Though various social networking platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, require the minimum age for creating an account as 13 years, many do not adhere to it. Children, adolescents and youth across the world are increasingly addicted to staying online for several hours for games and social networking, jeopardising their physical health, socio–psychological and emotional well-being.
Recently, however, the Chinese Government decided to bar under-18-year-olds from playing online games for more than an hour. Play time has been restricted only to an hour on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 8 pm to 9 pm. The decision, according to authority sources, was taken to check "youth video game addiction."
According to the World Health Organization, young children’s screen time shouldn’t exceed two hours a day. However, no such restrictions are in place in India, where the number of minors online has been ever increasing.
Most smart phones have features like ‘Digital wellbeing and parental control,’ which can be used by parents to limit the hours of web surfing by children. Experts and research studies point to the need for monitoring children’s online activities and cutting down time spent on the Internet.
Digital world — a necessary evil
School students’ addiction to social media and its associated adverse effects on psycho-social well-being and physical health was already a cause of major concern in many households, forcing parents to seek counselling and treatment for their children.
Now, the pandemic and the resultant new digital ecosystem have created a Catch-22 situation for parents. With online education a necessity through the pandemic, school students — children and adolescents — have gained easier access to the Internet and various digital devices. With access to the digital world, many children have got hooked on spending hours on social media and online gaming.
In fact, tech-savvy children often open other virtual windows and sites apart from their online classes and later delete the history to keep their parents in the dark. Some even sink into the murky world of pornography and perverse content, which lead to a wrong view of the opposite sex and makes them act on uncontrolled impulses.
Internet addiction is higher among adolescents and late teens with social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram being the most popular ones followed by instant messaging apps like WhatsApp.
Pros and cons of children using Internet-enabled devices
Prof MVR Raju from the department of psychology at Andhra University understands that the Internet is a good source of information, reference and general knowledge. He even agrees that if online games are played for, say, an hour, some of these can help children relax, improve their concentration and memory.
“However, getting hooked to the games for hours will not only affect the eyes and overall health but also waste time and energy, thereby adversely affecting the academics and social life with friends and family,” warns the professor, who also believes that online learning is not as effective as classroom coaching. “Parents must keep a strict watch on their children’s browsing habits, lock the access to the apps or use password protection.”
According to G Hymavathi, child rights activist and former chairperson of AP State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, misuse, rather than the use, of the digital devices is more among children and adolescents. She also believes stringent laws to curb these are missing. “Most digitally addicted children lead a sedentary lifestyle, which further leads to obesity and cognitive impairment,” states Hymavathi. “What’s worse, in the absence of proper monitoring and restricted use, youngsters often end up sharing personal details and photographs on social media, which make them more vulnerable and expose them to violent and vulgar content.”
A psychiatrist’s viewpoint
Mental health experts point out that at least 70% of parents from urban and metropolitan areas consult them for their children’s online gaming or social media addiction.
According to Dr C Radhakant, professor of psychiatry at NRI Institute of Medical Sciences and a consultant at Apollo Hospital, gaming and social media offer children and adolescents an easy escape from reality. “Virtual compliments and rewards in online games provide a temporary confidence and ego boost to these youngsters, who find the real world full of complaints and criticism towards them,” explains Dr Radhakant. “They gradually start ‘living’ in the virtual world of distorted reality, which does not require much intellectuality or operational skills.
Furthering his point, he talks of how such youngsters don’t even prefer talking on the phone, for which prompt responses and communication skills are required. “They’d rather opt for chatting, which gives them time to think, reply, delete and puts them in a comfort zone and kills boredom. The audio visuals attract them more than black and white letters of books,” he adds.
Despite how bleak it looks, the psychiatrist advises a remedy to the situation. “Even before children can escape into the unreal world of virtual games and social networking sites and waste their time, energy and money, parents, elder siblings and family members should strengthen communication and emotional bonding with the children,” he says. “Loneliness is the most important factor that draws kids into an overdose of virtual reality. So, elders should ensure children get tangible rewards and support from real friends and family to socialise, have fun and enjoy moments through get-togethers, family or cousins’ chat groups and celebration of traditional festivals.”
Wondering what’s the big deal about kids spending too much on online games and platforms to stay entertained? Take a look at the pros and cons below:
· Access to a vast sea of academic resources, references, information
· Can enhance creativity and knowledge
· Temporary confidence and ego boost from virtual praises and gaming rewards
· Provides relaxation and entertainment through games and social networks
· Addiction and over-exposure lead to several socio–psychological and physical health problems like anxiety, sleep disorders, lethargy, obesity, headache and eye strain
· Disturbs concentration and weakens attention span
· Alienates youngsters from the real world and real relations
· Can expose minors to cyber bullying, pornography, digital abuse, frauds and other crimes
National level data on Internet use by children
Priyank Kanoongo, chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), informs us that the NCPCR, in collaboration with Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini, an NGO and research and training institute, undertook a pan-India study recently, among the age group 8–18 years across Hyderabad, Delhi, Mumbai, Bhubaneswar, Ranchi and Guwahati. The NCPCR comes under the aegis of the ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India.
“The aim of the survey was to assess the impact of social media and Internet devices usage on the psycho-social state of children and adolescents, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Priyank tells us. “The study titled, ‘Effects (Physical, Behavioural and Psycho-social) of using Mobile Phones and other Devices with Internet Accessibility by Children,’ collected responses from 5,811 participants (3,491 school-going children, 1,534 parents and 786 teachers; including 50.9% male and 49.1% female participants) from 60 schools in urban, rural and metropolitan regions of 6 states.
Key findings of the survey
· Children’s most prominent means to access smartphones and the Internet is through their parents’ phone, with 62.6% kids using their parents’ phones
· Around 30.2% of children of all age groups already possess their own smartphones
· Only 10.1% of children like using smartphones for online learning and education
· 52.9% like using Internet-enabled devices/smartphones for ‘chatting’, 44.1 % like using it for music and 31.9%, for gaming
· The study’s data show that 42.9% of children confessed to having a social networking account
· Among the apps used, Facebook (36.8%) and Instagram (45.50%) are most popular
(Data Source: NCPCR, GOI)
Expert recommendation to curb unlimited online time
The NCPCR, with experts from NIMHANS and psychiatry department of AIIMS, have offered the following recommendations for a safe and healthy digital environment for children and their holistic development based on their observations, reports and research. According to experts working for early detection and prevention of internet addiction at AIIMS Behavioural Addiction clinic
· Parents’ supervision of their children is of paramount importance
· Parents must use media content blocking and filtering to block inappropriate and unwanted content reaching their children
· Parents should be good role models by restricting their own television and smartphone usage
· Children’s playgrounds should be enhanced to engage them in outdoor games and sports rather than mobile gaming
· More Internet de-addiction centres need to be established in India
· Children need to be made aware about cybercrime, Internet safety rules, cyber security and usage of privacy settings
· Children should be instructed not to share personal information on social media sites
· Schools must conduct awareness programmes to educate children about cybercrime and cyber bullying
· As children use Internet/social media apps over various connections such as Wi-Fi, mobile Internet services, which are mostly in the name of their parents, connections should be given in the name of children by way of proxy accountability as in the case of a minor’s bank account. While purchasing Wi-Fi connections, parents should declare that the connection will be used by the child, thus helping service providers/intermediary platforms provide filters/restrictions
· The availability of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) on social media platforms and access of children to pornographic content is a gross violation and punishable offence under sections 13 and 15 of POCSO Act. Such matters should be reported immediately to the Special Juvenile Police Unit (SJPU) or the local and cyber cell police for stringent action under the law