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Turn it off

Both the cause and the solution to computer addiction among children can be found on the Internet

Aabhas Sharma  |  New Delhi 

When 13-year-old Pranay Sehgal’s parents noticed that their son was spending more time with his laptop than with his friends, they began to worry a bit. But the alarm bells truly rang when they found him sitting in front of the laptop in their home in Gurgaon at 3.30 at night, furiously playing a game. Mumbai-based HR executive Akansha Sinha too became alarmed when she found her 11-year-old daughter, Diya, spending hours on Facebook, chatting with her friends or playing games like Farmville and Mafia Wars. No amount of coaxing, cajoling, convincing or threatening could get the child away from the computer, even though she was legally not old enough to be on the social networking site.

When everything else failed, Pranay and Diya’s parents took them to child psychologists who immediately nailed the problem. Both children were suffering from IAD, or Internet Addiction Disorder — an emerging problem which is inflicting an increasing number of children in India. A 10-city survey conducted by Assocham earlier this year found that 55 per cent of children between 8 and 18 are spending more than five hours a day in front of a computer. Most of them are hooked to social networking sites like Facebook or spend hours watching videos on YouTube. Tablets, gaming consoles and smart phones, which allow them unlimited Internet access anytime and anywhere, are further eating into their lives.

It doesn’t take long to identify the problem. “When the computer or tablet starts taking priority over meeting friends or even watching TV, one should know that a child is getting addicted to it,” says Pulkit Shukla, clinical psychologist at VIMHANS (New Delhi), an institute of mental health and neurosciences. The bigger challenge is how to get the child off the computer addiction — more so, given that the peer pressure to stay connected, write on each other’s Facebook walls and share pictures is immense.
 

TO DEAL WITH THE ADDICTION...
  • Try to find out why the child is spending so much time on the computer — is it to escape a problem?
  • Move the computer out of the child's room. Ideally place it in a common area of the house
  • Set a password for the computer so that only you can log on to it
  • Limit the time your child spends on the computer and do not compromise on it
  • Buy or install applications or programs which restrict computer access time
  • Be a role model for your child and limit your own computer time
  • A lonely child is bound to turn to the computer. Spend time with him playing board games, going to the park, library or organising activities with his friends
YOUR CHILD IS A COMPUTER ADDICT IF…
  • He/she feels anxious when not using a computer or gaming console
  • Has lost interest in other activities like playing with friends, reading books or watching TV
  • Stays up late at night to play virtual games or be on social networking sites
  • Has more virtual friends compared to real life friends
  • Has irregular sleeping pattern
  • Appears absentminded or preoccupied when away from a computer
  • Neglects school work and important assignments to be online

In extreme cases, as in Pranay and Diya’s, a child psychologist’s help might be needed. But there’s a lot which parents can do before the problem reaches that stage. The first step is to restrict the child’s computer time to, say, an hour a day. This is, however, easier said than done. For one, it’s physically impossible to monitor a child 24x7. And, a household with working parents usually has more than one computer or laptop, so access is easy. Besides, children are great negotiators and will almost always find their way around parents.

* * * * *

Here’s where computer applications built to restrict usage time come in. To control the usage on an iPad or iPhone, you can download and install ‘Game Time Limit’ from the Apples iTunes store. One can set the time limit through this app and once the time is over, an alarm goes off which can be stopped through a pass code only. Don’t give the pass code to your child. Though this is not a free app, it costs a little more than a dollar (about Rs 60).

Another option is to set a password for the computer so that only the parent can log on to it. This might, however, not be practical in the case of older children who have to access the Internet for their school work. Like Puja Makhija, a counsellor with a Noida-based school, says: “It’s not as if spending time on the Internet is time wasted. Children can learn so much off the web. It’s up to parents to ensure that what their children surf is helping them.”

There are certain other programs, like MathLanders (mathlanders.com), which can help determine the child’s computer access time. In ‘Restriction Mode’, this program forces the child to solve some math quizzes to gain computer access. The access time is, however, limited. Once the time is over, the child is simply pulled out of the window and taken back to some new maths problems. If he wants more time on the computer, he must go through the grind again. Beyond a point, it can be frustrating and turns out to be quite a positive way of ridding the child of the addiction. Here, the parent is out of the picture and the child is left to deal with the machine which is not open to negotiation or emotional blackmail.

Or, one can do what Delhi resident Vikas Bhatnagar has done. “My son’s friends come on weekends and have a good three-four hours of fun playing on their Xbox and I see nothing wrong in it,” says Bhatnagar. Apart from this, he allows his son, who is 14, to use the computer “for not more than 30 minutes a day”. During this time, he keeps a close watch on the boy’s Internet usage pattern. For this, too, several user-friendly apps are available.

One of them is Mcafee’s Family Protection which helps parents get better insight into the digital lifestyles of their children. Parents can choose to block categories of sites, filter out only a handful of sites, or block nothing at all and simply review online activity reports. The software is available for about Rs 2,000.

Minor Monitor is another useful app which helps track Facebook activities and maintains a log of status updates, photo uploads, videos, messages and even the number of friends added in a particular amount of time. This is a free app. All one has to do is to register on the website minormonitor.com through the child’s Facebook address and password. The program also alerts parents to suspicious friends. For example, if a 15-year-old becomes friends with a 35-year-old on Facebook, a notification alert is sent through Minor Monitor.

The idea is to ensure that the child does not end up living his life in the virtual world at the cost of reality.


(Names of children and their parents have been changed to protect their identities)

First Published: Sat, September 01 2012. 00:56 IST
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