Heard of the term 'phubbing'? According to the Collins Dictionary, it means ignoring someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention. Sounds familiar? We have all been either phubbed, or have done that to somebody else at some time. But this increasing digital intoxication in children and adolescents can have grave implications on their physical and mental health, doctors warn.
"When there is excessive exposure to one stimulus, the brain ignores other stimuli. So someone who is constantly hooked to his or her electronic gadget, like a phone or tablet, may neglect other information and have cognitive problems, like difficulty in concentrating, analysing, and taking decisions," Achal Bhagat, paediatrician at New Delhi's Apollo Hospital, told this correspondent.
He also dismissed the idea that being on the internet hones creativity. "Activities on the internet are template based, which means that someone else has made a choice (while making the template). So you are not really innovating."
Paediatric surgeon Vivek Rege at Mumbai's Saifee Hospital and Wadia Hospital agreed, and added that being constantly glued to one's electronic gadgets makes a child inattentive towards his surroundings and makes him unsocial.
"I see it every day in my consultation room. After a child is examined, he is lost in his phone or tablet, completely unaware of what is being discussed between his parents and me about him," Rege said.
Not only does this take away focus from building relationships but such behavioural trends also invite the risk of diseases, particularly childhood obesity.
"As a result of increasing digitisation, kids these days are more keen on playing online games rather than some physical activity out in the open. To add to that is the rise in junk food consumption. All of this has resulted in increase in childhood obesity, which in turn increases their chances of coronary diseases, liver problems, diabetes, arthritis, ten times more than another child," Rege said. He also warned about the effects of radiation from a mobile phone on a child's brain.
Not just that, Rajiv Chhabra, head of the paediatrics and neonatal care department at Gurgaon's Artemis Hospital, said that mobile and laptop radiation is attributed to many neurological problems in children these days.
"The developing brain is very vulnerable. Many diseases like autism, and genetic disorders because of DNA changes have been attributed to exposure to radiations," Chhabra said. In the long term, in adulthood, it can also result in infertility and dementia.
"In the short term, it can result in headaches, dryness of the eyes, small joint problems and the like," he added.
So what can a parent do? Isolating a teenager, or a child, from all kinds of digital or electronic gadget is nearly impossible in today's world - and impractical too.
"A parent has to first identify if the child is excessively using digital media like phones and laptops. If there is unnecessary usage - like, not for their assignment - for more than six hours a day, over three months, you have a problem that may need professional help; and these cases are rising," said Ravikesh Tripathi, paediatric psychologist at Bengaluru's Narayana Health City.
"Otherwise, positive parenting is the key. Spend quality time with your children, talk to them, so that there is no excessive usage," he added.
Bhagat also advised parents to lead by example. "If the mother is always on whats app or the father is always busy on work calls, then advising children on not using their phones will not work," he said.
"There are three things a parent can do. One, take out an earmarked digital-free time for the family. Two, take out a discovery time without digital information - like, solving puzzles without the use of internet. And three, take out a digital time as a family; when you all do something together," Bhagat advised.
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