Children of the web

Educators, parents and a therapist weigh in on internet addiction among children today and the need to prioritise mental health

Updated - July 04, 2023 12:39 pm IST

Published - June 30, 2023 02:26 pm IST

While there is little research on the precise impact of online content on children and teens, there have been some grave concerns raised

While there is little research on the precise impact of online content on children and teens, there have been some grave concerns raised | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It was during the peak of the pandemic that Instagram reels became ‘dopamine’ for Anika*, 16, a Delhi-based student. “I was addicted, doom scrolling all the time, and it took a big toll on my studies,” she says. Her schoolmate Monica used to read, write, paint, but the draw of social media, and the instant gratification it gave her, robbed her of her interests, she says.

“The algorithms suck you into something you’ve searched, and keep you hooked, and then give you a feeling of huge inadequacy. I could be learning to play the guitar and then chance upon these brilliant influencers and think ‘I can never be them’,” says 15-year-old Aditya, who studies at the same school.

For Shruti, a high school student in Chennai, her obsession with a fitness influencer wreaked havoc on her physical health. “I was 13, and in awe of a 16-year-old girl on Instagram. I went on a diet, ate slowly, even counted the number of times I chewed my food so I ate less. I would do 100 crunches on my bed,” she says. She lost 20 kg in two months, and her periods stopped. It took therapy to return Shruti, now 17, back to physical health.

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Ever since the lockdown, the digitally privileged child and teen have become inevitable inhabitants of the virtual world. This is where they learn. Play. Communicate. Are entertained. But the web comes with disturbing realities that call for immediate action to protect our children.

In May this year, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a 25-page advisory that warned of the ‘profound risk of harm’ that social media posed to the mental health of children and adolescents, in extreme cases, the streaming of live depictions of self-harm. Teenage girls reported being contacted by a stranger, and young people felt ‘addicted’ to social media.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy | Photo Credit: AP

The advisory cited two studies that found frequent users of social media “can experience changes in brain structure similar to changes seen in individuals with substance use or gambling addictions”.

In early adolescence, “when identities and sense of self-worth are forming, brain development is especially susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions, and peer comparison”, the document warned. Excessive social media use could be associated with changes in the developing brain, it added, “…in the amygdala (important for emotional learning and behaviour) and the prefrontal cortex (important for impulse control, emotional regulation, and moderating social behaviour).”

Beneath the surface

Shilpi, a Mumbai-based publisher and mother of two young children, spent the pandemic months with her in-laws in France. Schooling went hybrid, social interactions were limited, and her children spent a fair amount of time watching content on their devices. Shilpi thought nothing of it: she knew it wasn’t ideal, but it kept the peace and her children often watched shows on their iPads in a house full of people.

“Then during bedtime one night, my older one, Shayna, 9, inexplicably burst into tears. She had been ‘very bad’, she said, and apologised constantly.” Shilpi asked her what was wrong; she reassured her daughter that nothing she did would make her ‘bad’. “Shayna then told me she had typed the word ‘kiss’ in a search engine after which she started seeing pop-up videos.” Shilpi figured from the description of the videos that they were pornography.

Shayna had been targeted by inappropriate content for her age, and was disturbed by what were clearly very graphic visuals. “I had to explain to my daughter that pleasure, love and sex are all natural experiences, and that everyone would encounter them when they grow up. And that these are totally different from what she saw on videos generated by an industry with actors, meant for adult viewers,” says Shilpi. “It was a difficult conversation to have but one that was necessary.”

Social media indoctrinates children into self-surveillance by constant comparison

Social media indoctrinates children into self-surveillance by constant comparison | Photo Credit: Imaging: Arivarasu M.

While there is little research on the precise impact of online content on children and teens, there have been some grave concerns raised. In 2021, Frances Haugen, an American whistleblower, said that Facebook led teenagers to anorexia-related content. Another study of 14-year-olds, published in eClinicalMedicine, concluded that greater social media use was associated with poor body image, low self-esteem, and higher depressive symptoms.

Teens and screen time
In a survey of girls aged 11–15, one-third or more said they feel “addicted” to a social media platform
Nearly 3 out of 4 teenagers believe that technology companies manipulate users to spend more time on their devices
A survey of 8th and 10th graders found that the average time spent on social media is 3.5 hours per day
Adolescent social media use is associated with decrease in life satisfaction among girls 11-13 years old and boys 14-15 years old
In a review of 36 studies, a relationship was found between cyberbullying via social media and depression among children and adolescents
Source: Social Media and Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory 2023

“Every girl I meet now, I mean every girl I meet, is struggling with some body image issue. This trend is connected to the popularity of Instagram and has intensified in the last three years or so,” says Shelja Sen, a Delhi-based family and narrative therapist, author, and co-founder of Children First, a child and adolescent mental health service.

Social media indoctrinates children into self-surveillance by constant comparison with others, she says. “They ask themselves, ‘I did not get many likes as her, maybe I am not as pretty.’ They are locked in the pentagon of Ps: proving, performing, posing, pretending and perfection.”

Shelja Sen, Delhi-based narrative and family therapist, author, and co-founder of Children First, a child and adolescent mental health service.

