Bharti Boolchandani was unable to pinpoint the reason for her son’s strange behaviour. Her otherwise energetic 12-year-old had started looking dull and sleepy. He would not wake up on time for school and would often complain of headaches. It was only when she peeped into her son’s room one particular night, well past midnight, that she understood what was wrong. Her son was engrossed in an online game on her iPad. “On confronting, he confessed that he would play online games most nights. He would sneak away my iPad into his room after everyone had slept,” New Delhi-based Boolchandani says. This incident occurred a year back. “I confiscated the iPad. He became aggressive and stopped talking to anyone at home. He threw tantrums and cajoled me to give him the iPad. Finally, I agreed to give him my cellphone for an hour every evening. This way, at least I would know what is happening,” says 44-year-old Boolchandani, a geography teacher at a reputed private school in the capital.
Clearly, Boolchandani’s son was getting dependent on a gadget. Her timely intervention saved him from getting addicted and seeking professional help. She is now working towards creating an atmosphere at home where gadgets are not picked up during leisure hours. “Every evening, I play carrom with my kids,” says Boolchandani, who also has a daughter aged 12 years.
Online addiction among children is nothing new. But what’s causing great alarm now are the severe repercussions being seen among children due to tech addiction. Take, for instance, the Blue Whale Challenge, a first-of-its-kind social media game that has prompted several teenagers across the world to commit suicide. Last month, in fact, a 14-year-old boy from Mumbai jumped to his death from the terrace of his seventh-floor house. The reason cited reportedly is the Blue Whale Challenge. In the game, a self-harm group identifies disturbed teens online and encourages them to commit suicide. The Russian creator of the game is now in jail, but the game has had its victims in the US, UK, Brazil and France.
“Why would a child indulge in self-harm? Clearly, it shows signs of emotional distress,” says New Delhi-based psychologist Harsheen Arora. “Our society has defined rules for behaviour, but in the online world, there are no such checks and measures in place. So a teenager, who is already going through physical and emotional changes in life, gets attracted to activities that stimulate his/her mind,” Arora says.
The seemingly innocuous electronic device—smartphone, tablet and laptop—which exists in every urban household, is now a bone of contention between concerned parents and addicted children. “The gadget reinforces the concept of immediate gratification from a young age,” says Sanjay Chugh, a New Delhi-based consultant psychiatrist. “Everything becomes instantly available, whether it’s information, connecting with virtual or real friends through social platforms like Instagram or Snapchat, or seeking entertainment through Netflix or Hotstar.” What starts as a coping mechanism to curb boredom or satisfy curiosity soon becomes an inseparable part of a child’s life, making him/her dependent on gadgets for his/her daily dose of social networking, video gaming, etc.
Another shocking example of childhood addiction to mobile phones that hit headlines recently was about a nine-year-old boy from New Delhi who cut his arm with a kitchen knife after his parents refused him a cellphone. The class IV student was rushed to hospital, where he was first treated by a general surgeon for his injury before being referred to Sir Ganga Ram Hospital’s consultant psychiatrist Rajiv Mehta. “It was one of the youngest cases of cellphone dependence that I have come across,” says Mehta. He is currently counselling both the child and his parents. “The child is being treated for cellphone addiction, while the parents are being counselled about positive parenting,” he says.
This is not the first case to have hit headlines about cellphones and the harm they inflict on children. Last June, an 11-year-old boy from Bhopal committed suicide when his mother scolded him for excessive use of the cellphone. Makkala Sahaya Vani, a Bengaluru-based child helpline run by an NGO, along with the Bengaluru Police, has seen a 20% increase in the calls they receive related to children’s addiction to smartphones, as per the NGO.
In 2014, a survey conducted by a cartoon channel in India revealed that 73% of Indian children are cellphone users. Of these, 70% fall under the age group of 7-10 years, while 76% are in the age group of 11-14 years. The survey was reported in the paper, Assessment of Smartphone Addiction in Indian Adolescents: A Mixed Method Study by Systematic-Review and Meta-Analysis Approach, which was authored by Sanjeev Davey and Anuradha Davey. The paper was published in The International Journal of Preventive Medicine. “Most families, especially in metros, don’t use landlines at all. And since both parents have mobile phones, a child has access to it from a very young age,” says Sanjeev Davey.
As per a recent study conducted among 200 adolescents (aged 13-18 years) by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (Nimhans), Bengaluru, addictive use of gaming was found in 39 adolescents (19.5%), addictive use of cellphone was found in 31 adolescents (15.5%) and addictive use of the Internet was found in 36 adolescents (18%). The paper, published in ASEAN Journal of Psychiatry last year, depicted that 79% of children addicted to technology belonged to nuclear families.
