New Delhi: Every time her toddler refused to eat, Paramita Chatterjee pulled out the iPad or phone, put on a Snow White story and the food on the plate would disappear in no time. The harried working mother thought she had learnt the trick to easy and quick parenting. Three years down the line, the distraction has become an obsession for the now five-year-old who has graduated from watching fairy tales to downloading games and music.
For parents like Chatterjee – who had begun to notice changes in her daughter’s behaviour and taken steps to curtail her time on gadgets – their worst fears came true with the news of a nine-year-old cutting himself with a knife because he was denied his smartphone. Like Chatterjee, the boy’s parents also reportedly handed him the phone to keep him distracted and engaged. But while she got alert to her daughter’s obsession in time, his parents – currently undergoing counselling in a Delhi hospital – did not.
“We noticed a change in her behaviour, particularly during the summer vacations. She would be obsessed with the device. Then we realised she had started playing games and gradually watching Hindi songs,” said Chatterjee. According to Dr Samir Parikh, consultant psychiatrist and chairperson of the Fortis National Mental Health Council, with a variety of apps developed specifically for children, it is common to find toddlers adept at handling various devices. “There is an increasing trend for parents to resort to the use of a screen as a go-to distraction. Be it when trying to make the child eat, or keeping the child engaged when in public, it seems like a most convenient option to put a phone or tablet in the child’s hands,” he said.
Any audiovisual aid, he added, stimulates children’s attention, thereby helping parents manage them better. “With the increasing dependency on technology within our own adult lives, such an option does not seem to be a misfit,” Parikh said. Urban lifestyles and the invasion of technology make for a lethal cocktail, particularly during a child’s growing years, added Dr Sameer Malhotra, senior consultant psychiatrist with the Max group of hospitals.
“Busy work schedules, shrinking social support networks leave less quality time for healthy and meaningful interactions. Underlying attention deficit, impulsive and borderline trait/temperament, neglect, and obsessive symptoms can all pre-dispose a child to impulsive and destructive acts,” he said. Chatterjee agreed that parents should be held responsible for giving in to their child’s tantrums.
Chitra Swaminathan from Chennai makes it a point to spend quality time with her son who is in Class 10. They have long talks and go for walks together. “Loneliness makes them dependent on gadgets for company,” she said. But the perils of big city life are ever present. Her son plays games on his phone in the absence of any parks or playgrounds in the city, “a big price of urban development”. To make up for it, she has enrolled him in a cricket club. “I encourage him to play to negate the effects of gadget addiction,” she said.
Most schools are also alert to the dangers of excessive use of electronic gadgets and have in place strict policies against children bringing mobile phones. Kolkata-based teacher Poulomi Poddar said children pick up the habit from their parents who they see constantly occupied with their phones. “The instant gratification of using a smartphone and the internet has more side effects than advantages. Parents must avoid handing their phones over to kids to keep them busy. Instead they must encourage the child to participate in some life-skill enhancing activities,” she said.
While there is no one approach to prevent such addiction, Parikh warned parents against being punitive, nagging or over- monitoring. “As soon as you refuse or say a flat ‘no’, it almost becomes a rule being forced down onto the child, and the natural tendency would be to resist it,” he said.
Prohibition also often encourages children to become “deceptive”, and they are more likely to engage in their indulgences behind the parent’s back, he added. Recognising the underlying problem of the child, maintaining a positive environment, fixing hours of mobile use and encouraging constructive hobbies are some pointers suggested by Malhotra. “Let there be at least a day in a week without mobile phoned, giving time for family members to bond. Above all, be good role models by practising what you preach as parents,” he said. It’s time to go back to controlling those gadgets, to stop the distraction from becoming an obsession.