A 14-year-old boy, addicted to online gaming, physically assaulted his father when the father attempted to disconnect the WiFi. A 16-year-old girl, victimized by cyberbullies, resorted to self-harm as a coping mechanism. A 12-year-old boy, deeply engrossed in online gaming, refused to attend school and eventually dropped out. Additionally, a 28-year-old, consumed by online gambling and dark web activities, lost his job and resorted to selling his home furniture and stealing money from his parents’ bank account to fuel his addiction. These cases, observed at the behavioural addiction clinic at AIIMS, illustrate that cyber addiction poses a real threat and can be just as disruptive as addictions to substances like alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, reported TOI.

As research indicates that adolescents between the ages of 15 and 16 are particularly susceptible to internet addiction, the AIIMS clinic plans to collaborate with the National Council for Educational Research and Training. Together, they will launch a program called Cyber Jagrookta in CBSE schools starting next month.

The programme focusing on cyber security and digital wellness, to be curated by AIIMS, will be part of the curriculum to train teachers on how to help students inculcate healthy social media habits.

Speaking to TOI about the treatment at the behavioural clinic, Yatan Pal Singh Balhara, professor of psychiatry, National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre, AIIMS, said, “A detailed evaluation of both the patient and caregivers is followed by diagnosis. Some cases are identified as medical disorders, others may have comorbid mental health issues such as alcoholism or anxiety. Treatment typically consists of a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Medication aims to curb cravings and manage withdrawal symptoms, while psychotherapy addresses issues like anxiety and coping mechanisms.”

Some physical manifestations of internet addiction are dry eyes, migraine, backache, irregular eating, sleep disorder, poor personal hygiene and carpal tunnel syndrome (wrist pain).

The most concerning aspect of internet addiction is its effect on family relationships. Incidents of physical and verbal aggression are prevalent, with parents bearing the brunt of their children’s violent outbursts. Additionally, some teenagers withdraw and isolate themselves by locking themselves in their rooms.Balhara explained, “Online gambling has emerged as the most rampant form of cyber addiction among those aged 18 to 30 years. Armed with disposable income and easy access to virtual platforms, many find themselves spiralling into a vortex of financial ruin.”Balhara said that the concept of de-addiction practices associated with drugs cannot be directly applied to internet addiction. Instead of simply removing access to phones or the internet, the focus is on fostering healthy social media habits. “The goal is to coexist with technology without viewing it as an adversary, thereby promoting a balanced and sustainable relationship with the digital world,” he said.

While parents take pride in the masterful use of the net by their kids, over dependency can be dangerous. “Students often lie to their parents that they are using phones for study purposes,” pointed out Sudha Acharya, principal, ITL Public School.

She said CBSE has directed all schools to implement the ban on smartphone usage on school premises and school buses. She cited the 2023 Global Education Monitoring Report by UNESCO which states that while technology enhances the scope for learning, there are “detrimental effects of smartphone usage on students, including distraction, decreased attention span and compromised mental well-being, leading to academic decline”.

Advocating a multifaceted approach with hands-on workshops involving parents and teachers, psychiatrist Jitendra Nagpal, who specialises in adolescence and early childhood disorders, noted that internet addiction was exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. The director of Expressions India’s Life Skills & National School Mental Health Programme said, “Parents must boost the self-esteem of their kids, not compare them with their peers. They must spend quality time with the youngsters who feel disconnected from their own families.”

(With TOI inputs)

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