Her smart phone was 14-year-old Preeti’s best friend. She would eat, sleep and play with it, preferring to be alone rather than meeting friends and relatives. Her internet addiction reached a level where she would be depressed if her Facebook posts didn’t get enough ‘likes’.
Worried, her parents took her to the Centre for Children in Internet and Technology Distress, Delhi’s first internet de-addiction centre.
Preeti currently spends her weekends at the Centre where she is counseled on the harmful effects of being online for long hours. She is also encouraged to play indoor and outdoor games such as hopscotch and seven stones , read books, practice yoga, and participate in story-telling sessions. “The idea is to let her discover the joys of traditional games and physical interactions,” said Rahul Verma, founder of Uday Foundation.
The Centre — located in south Delhi’s Sarvodaya Enclave — was started three weeks ago by the Uday Foundation, an NGO. It has a counselling room, an activity-cum-play- room and a library. The walls are adorned with black-and-white photos of children playing outdoors and posters warning children of the ill-effects of internet addiction and safe usage of social media such as ‘Life was much easier when Apple and Blackberry were just fruits’.
Around 60 children are undergoing de-addiction at the centre. “While younger children are hooked to online games, older ones are addicted to Facebook and Whatsapp. We try to help them make emotional connections in the real world,” said Dr Tara, a counselor at the centre. .
Delhi’s centre is the second in the country after the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (Nimhans) started a de-addiction clinic in Bangalore called Shut (Service for Healthy Use of Technology) this April.
“We had a case where a child was so addicted to online games that he lost all interest in studies, failed and finally dropped out of school. Internet addiction, if untreated, can have disastrous consequences. There is a need for a mass awareness programmes about judicious use of technology,” said Dr Manoj Kumar Sharma, associate professor at Nimhans and coordinator at the Shut clinic.
A study by Nimhans in April this year revealed 73% of teenagers in Bangalore suffered from psychiatric distress. Children in the age group of 13-15 years were hooked to video games. And those in the age-group of 15-17 years were addicted to Facebook. . They exhibited physical problems like eye strain, a dysfunction in academics and social life, and were losing out on recreational activities. “Enchantment with gadgets is a big challenge for all and more so with children and teenagers and young adults too. Gadget have become substitutes for emotional ties in the family,” says Tulsi Patel, professor , sociology, Delhi School of Economics.
Psychiatrists say, Internet addiction which has emerged as a serious problem could lead to a range of psychological and behavioural problems such as insomnia, lack of concentration and constant irritation. “I see at least 10 children with severe internet addiction every week,” says Jitendra Nagpal, a Delhi-based psychiatrist.
“Thankfully, both schools and parents have realized the magnitude of the problem and are taking corrective steps,” says Nagpal.
But do these centres – popular in the West – really help? Delhi-based Rakhi Kharbanda believes so. Both her 18-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son were addicted to the Internet and were taken to the Centre for treatment. “My daughter got aggressive and would not even touch her food if the Wifi did not work at home. She would also often complain of being neglected in a Facebook group. Counseling at the Centre worked and my son’s school also organised a session with a psychiatrist, which was helpful,” says Kharbanda.