Is your child trapped in a digital abyss?

Social media exposure—designed to maximize user engagement—can overstimulate reward centres in the brain and, when the stimulation becomes excessive, can trigger pathways comparable to addiction. (Ashish Asthana/Mint)
Social media exposure—designed to maximize user engagement—can overstimulate reward centres in the brain and, when the stimulation becomes excessive, can trigger pathways comparable to addiction. (Ashish Asthana/Mint)


  • Outsmarting parents, children are exploring a dark space online. The risks are perilous
  • Younger kids with a device of their own, connected to the internet, are at risk of digital addiction. In extreme cases, kids can cause self-harm and display psychotic behaviour.


New Delhi: One evening, last summer, a father in his mid-50s walked into a psychiatric facility in Kolkata with his 12-year-old daughter. He climbed two flights of stairs to reach a wide, air-cooled corridor where a crowd was waiting. What took him by surprise was the age profile of the patients. Of the 40 or so he counted, 25 were children. While waiting his turn, he saw an 8-year-old going around, pleading, almost begging others, for a smartphone to play games. The child’s parents refused him theirs.

“I will not be able to forget that sight," the parent of the 12-year-old said over phone.

Then he shared the story of his daughter. The child was handed a smartphone in mid-2020 after the covid pandemic hit and a lockdown was announced. The mother, a school teacher, used the family laptop for online classes. The father traveled out of the city on work, most days of the week. There was no option but to give the child a device to attend classes. She was overjoyed. But no one monitored her online activity.

A year and a half later, the parents noticed some unusual changes. She had lost interest in singing, painting, and reading, hobbies she once loved. Her words were aggressive. She was on multiple social media channels gratifying her craving for Korean pop music. Alongside, she was part of chat rooms on a platform named Discord, where she engaged with strangers. Swear words were used with abandon. In some groups, explicit sexual content, including pornographic material, were shared.

Discord is an online platform where users can communicate via text, audio and video. The platform is popular with children as it allows them to bypass parental monitoring. Anyone can open an account but an invite is required to join a group. Since all content is user-generated and private, the platform is high-risk, by design.

“I feared the worst. What if a pedophile is stalking my child?" the father asked.

Panicked, the parents took away her smartphone. The child hit back with abuses. She called her father names. It was an emotional tipping point for the family. By the time schools reopened, she had lost all interest in studies. She withdrew herself and became quiet. Often, she would feel breathless, and on multiple occasions, she fainted while at school. The family finally reached out to a psychiatrist. Ever since, the girl, now 13, has been on therapy and antidepressant medication. She is on a slow road to recovery.

“She is frank with us now and shares her feelings. Sometimes, she gets restless and wants to swirl around and dance by herself. We let her. We are trying to be friends," the father said.

The journey of this girl is not an extreme case of digital addiction. Some are worse—they include self-harm, display of psychotic behaviour and even substance abuse. The distress children and their families are facing due to excessive use of digital devices is widespread, Mint found out after speaking to parents, school counsellors, and therapists. Younger kids with a device of their own, connected to the internet, are most at risk.

Also, the crisis is not limited to the well-off. Low-income families are navigating an equally rough terrain, at times with more disastrous consequences. Such as cases of child trafficking and sexual grooming, where a perpetrator tries to emotionally connect with children online and pushes them to share sexually explicit visuals.

An estimated 759 million are connected to the internet in India with more than half of the users residing in rural locations. While internet and smartphone access vastly improved lives, it also contributed to a surge in anxiety and stress.

For instance, 55% of parents admitted that their children, aged between 9 and 13 years, have access to smartphones for most part of a day, according to a survey of 65,000 respondents from urban areas, published last year by Local Circles. And 7 out of 10 parents wanted the minimum age required to open a social media account to be raised from 13 to 15.

Another study published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry in 2019, on school students from rural India, documented evidence of acute dependency on gadgets—intense desire and impaired control— symptoms which are comparable to substance abuse.

A 2022 report by Bangkok-based ECPAT International and Delhi-based STOP, nonprofits working to counter child trafficking, highlighted a less spoken of risk: sexual exploitation faced by young boys. A survey of child protection workers from low-income urban locations in India found evidence of boys being sexually exploited via live streaming and sharing of self-created images and videos.

Finding solace

Use of digital devices by children is not new but the lockdown pushed them into a virtual abyss. Inside a child’s brain, the same circuits are stimulated when she engages with a screen or takes to substance abuse, said Amit Sen, psychiatrist, and co-founder of Children First, a Delhi-based support facility for children.

Earlier this month, an advisory on youth mental health issued by the US’ surgeon general said that social media exposure—designed to maximize user engagement—can overstimulate reward centers in the brain and, when the stimulation becomes excessive, can trigger pathways comparable to addiction.

Withdrawal symptoms when a gadget is forcefully taken away are similar to substance abuse, leading to drastic changes in mood, sleep rhythms and appetite. But instead of blaming a child, parents need to think what alternatives have they offered children to reconnect with the real world, Sen added. Post-pandemic, schools ramped up academic pressure and cut holidays to make up for lost time. This added to the anxiety and pressure. So, children are withdrawing further, finding comfort in the virtual space.

