Time to wake the Internet 'zombies'

PHOTO: The Straits Times

A former colleague of mine in Shanghai once told me quite proudly that she talked to her husband, who worked at an IT enterprise, on the free messaging and calling app WeChat all the time - even when they were both at home.

I thought they were quite odd until one evening when I was on assignment in Wenzhou. After checking into the Sheraton hotel in the evening, I decided to splurge on dinner at the hotel's fancy Italian restaurant ahead of my gruelling reporting schedule the next day.

Against the romantic backdrop of the restaurant, I could not help but notice that the young couple sitting at the next table had not spoken throughout the meal. They were too busy playing with their phones.

Indeed, Internet addiction is becoming more widely recognised as a spreading global disease that is afflicting mainly younger people. Nobody has done a thorough study on the damage it has done to our daily lives, but it has become a growing concern among governments of the major economies.

In an article published on CNN, Catherine Steiner-Adair, an internationally recognised clinical psychologist and author, wrote that although Internet addiction is not formally recognised in the United States as a mental illness, more and more medical practitioners and health officials are seeing the need to offer therapy and provide treatment centres for it.

She noted that recent studies have shown excessive technology and Internet use can lead to dependence and addiction, both neurologically and physically.

"New tech and Internet-centred cultural norms, habits of excessive use and the way the brain and psyche can quickly make bad habits compulsive have turned this social phenomenon into an urgent health concern," she wrote.

The results of a recent study show that there are 5.7 million Internet users, or about 73 per cent of the total population, in Hong Kong. More than 96 per cent of Hong Kong's smartphone users access the Internet on a daily basis to shop, pay their bills and chat.

One of the world's most tech-savvy cities, Hong Kong has been lagging behind the mainland and South Korea in recognising the threat of Internet addiction and the havoc this can wreak on the families of those afflicted.

The symptoms are easily detectable. Just look at the many "zombies" walking the streets with heads bowed and faces glued to their smartphones. Then you will see how serious the problem has become.

Internet addiction is not a fad that will fall out of favour, to be replaced by something else one day. To prevent it from spreading further, society must recognise it for what it is: Anti-social behaviour to be deplored and discouraged.