shutterstock_66778183Do you live in mortal fear of losing your mobile phone? Is online gaming the only thing that keeps you going? Watch out: you could be an internet addict. Research studies in India have indicated that 5 per cent of youth in the age group 18-25 are addicted to using social-networking sites and 24 per cent have what you would call a problematic usage of the internet. An Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) study on 2755 subjects in the 18-65 age group in Bengaluru revealed that 1.3 per cent of the sample was addicted to the internet, 4.1 per cent to mobile phones and 3.5 per cent to social-networking sites. A recent ASSOCHAM study revealed that 73 per cent of Indian children in the age group of 8-13 were active on Facebook, despite the site prohibiting under-13s from joining them. Tech addiction, clearly, is a reality in India.

Seventeen-year-old Girish (name changed) was among the top three students in his class. However, once he got his computer in Class 9, his life took a drastic turn. He was soon spending no less than 14 hours a day on it. He started skipping school, failed his exams and became a loner. All meals were taken in front of the computer. He became violent, breaking and tearing things apart if he was denied access to the computer, even hitting his mother on occasion. It was then that his parents turned to SHUT (Service for Healthy Use of Technology) in Bengaluru, the first clinic of its kind in India.

“He got a score of 81 on the internet addiction test, indicating significant problems due to internet [usage],” explains DrManoj Kumar Sharma, an assistant professor at Bengaluru’s National Institute of Mental Health and Sciences (NIMHANS), and head of SHUT. “He also met the Griffith criteria of video game addiction. There was also presence of psychiatric distress,” he adds. According to Sharma, addictive use of video games/social media is highest in the 13-17 age group, and it is associated with psychological distress as well as an inability to handle online sexual content. “These teenagers show dysfunctions in their academic and social life and lose out on recreational activities,” Sharma says. “The parents are usually unaware of their child’s online behaviour.”

Based on the findings of such research as well as the feedback of several focus-group discussions, Bengaluru’s NIMHANS started the tech de-addiction centre in April 2014; the centre runs counselling sessions three Saturdays a month. The objectives of the clinic are to raise awareness through workshops and lectures, gather information, build manpower through training and develop intervention. “We are getting predominately those who are addicted to video games and online gaming, followed by internet browsing for social networking, music and videos, pornography addiction and finally those addicted to e-books,” Sharma explains.

Craving, Control, Compulsion and Consequences or the 4Cs is how Sharma classifies the extent of addiction. “If you answer ‘yes’ to three or more, there is a need to change your usage pattern of technology devices.” Those most susceptible include “those who get bored easily, succumb to peer pressure, feel the need/enjoy experimentation with new things (accessing new sites/apps/mobiles) and need to be in touch with recent developments in India and around the world, fear losing their mobile phone, use substances like alcohol or other drugs, have low anger control, suffer from sadness of mood or anxiety or are currently under stress, have few friends or an inadequate social life and are using technology to manage emotional distress”. In Sharma’s opinion, 73 per cent of teenagers suffer from psychiatric distress and excessive use of technology can be a way to manage it.

So, what is the line of treatment that SHUT advocates? “We assess the use and focus on a motivation enhancement therapy to motivate them to reduce their dysfunctional use,” Sharma says. Patients are allowed controlled use of the internet. They are encouraged to take up other hobbies to enable them to develop other interests. “At times, we introduce internet fasting (24 to 48 hours, depending on patient willingness) to give them the insight that life is enjoyable even without the internet.” The patient’s family is educated in terms of enhancing support toward the patient and encouraging communication.

Currently, SHUT gets two to three users per week in the age group of 14-19 years who are in need of intervention and about one to two cases from the psychiatry units for management of excessive use of information technology.  “We receive three to four e-mails per week from other states in India, especially from parents who are worried about their child’s changing behaviour. However, technology de-addiction is afflicted with the same stigma as any other de-addiction,” says Sharma, an attitude that needs immediate reconsideration, according to him. “There is a pressing need to acknowledge the problem, and to ask for help to use technology in a healthy fashion.”