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Is your child ADDICTED to the Internet?

By Indulekha Aravind
January 12, 2015 14:31 IST
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A teenager who was addicted to online pornography threatened to indulge in high-risk behaviour if his parents did not restore the Internet connection they had given up to curb his tendencies. The hapless parents relented, thinking that pornography was the lesser of the two evils.

A 17-year-old who was playing video games for 10-12 hours a day would say he was going to college and instead go to a cyber cafe, which would open as early as 7 for video game junkies, and he would return late at night, using the excuse of extra classes and study groups.

If your child is spending too much time online, an Internet de-addiction clinic can help him or her use technology in a healthy manner, reports Indulekha Aravind.

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A boy on a bunk bed is sobbing. Asked what he did, he replies with tears running down his cheeks, "I used the Internet." A prison-like door then closes ominously.

These disquieting visuals are from the trailer of the 2013 documentary Web Junkie, about life in an Internet addiction rehabilitation centre outside Beijing, where teenagers are taken by parents to help them overcome their addiction through a military-style boot camp regimen. The camp is reportedly one of over 250 centres in that country, which identified Internet addiction as a top health threat to its adolescents.

India may be far from setting up any such boot camps as yet, but early last year, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, or NIMHANS, opened the country's first clinic in Bengaluru to help people addicted to technology. Since then, three other centres for Internet and technology de-addiction have been opened, the latest by Armed Forces Medical College in Pune, indicating that growth in Internet users (around 250 million in 2014) comes with challenges.

"When I started researching the subject, people were not convinced it was a problem," says Manoj Kumar Sharma, additional professor of clinical psychology and founder of the Service for Healthy Use of Technology clinic in Bengaluru. But my interactions with patients who came for other disorders revealed that this was an issue."

The scepticism is understandable in a world where everyone is hooked to one's gadgets for work or for socialising -- it is hard to take a call on where necessity ends and addiction begins. The clinic defines technology addiction as a "repeated tendency by an individual to engage in some specific activity, despite harmful consequences to his/her health, mental state, or social life".

In 2013, a door-to-door survey of 2,755 people between 18 and 60 years was carried out in the city. It was found that 1.3 per cent of the group were addicted to the Internet and 4.1 per cent to mobile phones. Sharma says he now gets calls and emails from all over the country, including Jaipur, Delhi, Imphal and Guwahati.

The clinic is located in BTM Layout, away from the main NIMHANS campus, partly to protect patients from the stigma associated with visiting a mental health facility and to be closer to the community. Open on every first and fourth Saturday, it has been getting one or two new cases every alternative week. Though its services are meant for all age groups, nearly all their patients are between 14 and 20 years, says Sharma.

Although the clinic, located away from the NIMHANS campus partly to protect patients from the stigma associated with visiting a mental health facility, was meant for all age groups, nearly all their patients are between 14 and 20 years, says Sharma.

He says this could be because at this stage, parents are able to intervene and bring their wards to the clinic, while adults would be less willing to come forward.

As with other addictions, people believe that they can "manage" their addiction. Around 70 per cent of those who come to the clinic are adolescents addicted to video games, says Sharma.

Among the clinic's recent patients was a 17-year-old who was playing video games for 10-12 hours a day. He would say he was going to college and instead go to a cyber cafe, which would open as early as 7 for video game junkies, and he would return late at night, using the excuse of extra classes and study groups.

His parents realised something was amiss only when they got a call from the college, informing them that their son was failing his subjects and that he was inattentive in class. When they began criticising him, it only aggravated the situation, with the boy now turning to video games for solace.

The aggression when parents try to restrain their children is not unusual in such cases, says Sharma.

Another teenager who was addicted to online pornography threatened to indulge in high-risk behaviour if his parents did not restore the Internet connection they had given up to curb his tendencies. The hapless parents relented, thinking that pornography was the lesser of the two evils.

There are mostly three or four sessions, starting with a clinical review assessment and then proceeding to motivate the junkies to be decisive about controlling their impulses. The patients are told to begin by ensuring they take frequent breaks between sessions, rather than stopping them altogether.

After that, they are counselled about the detrimental effects of overusing technology, such as the effect on academics and relationships. After these sessions, the patients are encouraged to keep in touch over the phone or through email.

"The majority of the cases respond, maybe because families are also involved as part of the counselling," says Kumar. Parents should educate children about mobile phone use and teach them to develop control from an early age. They should also emphasise finding a balance between online and offline activities, the clinic advises.

The mother of a 27-year-old who had come to the centre for counselling said the sessions had been useful and the doctors, helpful. In her son's case, he had himself asked his parents for help when he realised he was spending most of his time on the Internet. "He is finally able to think on his own now," she says.

But when the adolescents say they want to have a career in video games, the situation becomes complex, admits Kumar. However, these cases are in the minority, at least so far.

The clinic is now looking to have training programmes in schools, for which they would train counsellors, says R Dhanasekara Pandian. But rather than labelling it as a de-addiction programme to avoid stigma, they would make it part of a comprehensive package on wellness.

Another challenge is to reach out to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, as the cases are currently restricted to people from the middle and upper income categories. The clinic is also working on developing screening tests for Internet addiction and another for mobile phone addiction. "We want to develop these tools so that they can be used by anyone," says Kumar.

Signs that your child may be spending too much time online:

  • There is a change in his or her lifestyle, such as a sudden drop in grades
  • She/he becomes more secretive
  • Biological changes, especially lack of sleep
  • Changes in temperament, such as aggression when access to the Internet is restricted, or avoiding offline contact

What parents can do:

  • Educate the child about mobile phone use. Teach them how to develop control early on.
  • Emphasise balancing time spent online and offline. Engage the child in other activities.
  • Consider shifting to a low-speed connection or switching off the modem after 10 pm
  • Rather than being overcritical, if you feel your child is spending too much time online, consider involving a professional
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Indulekha Aravind
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