Gadgets are consuming a growing portion of young people’s time, as the study found that they were spending 72 minutes per day on social networking sites such as Facebook. It was associated with difficulties in various daily activities such as academics, sports, meeting friends, socialising, etc. “The trend among pre-teens is towards online games and it’s mostly due to peer influence, lack of playgrounds, easy accessibility of gadgets and lack of parental emphasis on offline activities. Children start using gadgets to manage free time or to overcome boredom,” says Manoj Kumar Sharma, additional professor, SHUT clinic (Service for Healthy use of Technology), Nimhans. The SHUT clinic sees at least five new cases every week for tech and online addiction, with cases of video game addiction seen most frequently.
The behavioural addictions clinic at New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), which opened in October last year, sees at least three-four youngsters every week with technology dependence problems. At Ganga Ram Hospital, the psychiatry unit sees at least one-two teenagers every week. Seema Hingorrany, a Mumbai-based psychologist, says she has seen a 35% spike in cases related to smartphone addiction.
Use & abuse
Most often, the obsession with gadgets seems to be fed by parents, with many believing that it aids development in younger children. Medical experts differ. “Parents use these devices as quick alternatives to pacify the child without realising the long-term damage they could cause to the kid’s emotional and mental health,” says consultant psychiatrist Chugh.
Take, for instance, Reema Kapur, a public relations professional from Mumbai, who takes immense pride in her three-year-old’s ability to groove to the beats of latest Hindi songs or make funny faces while reciting rhymes. Her daughter spends most of her waking hours watching either Bollywood songs on YouTube or listening to rhymes on the tablet. The child has her own iPad and mobile phone dedicated solely for rhymes and online games. “We are a nuclear family and distraction is my best tool to feed her after a long working day,” says 37-year-old Kapur. “I am more concerned about making her finish her meal rather than think about addiction that may or may not happen at a later age,” she says candidly.
Clearly, Kapur is yet to realise the potential danger that she and her child will face in a few years’ time. The parents of the nine-year-old boy from Delhi can relate to Kapur. The beginning was similar. “The mother of the boy was a lecturer in a private college and the father a businessman. They gifted him his first cellphone when he was four years old. They had downloaded several learning-based apps for toddlers and were happy that the child was learning,” says Mehta of Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. “It was only when the child complained of headaches that the parents took away his cellphone. This led to violent behaviour on his part,” he says.
Yatan Pal Singh Balhara, associate professor, department of psychiatry, and consultant in-charge, behavioural addictions clinic at AIIMS, adds, “Unfortunately, neither the child nor the parents realise that there is a problem. Unless the child starts showing some physical distress like poor eyesight or falling grades, parents don’t understand the gravity of the situation.”
Addiction to technology is still not a public health issue, neither does digital addiction find place as a mental disorder, but some believe that the symptoms mirror that of addiction to drugs or alcohol. As per Balhara of AIIMS, mobile dependency is akin to substance abuse. “The withdrawal symptoms are similar, ranging from depression to violent behaviour, aggression and social isolation,” he says. And unlike drugs, which can be confiscated, smartphones and Wi-Fi are everywhere.
What’s even more alarming is the fact that the problem is expected to reach mammoth proportions in the near future, considering the way digital connectivity is spreading its roots. As per recent data, India’s current Internet user base stands approximately at 330 million and is expected to reach more than 700 million by 2020. “I am more likely to face a challenge treating a student who has a video game addiction than someone addicted to drugs,” says psychologist Hingorrany, who conducts counselling workshops in several schools in Mumbai. “I once had to counsel a 14-year-old who spent three hours everyday on YouTube, watching tutorials on eye make-up,” she adds.
Hingorrany cites several other examples of children who spend hours online because of neglect from parents or unpopularity in school. “Parents don’t realise that they are responsible for their child’s digital dependency. They live in denial,” she says, adding, “I met a girl who found solace online because her mother refused to believe that her uncle had abused her. She found comfort in sharing her story with strangers who believed her. She became addicted to her blog, leading a dual life.”
Recently, the American Society of Paediatrics produced detailed guidelines, linking screen time with sleep disturbance, developmental problems and the risk of a child becoming overweight. The more time parents spend in front of a screen, the more their children will too, it said. The rate of myopia, or short-sightedness, among young people in the UK has doubled in the past 50 years, and this has been linked to too much screen time, as per the American Society of Paediatrics. “When the source of pleasure, comfort or relaxation is denied, the mind starts to protest by becoming restless and agitated, and it could go to extreme lengths to seek gratification,” says Chugh. Reports and surveys also point out that excess use of smartphones and the Internet can kill memory, leading to ‘digital’ amnesia.
Though there are no guidelines yet in India, western countries have started acting on the threat. Health bodies in the US now recommend that children under two years of age should have no access to screens, under-five-year-olds should have an hour a day, and those under 18 years of age should have a maximum exposure of two hours a day.
Clearly, there is no such thing as good technology any more.
By Smitha Verma