Only a few months ago, this type of behavior would have been considered excessive and certainly not healthy.
This is an important question that I, a psychiatrist, and my co-author, a wellness and parenting coach, often hear.
Adaptation or internet addiction?
Since the start of the pandemic, it has become more challenging to assess behaviors that were once considered excessive. Many behaviors previously considered pathological are now considered essential to protect human health and are applauded as adaptive and resourceful.
During the pandemic, however, society has quickly adapted online opportunities. Whenever possible, people are working from home, attending school online and socializing through online book clubs. Even certain health care needs are increasingly being met remotely through telehealth and telemedicine.
Overnight, digital connections have become commonplace, with many of us feeling fortunate to have this access. Similar to contamination fears, some digital behaviors that were once questioned have become adaptive behaviors that keep us healthy – but not all of them.
Is it obsessive-compulsive or protective?
While COVID-19-era behaviors may look like clinical OCD, there are key distinctions between protective behaviors in the face of a clear and present danger like a pandemic and a clinical diagnosis of OCD.
Some people have obsessive-compulsive traits that are less severe. These traits are often observed in high-achieving people. Such “keep the eye on the prize” behaviors are recognized in nearly 2% of the population. A talented chef who is very attentive to detail may be referred to as “obsessive-compulsive.” So may a detail-oriented engineer building a bridge or an accountant examining files from many different angles.
The critical difference is that the persistent, repetitive, ritualistic thoughts, ideas and behaviors seen in those suffering from clinical OCD often take over the person’s life.
When most of us check the door once or twice to make sure it is locked or wash our hands or use sanitizer after going to the grocery store or using the restroom, our brains send us the “all clear” signal and tell us it is safe to move on to other things.
A person with OCD never gets the “all clear” signal. It is not uncommon for a person with OCD to spend several hours per day washing their hands to the point their skin becomes cracked and bleeds. Some people with OCD have checking rituals that prevent them from ever leaving their home.
OCD triggers have become harder to avoid
The same principles that apply to compulsive hand-washing behaviors also apply to compulsive use of the internet and electronic devices. Excessive use can interfere with work and school and harm psychological and social functioning. Besides social and familial problems, those behaviors can lead to medical problems, including back and neck pain, obesity and eye strain.
For those who struggle with compulsive use of the internet and social media, the new, increased demands to use digital platforms for work, school, grocery shopping and extracurricular activities can open the black hole even further.
As new behavioral norms evolve due to the changing social conditions, the way that certain behaviors are identified and described may also evolve. Expressions such as being “so OCD” or “addicted to the internet” may take on different meanings as frequent hand-washing and online communication become common.
For those of us adapting to our new normal, it is important to recognize that it is healthy to follow new guidelines for social distancing, washing hands and wearing masks, and that it is OK to spend extra time on the internet or other social media with the new limits on personal interactions. However, if internet use or hand-washing becomes uncontrollable or “compulsive,” or if intrusive “obsessive” thoughts about cleanliness and infection become problematic, it’s time to seek help from a mental health professional.
I for one, was not an OCD person before and am not one now. I laugh as I watch people walking outside in the fresh air and even driving solo dutifully wearing their masks on. Too funny.