Young minds trapped in the digital world

Gadget addiction

When 17-year-old Kiran (name changed) visited psychiatrists at Nimhans in Bengaluru to get treatment for mobile addiction, the issue seemed simple. 

Kiran would spend hours together on his mobile phone, which eventually manifested into addiction. Family members who initially chose to condone it as entertainment felt the need for counselling when they realised the link between excess screen time and behavioural problems.

On the very fist day of the rehab programme, the counsellor realised the complexity of the situation with the teenager more drawn towards the virtual world than his immediate family and not willing to be part of the real world.

However, the main hurdle to working out a solution was ensuring dedicated ‘family time’.

The counsellor’s bewilderment began when the initial sessions of counselling made it obligatory for the family to spend time with each other. There were plenty of concerns.

“They asked us what they should be doing in their free time. They did not know how to spend time with each other as they have mostly been spending time sitting in a room, engrossed in their phones,” said Dr Manoj Kumar Sharma, Professor of Clinical Psychology, SHUT clinic (Service for Healthy Use of Technology), Nimhans.

In what is a reflection of how entrenched the problem is — in most such cases, psychiatrists also shoulder the responsibility of giving the family a list of tasks they must be doing during the one hour they are to spend time with each other, away from gadgets.

“When we told them in the first counselling session that they had to talk to each other for an hour, they said they did not have any interests in common. So, we asked one of them to make tea, the other to get snacks. To this, they said no one was willing to step out to buy it. We suggested that they get it delivered. Other members were asked to serve,” he recollected.

Dr Sharma said that parents of children with mobile phone addiction expressed guilt and most voiced their helplessness.

“This is an emerging area and caregiver counselling is also a challenge. Couples ask us if they are bad parents. Some take it upon themselves for not giving attention to their child’s needs. Some other parents lose interest in all other activities and decide to micro-monitor the child, adding to the problems,” he said.

From insomnia and vision problems to anxiety, depression, psychological distress, dishonesty and social isolation, children, mainly adolescents, of today are at the risk of physical and emotional problems due to the growing concern of digital addiction.

 

Studies and experts point to various short-term and long-term consequences that have the potential to ruin lives and careers of the youth.

While a teen’s mobile use is harmless to start with, later becomes compulsive, and then addictive, the underlying causes and the degree of impact vary. The fact that these problems are not ‘visible’ makes the situation even more complex. 

The SHUT clinic at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (Nimhans) was inaugurated in 2014
with a special focus on technology addiction. The treatment seekers have increased from 1-2 per week in 2014 to 8-10 per week in 2019 for technology-related addiction.

It is not just a question of being unable to withdraw but other physical and psychological effects associated with it which are of concern, said Dr Sharma.

In all cases that the psychiatrists have attended to, the impact it has on academics is also to be considered.

“Some students do their assignments on phones. This starts with a casual browsing of the internet. If a message lands in the inbox, it draws their attention and it is a cycle. Clinically, teens take three to five minutes to get back to a current scenario after having read a message. Their concentration levels go down,” he said.

With peer pressure and academic burden affecting their lifestyle, many children give outdoor activities a skip and stick to browsing their phones in their free time.

“Teens also consider spending time on phones as a pleasurable activity. During their highs and lows, to ward off boredom, to express their distress or to seek acceptance, they resort to their phones. If their phones are taken away from them, they find it challenging to deal with it,” he said.

Though it is very tough to categorise mobile phone addiction, SHUT classifies cases for social media addiction, gaming and other forms depending on the time spent on it.

From sleeplessness to cognitive impairment, mobile phone overuse has many impacts. In most cases, children tend to lose interest in academics, develop erratic eating patterns, minimise their real-life social activities, tend to depend on social media for emotional support and have an excessive urge for acceptance on social media.

Vision problem

Meanwhile, ophthalmologists say they have been seeing an increasing number of children with myopia as they have a reduced number of hours spent outdoors.

Dr K Bhujang Shetty, chairman, Narayana Nethralaya said that phones are used by infants as well as the aged. “Parents tend to hand over a phone to children as young as six months old to pacify them when they cry. At the next stage, children tend to demand it. It eventually results in addiction,” he said.

Calling it an occupational hazard, Dr Shetty said that irritation in the eye and redness as a result of continuously staring at a screen are common problems faced by those visiting the eye care department. “Ideally, one must blink 14-15 times a minute. While staring at a gadget the rates reduce to 6-10 times a minute causing irritation. Parents must first be advised to minimise cell phone usage.”

Dr Asha Benakappa, former director, Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health, said, “Children go by what parents and adults around them do. They tend to copy from their behaviour and they are to be blamed,” she said.

Having seen many children play on the phones even at her clinic, Dr Benakappa believes, this is a dangerous trend that has long-term implications.

“Most parents use it to feed their child. This has an impact on interpersonal relationship, their speech is affected, there is sleep disturbances in the child and more. They could develop tendonitis, have an impact on the temporal lobe of the brain, blurred vision and be subject to clber bullying of various forms,” she added., Page 4

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