You are sure to have experienced nomophobia if you have suffered anxiety over the loss of your mobile phone, of running out of battery charge or credit, or network coverage.
With smartphones (mobile phones with built-in internet connectivity) expected to number 651 million by 2019 in India according to networking technology giant Cisco, nomophobia (no-mobile-phone-phobia, coined in 2010 by the UK Post Office), may be just one of the many problems that the new generation of ‘digital natives’ will face over the long term.
A 2011 Unicef report estimated India’s population of adolescents to be around 243 million. A huge chunk of this demographic is also the likely target of internet service providers, as the average age of the web surfer gets younger every year.
With landline phones all but phased out worldwide, it is no surprise to see toddlers and pre-schoolers being allowed to use (and usually master) their parents’ electronic devices.
Despite the uneven spread of broadband internet in India, the love for smartphones and other hand-held electronic devices has exploded across nearly every sphere of life, and overturned ultimately, the way we behave. This passion has turned to addiction, and needs concrete intervention, say experts.
“Very often gadget addicts are self-preoccupied. It’s just ‘me and my gadget and nothing else,’” says Dr. G. Gopalakrishnan, chief psychiatrist, Sowmanasya Hospitals and Institute of Psychiatry. “It is very difficult to control the addiction, because it increases every day. Parents would have bought the children a gadget worth lots of money, but it gets outdated after six months, and then they will want the next thing. Kids get defiant, they feel that they are useless or others are useless, and then go to extremes.”
Cases of children turning suicidal over not owning a gadget of their choice even in Tier II cities like Tiruchi are getting more common, says Saritha Sugathen, a counsellor and owner of youth activity centre Renascere. She cites the example of a boy who attempted suicide twice, simply because his parents didn’t get him the phone that he wanted. “Parents complain that their kids are asking for gadgets that cost Rs.25,000 to 30,000 [because their friends have them],” she says.
“The boy I counselled was given a basic mobile phone by his parents after his first suicide attempt, but after a month, he started rebelling again, and wanted a more sophisticated gadget. When his parents refused, he swallowed pesticide,” she says. Today the boy receives anger management therapy, but it remains to be seen if he can comprehend the cause and effect of his addiction to gadgets, she adds.
Being online constantly either for class work or entertainment and seeing their parents using e-commerce portals, children are getting too accustomed to instant gratification, feels Dr. Gopalakrishnan.
“The internet-using generation of children has grown in India only in the past five years. Before that, all the children were born before the internet was introduced in India,” he says.
These digital natives see internet as a basic necessity. “In the bargain, there is a compulsive desire to not wait for something to happen,” points out Dr. Gopalakrishnan. “Instant gratification is the worst for a child, because they don’t want to grow up to know how difficult it is to achieve or buy something.”
Parents, on the other hand, remain divided on the spread of gadget addiction. Some, like web developer and businessman M. Sudhakar, feel that a complete ban on technology products would never work in today’s competitive world. “I saw my first computer when I was in Class XII. My son Shailesh has been using an iPad since lower kindergarten,” he says. “If you don’t feed the kids technology now, they will feel left out in a peer group. Earlier, children could ask a teacher or visit the library for help with their lessons. Today, they use Google. Of course it is up to the parents to enforce limits,” he adds.
Parents like Mrs. V. Sudha Hussain would prefer to not let their children own their own mobile phone until they are old enough. “We must consider the purpose of a gadget before we buy it for the children,” she says. “My son and daughter play the games on their father’s phone. They had a TV-plug in game console, but we stopped it after we noticed that they were not going out to play.”
Says homemaker Mrs. Srividya, “My children use iPad for both education and entertainment. Most of the schools nowadays assign homework related to Internet research, so they have to have it at home. When you introduce a gadget, parents should be strict with the usage time.”
“We should never buy something for the child as soon as he or she asks for it,” says Dr. Lakshmi Prabha, a dentist, and mother of Shailesh. “Since our son understands our viewpoint, he is careful to stick to our rules – he uses his iPad only on weekends, for an hour or so at a time.”
Musician Suresh Babu noticed that his toddler son was getting addicted to both the television and his mobile phone, and refusing to sleep well past midnight after an initial period of being entertained by the gadgets. “We stopped both the gadgets immediately. Since he’s still a toddler it is easy to control his habits, but it would have been difficult had he been an older child,” says Suresh.
Using gadgets for babysitting is not a new phenomenon. But the isolation that handheld electronics force upon their users can have serious side-effects. Adult health problems like weak eyesight, chronic upper body pain and even carpal tunnel syndrome due to prolonged use of smartphones and tablet computers are becoming more common among youngsters today.
Of greater concern is their loss of social skills, and the ability to interact with the world outside the internet clique.
“Overusing gadgets affects sleep patterns, so most children are too tired and late for school,” says Dr. Gopalakrishnan. “This affects not just academics, but also their relationship with other children.” The Institute of Psychiatry has recently launched a study on internet and mobile phone addiction among school and college students in Tiruchi, results of which will be available next year.
“The study is a little biased towards children from wealthy backgrounds who can afford these gadgets,” admits Dr. Gopalakrishnan, “but our initial observations have found that quite a few kids are addicted, especially those who attend schools where tablet computers have replaced standard paper text-books.”
Use and abuse
The children who were interviewed for this article said that other than homework research, they used their gadgets (or those of their parents), to play games that feature fighting, car racing and shooting down opponents. None of them felt the onscreen violence had affected them in real life. But Shahma, a Class VIII student, said she felt “very jealous whenever my friends bring a new gadget to class. I know my parents will never get it for me, but I wish they would.”
Stories of children ordering products on the sly with their parents’ credit cards are also getting common. Accidental purchases made due to parents leaving their card information on e-forms are another problem.
“The gadget will not say ‘don’t do this.’ Only parents can say ‘don’t do this,’” says Dr. Gopalakrishnan. “When you force people to use more of the internet, you are going to get problems. There are good things about the internet. But there is only a small difference between use and abuse.”
You are a gadget addict if …
You get anxious and irritable if you don’t have your favourite electronic gadget with you
You feel very upset when nobody responds to your latest online post
You have experienced chronic pain or have developed spinal and posture problems due to overusing gadgets
You have forgotten how to have a face-to-face conversation with another human being
You find it difficult to separate your online persona (such as a character in a video game), from your offline (real) self
You have often used your gadget secretly late into the night to shop or visit websites with inappropriate content
You are ready to kill yourself if you don’t own the latest gadget
Tips for parents and teachers
Spend more time with your children; lonely kids are more likely to look for companionship in gadgets
Set the limits on gadget usage and also on the type of device, and write it down as a contract to prevent arguments later
If your child is in the habit of sharing your device, make sure sensitive information like bank card details or office projects are out of his or her reach through encryption
Don’t buy a gadget because your children want to fit in with their social group. Buy it only if you are convinced of its utility (for them) and affordability (for you)
Create tech-free zones at home and in the class
See if you are setting a good example by being a judicious user of gadgets yourself.