Shelja Sen, Delhi-based narrative and family therapist, author, and co-founder of Children First, a child and adolescent mental health service. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Dr. Sen has lost count of the number of young girls who struggle with anorexia and body dysmorphia. It is easy to dismiss girls’ preoccupation with their looks as “girls these days!”, as if the problem is with them, she says.

“But our girls are being told very early to police others and themselves to fit into society’s beauty standards. And social media exploits this vulnerability.” A 13-year-old patient once told her: “Every time I meet somebody or see a picture on social media, the first thing I look for is if ‘she is thinner than me’.”

A sense of community

The pairing of social media and the youth is a complicated one. Dr. Murthy, in his advisory, points to ‘potential benefits’ too, such as the sense of community it creates. For instance, social media could support the mental health of LGBTQIA+ youth by enabling peer connection.

Trinetra Haldar

Trinetra Haldar | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Trinetra Haldar, a young trans woman, content creator, doctor, actress and social media influencer from Karnataka, listed in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia List 2022, started posting on Instagram as a teen in high school, but got more active while in college. “It felt like the only space I was allowed to express myself freely as a trans person. I later vlogged through my surgical transition on YouTube, both as a way of documenting details for young queer and trans people, and personally as a form of release,” she says. “Social media is where a lot of us find ourselves and each other as queer people trying to survive an extremely phobic world.”

Anahita Ananth, 24, a communications professional, got on social media when she was 13. “For me, this became a space for community. It was through social media pages that I learnt so much, even life-saving information, about consent and how to recognise when it’s being violated. It deepened my understanding of concepts such as misogyny and homophobia, what mansplaining is.” These were important lessons for a teenager vulnerable to grooming and predatory behaviour.

For Disha Reddy, a shy 17-year-old, social media became an affirming space. The Bengaluru-based student is a talented singer and songwriter, trained in Carnatic and western music. “She hesitates to post her songs on Instagram, she worries about how many ‘likes’ she gets, and underplays herself. But I do share her singles on Facebook with her permission,” says her father, Prashanth Raj, an architect and filmmaker. “And the response is always overwhelming and validating for Disha.”

Raj, however, cautions parents against oversharing information about their children. “You have to be careful, subtle; what you share about your child’s achievements shouldn’t make another kid feel inadequate.”

What can schools do?

Virtual platforms, vitally, also helped a vast population of students continue their education during the pandemic. And today, devices and educational apps have become ubiquitous in classrooms. “Technology holds out the exciting promise of re-imagining schooling,” says the principal of a school in Bengaluru. “But it can be daunting, and it is difficult to be innovative if you feel scared and unsupported. So we got together an experienced, diverse, thoughtful, resilient and deeply committed leadership team.” The school, however, did not see technology in isolation, he says. “It was about creating an educational philosophy, pedagogy, wellness and human connection during the pandemic.”

Digital technology helped a vast population of students continue their education during the pandemic

Digital technology helped a vast population of students continue their education during the pandemic | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Digital technology was tremendously useful during the pandemic for Chennai’s KC High, says Mick Purcell, the head of school. “It allowed kids to connect to their friends and teachers. Its primary benefit was social, and we all learned together about how to use the Internet to teach ourselves.” Now, after the pandemic, the school places more emphasis on classroom learning, physical play, and face-to-face interactions, but digital technology is still useful for research projects, he says. “Parents, teachers, and schools must work together to build ecosystems that promote responsible behaviour,” says Purcell.

Most social media platforms set age bars; in India, the Information Technology Act, 2000, and the 2008 amendment, have zero tolerance for sexually explicit material — whether it is browsing, searching, creation or transmission. “But social media is not the problem, it is a healthy ‘digital diet’ that parents have to ensure for their children: devoid of violence and sexually explicit material,” says Rakshit Tandon, a risk advisory, cyber detect and respond leader, and consultant at the Internet and Mobile Association of India. “Provocative Insta reels are consumed by adults and children. Parents have to instil in children the ability to differentiate between the virtual world and real life.”

Three Ds for parents

For parents, Dr. Sen recommends three Ds as a way forward: “Delay giving children smartphones until they are at least 15. Distance all gadgets at home and make them less accessible for fidgety fingers and minds. And demystify them by making healthy Internet use a necessary part of the school curriculum.”

Parents, meanwhile, have evolved their own strategies to monitor their children’s screen time. Delhi-based homemaker Amita says she is by her 12-year-old daughter’s side whenever she is online. Kalpana, a homemaker in Chennai, restricts the use of devices to weekends. Neha, a jeweller in Bengaluru, uses a timer for her daughter. And Kanika, a Bengaluru-based entrepreneur, has insisted her son give her his social media passwords so she can monitor what he is watching and sharing, even though “he blocks me from time to time”.

Dr. Sen cautions against excessive parental monitoring and surveillance, however. “This can have a huge impact on the relationship because children start hiding things from their parents — they think they are going to be misunderstood. What we truly need is to understand their world without judging and, most importantly, have open conversations.”

*Some names and locations changed to protect privacy.

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