There has been a steady rise in the number of parents taking their children for treatment for “addiction” to the internet or social media, say doctors. Though there are not any studies to ascertain the exact percentage of Indian youth addicted to the internet or social media, some clinical psychologists too are reporting an increase in the number of youths addicted to pornography requiring counselling.

Speaking to The Sunday Guardian, Dr Rachana Bhargava, associate professor with AIIMS and a clinical psychologist at the AIIMS Behavioural Addiction Centre, Delhi, said that since the opening of the centre in 2016, the range of cases coming to them has confirmed that though the problem is widespread, people seek professional help only when the situation gets worse. Dr Bhargava said, “Since the centre is a weekly clinic, we get at least six-seven cases every week, where we counsel patients whose normal lives have been affected severely because of their addiction to the internet. The increase in the number of youths coming to us has been alarming as well.”

A Class 8 student had to drop out of school because of consistently poor scores as she was not focusing on her studies, but was instead glued to her laptop and mobile phone. According to Dr Bhargava, “When the school intervened, the parents realised the damage that had been done by her internet addiction. The challenge is that patients mostly do not want to admit that they are addicted to something at all. They do not understand how they can be addicted to social media because addiction is usually associated with substance abuse. So we first make them realise that spending excessive time on the internet is the reason for their poor marks and deteriorating relationship with their parents.”

Dr Deepali Batra, director of PALS (Psychological Academic learning Services) and a clinical psychologist at Max Hospital, said that they were witnessing an increasing number of high school students coming in for treatment for addiction to social media and pornography. “We get at least one case for porn addiction from among high-schoolers or college students, and on an average, eight-ten cases of social media addiction. Youngsters mine through music websites to download songs and there are click-baits on these websites. Eventually, the child will end up clicking on these links that give them access to adult content. The point is to equip them with the correct perspective and knowledge when they come across such content, because we cannot stop them from accessing these,” Dr Batra said.

A Class 7 student was brought for counselling after her father discovered that she had four fake accounts on Facebook and that stalking was a habit for her, even though she did not understand that her activities could be termed as cyber crime. A seven-year-old boy, addicted to social media, became so aggressive that he ended up breaking his mother’s arm when she tried to take away his gadget. Students belonging to Class 11-12 needed treatment because they were addicted to pornography, as a result of which they were spending long hours watching adult content, thus compromising on their homework. A concerned father sought help for his daughter who managed to get hold of a mobile phone about which her parents did not have any knowledge; the Class 8 student was using the phone late night to surf the internet when the family members were asleep. “The situation got bad enough to affect her sleeping patterns and eventually she was brought for counselling. She is on medication now. The addiction is bad enough to put a healthy youngster on medicines for behavioural correction,” Dr Batra said. 

Explaining the science behind social media addiction, Dr Nand Kumar of AIIMS said that there are several components of a dependent. “They first develop a tolerance to the addiction and start to spend a fixed number of hours daily online and that becomes a part of their schedule. Then come the withdrawal symptoms, where if you do not spend the amount of time that you are now used to or have gained tolerance for, then your behaviour starts to get affected. You feel annoyed; at times people get aggressive in their speech, etc. The last stage is when the addiction starts to affect your work and your day-to-day life. It is not the smartphone, but the content of the phone that keeps you hooked to it,” Dr Kumar said. 

Experts say that a person whose job is to stay online or work on a digital platform cannot be labelled as a gadget addict or a social media addict, since it is their work that they do on the internet. However, when a person’s daily life starts to get affected that is when it becomes addiction. Almost all doctors talked about poor parent-child relationships leading to youngsters spending more time on platforms where they can find complete satisfaction in the people and the content they surf.

“It is important for parents to spend more time with their children instead of leaving them with gadgets. In the age of e-learning, youngsters will spend a lot of time online, but that does not necessarily have to become an addiction if the amount of time a child spends online is monitored. As far as accessing adult content is concerned, that will eventually happen. The best we can do is give them the right information and educate them about human body and psychology,” said Dr Kumar.

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