Internet addiction’s a public health issue

Japan and Korea are grappling with net-induced intellectual and emotional disorders. Why fall into that trap?
The telecom and IT minister recently announced that India will soon have half-a-billion internet users. That’s an unprecedented achievement considering India’s struggle to add internet users just 5-8 years ago.
As a result of easy access to WiFi, intuitive user-experience through touch screens, and availability of affordable mobile and tablet devices, internet usage is poised for a dramatic rise in the coming years. Although India’s mobile data consumption is just one-tenth of that in the US and other advanced countries, we are witnessing challenges due to the overuse of internet, especially among youth and children.

Sheer overuse

Studies have revealed that constant internet use results in reduced creativity, reduced ability to remember, and significantly hurts long-term memory. Another study shows that internet users get increasingly impatient. The psychological impact due to constant use of internet and mobile phones has been researched for many years. The anxiety among those who use their phones for email and social networking activities is known. For instance, ‘always connected’ people are nervous when the battery runs low.
Not surprisingly, ‘online anytime’ people get stressed in a no-internet zone. Of late, we have begun to accept mobile phones/tablets and other gadgets as replacements for kids’ toys. Indeed, parents often boast of their kids’ ability to use smartphones with ease.
According to a study, the addiction problem in India is real and at least 24.6 per cent of adolescents have problematic internet use or internet addiction disorder (IAD). A report by the Indian Council for Medical Research says that 12 per cent of individuals using internet in the country suffer from this problem.

The problem’s growing

Internet addiction is a growing problem world over. Japan, known for its early adoption of technology, was among the first to recognise the challenge of IAD. It is estimated that over 5 lakh children in the 12 to 18 years age-group are victims of screen addiction. High school students spend over six hours during weekdays and, in many cases, skip school to be online.
Japan’s education ministry has started internet fasting camps where the affected children are asked to spend time on physical activities. The intention is to help them get away from the online/virtual world and encourage them to have real communication with other children and adults — basically, teaching them the importance of human relationships. The Japanese government claims that the fasting camps have been successful because they motivated children to spend much less time online.
South Korea, another technologically advanced country, considers internet addiction a public health crisis. ‘I Will’ centres have been set up in Seoul. These are intervention institutions for internet and smartphone addicts among children and youth below the age of 24. They are provided counselling, preventive education, and alternative activities.
India’s premier mental health institute, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) has set up an internet de-addiction centre for healthy use of technology. A similar centre has been set up in a few cities. But considering that millions of Indians are either already or likely to be affected with IAD, shouldn’t there be many more such centres across the country?

Government help

India has the youngest population in the world but the demographic dividend we are so proud of could soon vanish if we don’t inculcate the right habits among gen next. India’s culture which revolves around strong family bonding is expected to address the issue. Yes, it can, but with low awareness of the IAD issue, we need multiple initiatives. Today, most of us do not accept that the problem is real.
India needs a strong framework for tackling IAD. This is a good opportunity for the telecom, human resources, health and AYUSH ministries to join hands and come up with suitable actions before the problem becomes an enormous issue. The ministry of health and family welfare should consider creating a pan-India initiative similar to the National Addictions Management Service (NAMS) created by the Singapore government. Under NAMS all types of addictions are brought under a single umbrella.
We need a multi-pronged awareness campaign directed at different age groups. The Government should embark on an awareness drive aimed at educating the public on the main symptoms of internet addiction. The AYUSH ministry could consider providing intervention programmes for people who are already found to be addicted to the internet.
The HRD ministry should consider mandatory training for school and college staff, who in turn can educate students on responsible use of the internet. The main focus should be on improving children’s cognitive skills and thereby nurturing creativity. Schools can play a supportive role by educating parents about symptoms and possible actions.
Can the telecom ministry ask internet providers to run regular campaigns educating people about internet addiction?
In an increasingly connected world, we cannot shy away from the internet. However, we need a strong framework in the country to educate the public on the symptoms of screen addiction and provide intervention mechanisms. We don’t want IAD / screen addiction to spoil our demographic dividend.
The writer is an adviser to the Centre for Educational and Social Studies, Bengaluru. The views are personal
(This article was published on July 15, 2016)


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