highly deprived of social support during the pandemic, and those who lack self-control and want instant gratification are especially vulnerable.
“These characteristics are more common among children and teenagers.
“They have yet to develop the ability to see the correlation between actions and consequences,” she says.
They may start to pull all-nighters to play games and sneak out of bed after their parents have fallen asleep to go online, she adds.
And the overindulgence could affect their lives, making them skip homework, assignments and other duties.
Overcoming cyber addiction
To encourage behavioural change, Tan stresses that it’s essential that the underlying needs that motivate individuals to engage in cyber activities are addressed.
For example, a child may turn to online games for social interaction, a sense of belonging or a desire for instant gratification.
And if no boundaries are applied, self-discipline and self-control will deteriorate, she says.
Tan says it is therefore important to identify underlying motivations or causes, as only then can alternatives be offered.
“When the individual finds a similar meaning, purpose and connection through substitute activities, the chances of redirecting the fixation will be higher,” she concludes.