Smartphone scourge How Covid got kids hooked


2020 changed life as we know it, the entire world held to ransom by a mutating virus. Overnight, people shut themselves in. Work-from-home and online classes kept us afloat. However, it is now that we can realize the full impact of the pandemic on young minds. Every other household has fallen prey to it. Yes, we are talking about mobile addiction among tweens and teens. Considered a necessary evil during the pandemic, most parents who eagerly handed over cellphones to their impressionable kids “for studies” are now wringing their hands in despair as to how to wean their wards off the gadgets.

Now, even though schools are functioning in offline mode, children often interact with their friends over phones, creating Whatsapp groups where they often engage in silly banter, send stickers and emojis or in serious cases even in cyber bullying. Common excuses for using the phone include the need to talk to friends to discuss school projects.

A FINE BALANCE

While the easy answer would be to confiscate the phones, that is easier said than done. Given the low threshold for adversities among kids in general, such measures may prove counterproductive. We often read in newspapers how a boy hanged himself or consumed poison because his parents took away his cellphone. Parents therefore tread lightly, trying their best to not alienate the kids and at the same time keep tabs on the kids’ phone usage.

MENTAL HEALTH AT STAKE

In a study conducted in over 40 countries by US-based non-profit Sapien Labs, it was revealed that the earlier a child is given a smartphone, the more chances she/he has of suffering mental health problems in their youth.

Early smartphone ownership among young adults was also associated with higher rates of suicidal thoughts, aggression towards others, a sense of disconnection from reality, and hallucinations.

IMPACT OF INCREASED SCREEN TIME

Talking about her personal experience, Vizag-based Elisa Patnaik, whose daughter studies in class 7, says, “Prior to the pandemic, I was quite particular about my daughter Sanaya’s (who was 9-year-old then) screen time. She got the mobile phone and the tab only for 30 minutes or so in a day to play games or see funny videos. But the pandemic changed it all. All of a sudden, her screen time increased to 5–6 hours, including online classes, homework, Internet searches for school work etc and it was quite worrisome.”

She adds, “Since then, not only has the mode of education changed but kids have become dependent on the Internet and gadgets but also addicted to it as well. The school assignments these days include making PPTs, reels, videos and other interactive content for which children have to spend time on phones, laptops or tablets. Increased communication over WhattsApp has increased screen time. And finally, most of the relaxation and enjoyment for children comes from being on the phones which is really worrying for me as a parent”.

“Given a choice, my daughter, who is going to be 12 now, would happily spend 3–4 hours on the Ipad or my phone on a holiday watching movies, videos, chatting with friends etc. Sometimes, I am forced to lock the iPad to restrict her access but it results in unpleasantness between us. Her demand for giving her an independent phone has been rising, but we still have not succumbed to it. But not for long, I guess.”

Mumbaikar Mignonne D’Souza, mother to an eight-year-old, says: “The whole focus of my life as a parent now is to direct my kid away from gadget time. This involves planning play dates, playing with her, deciding activities that don’t involve a gadget. We also have consciously avoided giving her a personal device of her own, whether phone or tablet so that her gadget use is supervised. I find that kids turn to the gadget only when they are bored. If you surround them with play mates they will play. But that is really a challenge in cities.”

WAYS TO TACKLE ADDICTION

Asked to put a figure about the increase in mobile addictions since the pandemic, Dr Seema Hingorrany, Clinical Psychologist and Author, says, “Definitely an increase of 50-to-60%.”

“During the pandemic, there was no control by parents or they didn’t know what to do with children. All they could do was just give iPads and phones to them. There was no social interaction, sports was stopped. People couldn’t go anywhere outside. So phones became the tool to interact with the outside world. Unfortunately, apart from interacting with the outside world, we saw video-gaming addiction increasing, we started Snapchat and Instagram addiction. So much so, that it has now become a menace in young teens leading to other multiple problems.”

“We need to understand the type of addiction. Some people just like to talk randomly on the phone, some have smartphone addiction in the sense that they can spend 7–8 hours on the phone. Also, most of those who have these addictions are socially introverts some have social anxiety or low self worth, We have to go back to the root of the problem. Root cause may be low self esteem. Such people may be more addicted to phones because they rely on phones as tools to have some medium of entertainment. They do not believe in engaging socially with people. Secondly, for teens, sports or extracurricular activities are extremely important.”

“Also, food habits need to be looked into. A few years back, everybody used to sit together for food and laugh together. Now I see children eating in their bedroom, on their beds and parents are also ok with it, post-pandemic. And this is where the addiction starts. So we ask parents to encourage eating together and ensure phones are kept aside, spend quality time with children, make sure you are monitoring their activities. what are they talking about, what they are posting. If the kids are posting something inappropriate, instead of getting angry, try to find out the root cause why they are doing it.”

Talking about a mobile addiction case she is currently dealing with, Dr Hingorrany, says, “Recently, a 14-year-old girl was referred to me by her school for poor academic performance. The school authorities said she is a very intelligent girl and used to do well in studies, but of late her grades were dropping. During the clinical interview, I realized that she was spending too much time on the phone and more worried about the likes she was getting for her posts, what her friends were posting and at what time. Due to this, her sleep had gone for a toss. In this case, I am working with the child’s self worth because she is seeking validation from the outside world through social media, which is the case with most people who have mobile addictions. We are making slow progress, but I definitely see an improvement.”

Dr Sujay, counsellor at Social Communications Media, at Sophia’s College, Mumbai, says we can follow some rules such as not allowing phone usage before sleeping. Also, while TV is mostly watched in the hall and we can easily keep tabs on it, what we watch on the mobile phone cannot be seen. Hence, there are several apps which parents can download on phones to keep track of what their children watch. Also, parents need to set a time limit as to how long a child can use the phone.

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