By – Dr Anju Kauwr Chazot

What is the first thing you or your child do in the morning? Or the last thing before going to sleep? If it is looking at the mobile phone and responding to messages, then sorry for the news, but you or your child is suffering from addiction!  

We think of addiction as related to alcohol or smoking or drugs or gambling and consider it toxic. But addiction to social media is also toxic. If you do the following:

  • Check your phone the first thing in the morning and the last thing before going to bed.
  • Keep checking the phone every few minutes to see new messages.
  • Keeping the phone while eating and checking it.
  • Checking the phone constantly even during a physical meeting and conversation with friends or family.

If you don’t do any of the above then congratulations! If you do, then you are a social media addict. 

Why do we become addicted to social media? One reason is that we are searching to connect and communicate. We want to feel part of a community. When someone pings us or instantly responds, we feel a rush of dopamine which is the same chemical that causes addiction to other pleasurable experiences such as drinking, gambling etc. Basically, it makes us feel good.

Communication has now become instant as we progressed from postcards to emails , from trunk calls to instant video messaging. Time has shrunk and the pressure of time is now experienced in the need to respond immediately on groups. As a result, we end up writing things we later regret. Many conversations turn into insults, misunderstandings occur. One of the main reasons is that the written medium does not carry the expressions or the tone of voice which act as cues in understanding emotions. 

Now children and teenagers who have access to social media may have learnt to be tech savvy but have not learnt the skills that go to use it judiciously as a tool. Instead their behaviour is changing and being shaped by algorithms and the social platforms they use. 

There is a heavy price to pay and our children are paying it. We are seeing a rising trend of alienation and depression due to overuse of social media. The pandemic has isolated children and they are reaching out for validation and friendships through social media rather than through actual friendships in physical spaces. Peer validation means a lot to teenagers and young adults. They need to have the support of deeper friendships where they can share their feelings. Social media instead encourages the young to present a superficial aspect of themselves, encouraged by celebrity postings and photoshopped messages. 

There are a lot of incidences of trolling and shaming on social media even for adults. But for children who are young and vulnerable, a thoughtless and hurtful comment by a peer has a devastating effect. One 15 year old girl shared with me how she went into depression because someone made a comment body shaming her and others followed with comments that mocked her without understanding the hurt it caused her. This escalated into a major fight that even involved the parents!

There are rising cases of cyber bullying, trolls and blackmail. There is also the danger of sexual predators who hide their real identities and seek out vulnerable children. 

Young children and teenagers have not learnt of the dangers, nor have they learnt how to deal with bullying and blackmail. One young girl narrated how someone hacked into her computer and accessed her photos. The hacker began to blackmail her. Another boy is busy surfing on the dark web interacting with adults of dubious and notorious reputation. 

At this time when children are spending more and more time on social media, as parents you need to be very attentive to your child’s behaviour. Due to fear of being reprimanded, judged, criticised or punished, a child may not share what is happening in her or his life. So, it is really important to build a strong relationship based on trust with your child. This is the time to encourage children to follow their passion, develop hobbies and learn creative skills to express themselves. This will help them move away from addictive behaviour. Ensure that when you are together during family or friend time, you put away your phones and connect with each other. This is respectful and brings your awareness to each other, it also contributes to digital detox! 

While schools and parents were focussed on curriculum and exams based on rote learning of meaningless information in the last 5-10 years, nobody really focussed on helping children learn about cyber hygiene. Schools need to devise modules where children develop critical thinking skills to figure out fake news, unreliable websites, identity thefts, being hacked and leaving a carbon footprint. Unfortunately, very few adults themselves have these skills.

Just as the way we need to wash our hands to maintain hygiene, just as the way we need to follow covid protocols to protect ourselves, we need to teach our children to follow certain rules and protocols while using social media and protect themselves. Now, along with covid appropriate protocols we also need to teach cyber hygiene and digital detox as necessary life skills.