By Avanish Tiwary for Youth Ki Awaaz:
For Delhi-based child psychiatrist Dr. Ankur Sachdeva, ‘Internet addiction’ is no new word. He mentions the case of two brothers, aged 19 and 22 years, who were so obsessed with online gaming, they would not only skip meals but also urinate in their pants to avoid leaving from the game!
This doesn’t happen to be an isolated episode; medical specialists and doctors working on Internet addiction cases have seen scores of such extreme cases of Internet addiction, which is very real, and very alarming.
Up until 2014, Rahul Verma, the founder of a Delhi-based NGO Uday Foundation, was working only for the rehabilitation and education of homeless children. But that year, he had a chance encounter with a sleep-deprived, irritable girl with unkempt hair, at a school function.
He found the girl aloof to her surroundings, not involved in activities the other children were engaged in. On enquiry, he learned that she would stay awake all night, posting pictures of herself on social media, soliciting ‘Likes’ from friends.
That was a wake-up call for Verma. He found that children spent most time online on Facebook and Instagram because they opened up a new world for them. Children as young as seven can get addicted to the digital space. In most cases, it takes months before parents even spot the telltale signs.
Getting hooked to the Internet for more than 6-10 hours a day can turn children moody, make them neglect food and personal care. Anything and anybody coming between them and the virtual world can anger them.
Dr. Sachdeva, who has treated a few such cases, says adolescents and those in their 20s too can fall victim to the addiction. Those in their 30s are much less likely to get hooked, he says. “This addiction also follows the same pattern of other addictions such as alcohol and smoking—it starts early.”
Dr. Sachdeva is barely able to suppress the fury in his voice as he talks of children and Internet addiction. “With advances in online gaming and graphics, the games have become life-like. People with low self-esteem, children with no siblings or friends to play with, find solace in companionship within these game circles rather than by interacting with the outside world,” he says.
The renowned National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans) in Bangalore started a special cell in 2014 to tackle Internet addiction. Cleverly named SHUT, an acronym for Services for Healthy Use of Technology, the cell is headed by Dr. Manoj Sharma.
Speaking to Youth Ki Awaaz while answering emails from worried parents, he says that in two years, he has worked with more than 200 children and teens who were in some or the other way addicted to technology and by extension, the Internet.
“It is not only the psychological side effects that are a cause of concern, but also the physiological ones. Dryness or redness of the eyes, pain in the neck, headache and overall fatigue in the body are the most likely side effects,” says Dr. Sharma.
Parents start noticing the symptoms only when they get aggravated, and become visible in the child’s social behaviour, affecting their academic performance. In many cases, says Dr. Sharma, the child resists going to school because they have to “complete the last stage of that game”.
“The rule of thumb to know if anybody is addicted to technology is when your friends and people in general start saying you are always online. That’s a signal,” says Dr. Sharma. “When one’s engagement in online activities leads to dysfunction in lifestyle and daily habits, the person then is beginning to get addicted to technology.”
This is when the parents should intervene.
“Parental intervention is a crucial component of the treatment at the SHUT clinic,” says Dr Sharma. “Families that come to SHUT are mostly one-child families with both parents working. The child has a lot of free time and is bored and lonely. There is also lack of space to indulge in physical activities. All ingredients for Internet addiction.”
The medical fraternity has taken note of the threat, says Dr. Sharma. Apart from Nimhans in Bangalore, hospitals in other cities are also working on this problem.
“Pune’s Armed Forces Medical College and AIIMS, Delhi, have started seeing patients addicted to technology, and that is good,” says Dr. Sharma.
The SHUT treatment involves counselling over multiple sessions. Patients are initially reluctant to discuss their addiction, and refuse to recognise it as a problem. Most of Dr. Sharma’s patients begin to come out of denial only after four to five sessions.
“Sometimes these children tell their parents, ‘The doctor knows me better than you do. He doesn’t label my problem as addiction.’ We avoid telling them we’re going to change their life habits. Instead, we tell them we just want to talk to them about anything but their addiction to technology,” says Dr. Sharma.
From seeing six to eight patients a month, the doctor now sees several fold more. The good news is, his patients have reduced their daily usage of Internet from 10-12 hours to four-five hours. “I’m not talking of every patient, but of some of them. But even that is kind of encouraging,” says Dr. Sharma.
While clinics are using counselling as a tool to help Internet-addicted children, Uday Foundation takes the “outdoors” method to get them off the hook. It encourages children to engage in offline activities to divert them from the obsessive use of technology.
Giving an example, Verma cites how such children have been introduced to orphan kids living with the NGO, promoting a healthy exchange of ideas and experiences between the two groups. Uday gets the Internet-savvy kids to help their less fortunate friends among the orphans on how to handle technology!
“Internet Addiction” has not yet been officially declared a disorder though in the next system of classification (International Classification of Disorders—ICD), it most probably will be. Some things in the world still do not run at the speed of the Internet!
Avanish Tiwary is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. He has worked with Mint, Firstpost and Financial Express.