In a bind over his stammering, 15-year-old Abhiram Palekar (name changed) shied away from interacting with his peers and attending social gatherings. Instead, he sought refuge in the Internet.
Aspiring for visibility at least in the virtual world, the teen got on to a social networking site and sent friend requests to everyone he knew, including his teachers and principal. He went overboard and his teachers, seeing no point in “unfriending” him, counselled him saying he was too young to be using the Internet so extensively.
“The boy apologised to his teachers, but it took a while for him to completely come out of the resultant depression,” says the psychiatrist who is treating him.
Abhiram’s is not an isolated case. Child psychiatrists, who are seeing an increased number of children suffering from Internet addiction, say parents should be aware of the ill-effects of online social networking on their children.
“Don’t deny access to the Internet because stopping children doing something will only increase their curiosity, making them more determined to try it. Moreover, they cannot be banned from using the Internet because much of the information for school projects is sourced from there,” says Fabian Almeida, a child psychiatrist practising in Mumbai.
Dr. Almeida, in Bangalore to participate in the annual national conference of the Indian Psychiatry Society, says he sees teens get into relationships on social media sites, only to break up after discovering the fake identity of their online friends. “The result is depression.”
One good friend
“Children should be made to understand that it is important to have one good friend face-front rather than have a hundred friends online. Internet use should be allowed only in the presence of parents, siblings or grandparents. Children need to be provided with healthy options such as playing outdoors or going to a gym. Parents play a vital role in developing self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence in their children,” Dr. Almeida explains.
B.R. Madhukar, senior consultant psychiatrist at St. Martha’s Hospital in Bangalore, says parents must regulate Internet usage (both time and content). “If not, children tend to explore adult sites that will not only affect their studies but also result in behavioural problems. I have seen several such cases.”
Recalling the case of a 15-year-old boy addicted to online betting, Dr. Madhukar says parents must discuss the hazards of cyberspace and explain to children and emphasise the boundaries.
“Parents should have free access to the child’s Internet activities. Some parents admit trust the child. But it is not just about trust: children are vulnerable and it is the parents’ duty to advise them not to interact or befriend strangers,” he explains.
Both these psychiatrists say children as young as eight or nine can be subjected to bullying and harassment in the virtual world. “Cyber bullying and harassment can lead to depression, anxiety, severe isolation and even suicide,” warns Dr. Madhukar.
Too much time on the computer can also affect social skills.
Shoba Srinath, chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Services in NIMHANS, says parents should ensure that children are not obsessed with devices that have screens. “This can reduce language and speech stimulation, impacting their social interaction. Parents should not have misplaced pride that their three-year-old plays with the computer or PlayStation.”