The past few weeks have been particularly horrifying for Indian parents with troubling news of Blue Whale suicides, injuries and internet addiction in children pouring in from different cities in the country. It is tempting to believe that this sudden spurt of media related addictions and self harm in children is only a result of the hideous Blue Whale game addiction, this may not be entirely true. Increasing media dependency in children is the result of the way parenting, social structures and availability of media and technology has dramatically changed in the last few decades. What we are witnessing is not a sudden phenomenon but the impact of gradually changing patterns.
We did a Facebook Live in August’17 featuring expert voices in parenting, technology and health – Natasha Badhwar, Author, My Daughter’s Mum, Kishore Bhargava, Technology Consultant and Dr Deepali Rao, Clinical Psychologist, VIMHANS to understand how media and technology is impacting our children. The session was moderated by Amita Malhotra, Facilitator at Candidly and you can watch a recording of the live session here or below:
This blog post will give you an insight on the issues discussed in the session and will hopefully give you some insight into how to deal with this growing media menace in your homes and families.
Is using technology a sign of smartness or intelligence in children?
It is not uncommon to see parents boasting about their kids’ ability to use smart phones and navigate the internet at very young ages. But is that necessarily a sign of intelligence or genius Kishore answered that with great clarity, “Parents feel proud that their two-year-old is an ‘expert’ on the phone because he can open fifty apps but they don’t realise that they haven’t learnt a new skill, all you’re doing is tapping and swiping, you haven’t learnt anything new about that technology. You are simply consuming that technology.” Simply being able to operate gadgets does not lead to any productive learning or output. Late introduction to technology does in no way impair learning or capability in children. Like Natasha said, “It’s a fallacy that if you introduce your children late to technology that they will in some way be disadvantaged. The sooner the kids are getting hooked to technology, the lesser time they are spending on free play.” Child psychologists have described free play as the best method to enhance gross motor skills and social skills in children. It is important for us to remember that technology can at best be regarded as occasional entertainment. It cannot and should not replace organic ways of playing and learning.
Is offering media a compulsion for working parents?
We’re living in a time where one or both parents are working in a family and children are often left to their own devices for entertainment and engagement. Is technology a necessary replacement for parental presence and interactive stimulation? Natasha strongly disagreed with that, “I took the TV out of my house when I was working full time. I felt I need to take this thing out of the house and then the children are safe, everyone is forced to find something to do, they will play on the swings, they will paint, play with blocks, break something if there is no TV to depend on as a shortcut. If parents are succumbing to this shortcut then the education has to begin at the adult level.”
Fast forward to the time of iPads, iPhones and tablets- children get hooked to these gadgets because it is parents who give in to the social pressure of providing these distractions to their children in the first place. It is parents who’re introducing their kids to potentially addictive media that can severely limit their child’s natural ability to self soothe and develop the necessary habit of learning to explore productive boredom and develop life-long interests. As Natasha went on to add, “Technology is not engaging the child. It is numbing the child. It is hooking the child to one place where he/she is just mesmerised by a screen and when that technology is switched off, when you come home, your child is restless, irritable and does not want to engage with you because his needs have not been met.”
It is hard for parents not to give in to the guilt of being absent and approve all demands but we need a shift in perspective that makes us see that while parental presence is irreplaceable, it does not have to be compensated by tech nannies that will cripple children’s imagination and creativity. A bored, whiny child who resorts to making a mess cutting, pasting, painting or running around to alleviate his boredom is eventually going to grow up to be a happier, healthier and self contained individual.
Should we give in to peer pressure to consume same media?
It is a constant battle for parents to keep negotiating media usage or access to gadgets with children when everyone around them is using the latest gizmos, the latest XBox and smart phone. Parents may feel that their refusal to gift gadgets that may be easily available to their kids’ peers might make their children feel unloved or neglected while also making the parent seem unfair, authoritarian and old fashioned. Dr. Deepali elaborated on this common dilemma while discussing the challenges posed by media in teenage and adolescence saying, “At that age children live for acceptance and it is crucial for identity formation. Ultimately what children need to be told is that even their differences need to be celebrated from their peers but at the same time, encourage them to find similarities that they can connect to with their peers.”
