It’s 2 am on Sunday morning and Vibhor Sahani, 15, is sitting on a small cane chair crouched over his desktop. Stretching his feet next to the monitor, he balances a bowl of instant noodles on one leg and scrolls the mouse on another. Sahani laughs out loud at a Spiderman spoof on YouTube, but when the video buffers, he impatiently switches tabs to Facebook, enthusiastically replying to multiple chats.
Sahani, a Class 10 student, has been online since 10 pm and will log out at 4 am. That’s the Saturday night routine for him and almost all this friends. In between six hours of surfing, binging on junk, online chatting and playing games, he spends some time studying Hindi. “I prefer online tutorials over a Hindi textbook,” he says.
Fed up with what she calls his online addiction, his schoolteacher mum Sarita Sahani sought a counsellor’s help last month. “I grew worried, especially after I noticed that Vibhor had developed a hunchback because of bad posture while surfing endlessly,” says Sahani.
Like Sarita, parents of adolescents and teens are increasingly being confronted with complaints of backaches, stiff necks, eyestrain, headaches and pain in finger and wrist muscles, all triggered by countless hours spent online. While a majority of children spend much of their time on computers, laptops and iPads chatting and playing games, experts say it’s unfair to not factor in internet time that schools demand for several online assignments, research projects and class presentations.
And it starts young. Eight-year-old Yashvi Shah, a Class 3 student, spends almost four hours online each day browsing for information and images for her school projects. “Sometimes it’s the solar system, other times the Harappan civilisation. For everything, textbooks are not enough,” says Yashvi’s mother Sheetal Shah.
“Schoolwork almost always includes online chatting with friends to share the project’s progress, especially if it’s a group assignment.” A month ago, the exhaustive schedule took its toll and Yashvi started complaining of backache and wrist pain. “I’ve asked her to take breaks in between. She now walks around to free her muscles before returning to her laptop,” says Shah.
Sit up, stand up
With laptops replacing desktops in most homes, doctors say it is worse for the back as children usually slouch on the bed with laptops. “It is more convenient that way and you’d find children lying in that position for hours at a stretch without realising the havoc it wrecks on their backs,” said a senior orthopaedician from the New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences, who did not want to be named.
A visit to the orthopaedician confirmed south Mumbai parent Rachna’s worse fears. The lingering backache and neck pain her 12-year-old son suffered from was a direct result of laptop overuse. “It became worse when my husband got him an iPad,” says Rachna.
On the orthopaedician’s advice, Rachna got her son counselled to take up outdoor sports. Currently, he uses the iPad and access internet for only an hour a day, down from three hours earlier.
“They (parents) can’t ask children to stop using them, but they certainly need to monitor their posture and allot strict time slots,” says clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany. “After all we don’t want a generation of 25-year-olds with spondylitis and slipped discs ten years from now.”
“The problem is not rampant among children yet, but I do see three to four young children every month with complaints of severe backache due to what is medically termed as repetitive stress injury syndrome,” said Dr Rajiv Thukral, senior consultant, department of orthopedics, Max Super-Specialty Hospital, Saket. Dr Thukral recently got a brother-sister duo, aged 11 and 12 respectively, complaining of severe backache. It started with back pain at night, which gradually increased in intensity over a month till it persisted through the day.
“It was a typical case of the syndrome — the children had no physical activity whatsoever. They had been given a laptop by their school and would spend all their time online. From doing school homework to playing games and watching movies, the kids and their laptop was inseparable,” he said. It took a rigorous physiotherapy schedule for two weeks to defuse the pain. “Not just the back problem, we get children these days complaining of pain in the elbow and wrist too. The cause is the same, which gets aggravated because of lack of exercise, especially weight-bearing exercises that strengthen bones and muscles,” he added.
Get active now
In a situation where parents and schools can’t divorce technology from their children, Mehta says, it’s vital to ensure they adopt a correct posture and limit the time spent online.
“Online education is the way forward. Schools are obviously going to employ technology and gadgets like iPads and laptops as new-age learning tools,” says clinical psychologist Chandni Mehta, who also runs a preschool chain in Mumbai. “Many schools have replaced black boards with white boards. Adapting to technology is the next logical step.”
What needed is getting children to efficiently manage their life around technology and gadgets. Aijaz Ashai, head of dept, advanced physiotherapy at Mumbai’s Saifee Hospital, says that he has seen the number of under 14-year-olds with backaches rise considerably in the past two years; at least10 cases every month, up from five two years ago.
Getting children to be physically active is the best way to deal with it. Shah, for one, has enrolled Yashvi for athletics training to counter her sedentary lifestyle, and its showing results.For maintaining a good muscle and bone health, they should be asked to play outdoor sports regularly. "Children are spending so much time indoors on computers that their muscles don’t develop. Add to this, if they don’t drink enough water and eat junk food their calcium intake will be inadequate resulting in weak muscles," says Ashai.