For a 14-year-old boy from Mumbai, what started as a simple pastime soon turned into an addiction. From being an active, social child, the teen became increasingly aloof, irritable and fatigued. Noticing a visible change in his behaviour, his parents decided to consult a psychiatrist who explained that these are some of the most common signs of mobile phone or gadget overuse.
The parents told the doctor that the child was not as alert as before, was performing poorly in school, wasn’t sleeping well and felt drowsy during the day. After a quick chat with the child, the doctor learned that he was spending most of his time on his mobile phone, playing games and watching videos. The child was up till 3 am on most days, watching videos on the phone, with the parents being unaware of the situation.
While a study, ‘Mobile Phone Addiction Among Children and Adolescents’, published in the Journal of Addictions Nursing found that problematic mobile phone use was prevalent in 6.3 per cent of the overall population (6.1 per cent among boys and 6.5 per cent among girls) another study found that it was prevalent in 16% of adolescents.
Dr Athulya Manohar, a clinical psychologist at St Joseph’s Hospital, Kochi, says she has seen cases of children as young as nine showing up with symptoms of technology overuse and gadget addiction. The Covid-19 pandemic, she says, made things worse.
“During the pandemic, there was no other way,” says Dr Manohar. “Many parents, who were unable to keep the kids engaged or take them out, allowed them to play on their mobile phones and gadgets. Earlier, internet was not so affordable. That’s not the case any more. [Since] children now have access to unlimited data, parents consider kids playing on the phone to be a very normal thing.”
How much screen time is too much?
Among children, the most common forms of technology overuse are excessive gaming and binge-watching shows and videos, says Dr Manoj Kumar Sharma, professor of clinical psychology, SHUT Clinic (Service for Healthy Use of Technology), NIMHANS, Bengaluru.
Dr Sharma points out that some of the signs of problematic and addictive use of technology among children include
- Long hours of screen use at the expense of other activities
- Loss of control over time spent on screen use
- Continued screen use despite knowledge of harm/consequences
- Behavioural changes, changes in emotional expression (child may become verbally angry, physically aggressive)
- Refusal to socialize and spend quality time in the family context, becoming more solitary
- Impaired interpersonal relationships
- Change in biological functioning (changes in sleep and food patterns which eventually leads to weight gain and obesity)
Dr Manohar recalls a case where the parents of a nine-year-old boy approached her. “The child was earlier very active, never spent a lot of time on the computer or mobile phone and used to go out to play with his friends every day,” she says. “Once the pandemic hit, he suddenly had nothing to do and used to complain to the parents about being bored at home. The parents, who felt bad for the child and were also working from home, gradually allowed the child to play on the mobile phone. Only when online classes started did the parents really understand the impact of the mobile overuse. The child would immediately start playing on the mobile right after class and would not do homework, would not take his afternoon nap, and would even refuse to eat food on time. His personal hygiene was also affected.”
‘Regulate, don’t ban screen use’
The key is to regulate the child’s screen usage and not put an abrupt stop to it, say doctors.
“Parents tend to take away the children’s devices,” says Dr Sharma. “In turn, the child becomes rebellious, and some of them turn to binge-watching television. Instead, they should try and communicate properly with the children and understand why they spend so much time online. They might be looking for acknowledgement, entertainment or friendship online. The communication should be non-judgmental. If the parents label the child as a ‘mobile addict’, the child gets offended. The parents should also encourage the child to spend quality time with the family and negotiate an earlier bedtime, without the mobile phone.”
Dr Manohar says if parents forbid children from using the mobile phone and take the device away suddenly, the young ones will throw temper tantrums, talk back and may even show signs of physical aggression.
Common signs of withdrawal from technology overuse
- Anger or outbursts
- Physical aggression
- Talking back to parents/rude disrespectful behaviour
“They should try to gradually bring down the time spent on mobile phones,” she says. “A clinical psychologist will be able to help parents with this. We do a lot of planning sessions with the parents to come up with a therapy plan for withdrawal. We do a baseline measurement of the child and think about what behavioural modifications to implement. The parents are the ones who then must implement this. Through this process, we basically transform the parents into co-therapists. This is how addictions are managed.”
Dr Manohar says in the case of the nine-year-old they found that he did not have many hobbies or interests and was even meeting his friends online.
“We scheduled some creative activities to engage the child in — such as arts and crafts and clay-modelling classes,” she says. “We started by offering him 30 minutes of phone use as a reward for completing these activities. We also encouraged him to do small chores around the house and help his parents out and spend quality family time playing puzzles or doing gardening together. We had around seven to eight sessions with this child, and he was able to overcome it. We did not fully eliminate mobile phone usage from his life but rather tried to limit the time he spent on it.”
Priyaa Arya, a parent from Bengaluru who implemented such a plan to wean her child off mobile phones, says, “When they are on gadgets, they have less emotional attachment with everything around them — including parents and pets. They just shrink themselves into the four walls of that mobile tab. When we started observing some of these changes, we had a long chat about it and we just decided to cut down on the time gradually, not drastically. Gradually, we were able to manage the time in the next six months and we were able to create more fun exercises between us, which gave him that sense of achievement to begin with, which he was getting on his device. And then there was a timetable set for him. Eventually everything fell into place, but initially it was very tough.”