We may not be able to give our children everything that everyone has, and learning to accept want is also an important part of gaining maturity and balance, but we need to balance the lack of certain things with concerted efforts on community building and social, emotional connections around a child so that he/she may not feel isolated and disadvantaged. That may also need a shift in the way we create a sense of meaning and worth in our children and families. Are we teaching them to value their lives in terms of how much they have or what they can achieve or, are we consciously striving to help them develop a deeper sense of who they are, what they like and the fact that they have the right to be different? Like Natasha said, “We need to have the conversation that is being acceptable the ultimate goal. Can you sit in a corner and read a book if that interests you. It is a kind of bullying if you’re made to feel left out because you didn’t watch a show last night. It’s a coping ability, a skill we learn. You learn to say it’s not as cool as you think it is.” That is what we need to teach our children- the fact that they will still be their own person even if they differ from those around them. We need to enable them with a sense of self worth that takes off the pressure to conform to growing trends, while encouraging them to develop other varied interests that make them feel confident enough to not feel inadequate if they don’t know the latest game in town.
How do parents confront kids’ tantrums to allow more media?
All of the above is of course, easier said than done. Children are persistent and can keep asking for the same thing over and over again till you’re so exhausted, you give in to their demands. But, Dr.Deepali says, “You need to make that choice between short term gains and long term benefits. That is what parenting is about- making those tough choices. If you are in a tough spot, stay calm, don’t panic, be consistent and tell the child why you’re not going to do what they want without going on about it or blaming them for being wrong all the time.” Staying calm and consistent is the key here. Children need some boundaries to thrive and it is not our job to please them all the time, but is our job to see that they stay safe and healthy.
Why are children so vulnerable to the Blue Whale challenge?
Kishore describes the Blue Whale challenge as “an extreme form of gamification, literally the gamification of life itself”. And he makes absolute sense because it is the complete suspension of reality and detachment from lived experience that makes the isolation necessary to participate in the challenge, possible. But is the Blue Whale challenge the only reason for this complete break from reality for those kids who have fallen prey to it, or are there other elements at work? Dr. Deepali explains this saying, “There are two kinds of population that are affected here- children who are younger and impressionable and those who are already isolated from their parents and not very well integrated into their peer group and don’t have much access to parental guidance and supervision. The other group is those who are already going through some difficulties that are undiagnosed- like depression or anxiety”. That makes the latter group and those without much supervision more susceptible to being trapped inside the challenge. As Natasha says, “You need to look at the everyday lifestyle choices you are making as a family. It is clearly an absolute form of having lost contact with your child”. And that cannot be an overnight process. It is a vacuum that already exists and that is what makes it easier for the game to take over all reason or resistance from the child exposed to the challenge. If you notice that your child has become withdrawn, addicted to media, depressed or suicidal, you need to take professional help before the problem becomes irreversible.
What can we do to overcome addiction to media in children and ourselves?
Kishore nails it on the head when he says that, “The best part of technology is that there is always the honour of the switch.” He says that while you cannot always demand accountability from tech companies to create less addictive media, “You can turn off the notifications, switch off those auto plays and don’t consume media unnecessarily. It is up to you to develop the ability to self-regulate and self-discipline.”
And Natasha concluded the session beautifully saying, “The challenge for the thinking parent today is that I may not be able to switch off all devices connected to my home but what can I do with my time, my children’s time and my parents’ time that is free of these devices. It is then you start making conscious choices.”
The power of technology lies in the fact that it has the ability to completely ensnare our senses and make us unconscious of our choices. That is what we need to overcome to become more fully alive, fully present and to learn to give less and less of ourselves to alternative, virtual realities.
Candidly is grateful to Kishore Bhargava, Natasha Badhwar and Dr. Deepali Rao for contributing with so much warmth and honesty to this much needed discussion.