Digital Dangers: Parenting in the Age of Phones 

Excerpted from ‘Parenting in the Age of Anxiety: Raising Children in India in the 21st Century’  (Aleph Book Company)

By Abha Adams 

IF there is one thing that upsets me deeply, it’s seeing babies and young children being given phones to play with. While working on this chapter I have been observing parents and children in public places more closely. This gesture by parents, of handing young children the phone, is tantamount to getting them addicted. I know this sounds over the top, but here’s the thing — a vast amount of research is available that is screaming out at us and I still see mums or maids, with prams, in the park, handing the phone to an eleven-month-old, while they have a natter themselves. It’s everywhere, especially at busy public spaces —  at airports, in hospital waiting rooms, shopping malls, you name it.

My husband had to physically hold me back at a recent visit to Apollo Hospital, where a three-year-old was obsessively banging the smartphone in the waiting area, presumably because the battery had died and she was throwing tantrums. You probably saw that funny old YouTube video of 2011, where a one-year-old is sitting in front of a fashion magazine, gamely touching and swiping the page with her fingers in an effort to get the images to move. At the time the iPad was relatively new and we were still really impressed at how quickly babies who could barely hold a crayon could master a touchscreen. The creator of the video wittingly titled it, ‘A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work’.

Phones and iPads have become pacifiers, a bit like what TV was to parents in the 1980s. Research suggests that technology is not the best early experience to fire the neurons. How much screen time should they have in the early years? Is the addictive nature troubling?

An article in India Today quotes from à 2018 study conducted by AllMS and the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, according to which, every third child among the  7,000 students surveyed in Delhi’s private schools suffer from obesity.

Cases of mobile phone addiction among children who are beginning to show symptoms of health conditions are on the rise. Many of them are addicted to games such as PUBG. What parents don’t understand is that children cannot buy mobile phones on their own. Why should parents give it to them? ‘It is high time this was controlled’, says Dr Saxena of AlIMS.

These are alarming statistics by themselves, and when exemplified by the case studies quoted at length in the piece, there is a genuine fear that this will only escalate. Take the example of four-year-old Rihaan, whose restlessness was difficult to deal with and could only be managed with kiddie videos on his mother’s smartphone. There were complaints from the teachers at his playschool that he was becoming increasingly aggressive unless he had a device to play with, and the principal advised the mother to consult a doctor. Rihaan had developed what doctors’ call Screen Dependency Disorder, or SDD, a condition that needs medical intervention!

Sadly, Rihaan isn’t an exception. Every day, doctors in the national capital get at least four to seven cases of children addicted to electronic screens. Of these cases, children in the age group of four to twelve years of age, more often than not, grow up to be obese, diabetic and/or suffer from sleep disorders, said doctors.

In another case study, the three-year-old child could not fall asleep unless he had played games on his father’s mobile phone. Initially, his mother thought he was suffering from insomnia and consulted a pediatrician at AIMS. He was referred to a child psychologist who asked his parents to keep him away from phones and keep him busy with books and toys instead.

According to Dr Aruna Broota, a child psychologist based in Delhi, she sees atleast four to seven children every day in the age group of four to twelve years who are addicted to electronic screens. She believes the problem often begins at home.

‘Why can’t children be allowed to play and run around, even if within the confines of their homes? Rather than attend to them, the parents often take the easier option of handing them a mobile phone or a tablet’, she points out.

…Studies have proved that children who engage in physical activities show better development of the brain than those who are home-bound and stationary. They stay more focused, develop stronger memories, and are less impulsive.

  • Excerpted with permission from ‘Parenting in the Age of Anxiety: Raising Children in India in the 21st Century’  by Abha Adams (Aleph Book Company)

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