At Children First, Sen and his colleagues treat a flurry of cases. Children missing school, sleep deprivation due to excessive use of gadgets up to 14 hours a day, cases of self-harm where kids as young as 12 had cut themselves so deeply that they had to be admitted to a hospital. Or children with severe addiction who are unable to separate online lives from reality. They display psychotic symptoms: hearing voices and seeing images from the virtual world. Sen has treated children who consumed a cocktail of medicines or experimented with cannabis, and spoke of an elite school in the national capital region where five children committed suicide.

Trouble in a pizza

This reporter met the mother of an 11-year-old from Noida who is struggling to reduce her daughter’s screen time. It started with watching videos and playing games on smartphones when she was 5. By 10, she was on multiple social media channels including Instagram—primarily to share her artwork. She lied about her age, since most platforms do not allow children younger than 13 to create an account. She divides her online hours between multi-player collaborative games where a child can end up interacting with strangers, to spending time on Discord where kids often discuss self-harm, are exposed to sexual content, and take mental health advice from each other.

Recently, the parents shifted her to a school which prioritizes outdoor activities and experiential learning over academic goals. “She has always been a quiet child but her online avatar is like a leader—dominant, aggressive, uninhibited. I try to monitor as much as possible but she often logs me out of her online life," the mother said.

Another parent shared screenshots of popular games for children, listed on Google Play Store. An innocuous pizza-making game, for instance, asked the child her age as she logged in. She joined as a 9-year-old. After a round, the app blitzed her with sexually-loaded popups. An employee trying to seduce her boss. The boss threatening to share her private photos online.

“That incident scarred her. Is it so difficult for developers and platforms to filter out age-inappropriate content?" the parent asked.

A Google spokesperson said that the apps, ‘Good Pizza, Great Pizza’ and ‘Tall Man Run’ (shared by another parent for inappropriate popups), has been flagged for review. Google will take necessary action if the developers are found to be in violation of Play Store terms. Google is providing tools and guidance to parents for setting ground rules for children, monitor their online activity and apply content restrictions, the company said in an emailed response.

A spokesperson for US-based Discord said in an email response that its guidelines prohibit content promoting self-harm, illegal and other harmful behaviours. The safety team acts when it ‘becomes aware’ of harmful content. The actions include banning users, shutting down servers, and informing authorities.

Discord further said that it uses a mix of tools to keep a check on harmful activities. “These include automated tools that scan photos for exploitative content, empowering and equipping community moderators to uphold our policies and also providing in-platform reporting mechanisms..."

A spokesperson for Meta, the parent of Instagram, said it removes accounts ‘upon learning’ that someone under-13 is using the platform, and trains reviewers to flag accounts which seem to be used by underage kids. The spokesperson added that Instagram is working on ‘privacy-preserving ways to verify age’ and working to add new in-app nudges. These are designed to encourage teens to discover something new and exclude harmful topics.

A grey space

India considers anyone below 18 to be a minor, drawing on two 19th-century laws. A draft legislation—the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022—proposes explicit parental consent for anyone under-18 to sign up for digital services. “This is problematic as it runs the risk of cutting even teenagers off from legitimate activities. Parents from low literacy backgrounds may not be able to give consent, and it remains unclear how parental consent will work," said Prasanto K. Roy, a technology policy analyst.

Many countries are considering a risks-based approach to digital access and consent, instead of abrupt age-gating for all below-18. For instance, children may be barred from doing financial transactions, or accessing pornography, but allowed to access digital educational content, without explicit consent.

One challenge is that tech-savvy kids often bypass parental control systems. They usually create multiple identities, anonymous accounts, and email ids to hide online activity. They prefer not to be on platforms like Facebook where their parents are.

Roy recommends a graded approach. Split children in age groups, say 0-12, 13-15, and 16-18. There is no reason to force ‘explicit consent by parents’ for older teens, for all services. Also, verifying age is tough. And platforms often use that grey space, turning the other way, when kids younger-than-13 lie about their age while joining.

Even then, emphasized Roy, platforms have a responsibility and cannot hide behind safe harbor protections—the principle that intermediaries on the internet are not responsible for what third-parties post on their platforms.

“Some, like Discord, can be crazy, dark, violent. Roblox is a great idea but as a collaborative multi-player game, it opens into a dark world, often with no controls," said Roy. “With its future Digital India Act umbrella law, India will have to push companies to ensure child safety. But there is no quick fix: we need innovative use of technology including AI for authentication, rather than a brute-force policy overdrive, say, using Aadhaar for every online service, which is a giant Pandora’s box," he added.

Red flags

Till the government and platforms find a solution, the responsibility lies squarely on parents. When a child is aware that her parents are capable of monitoring and intercepting her online activities, it acts as a credible threat which can dissuade them from breaching ethical boundaries.

When children see parents hooked onto devices for long hours, it is difficult for them to follow instructions limiting screen time, said Shruti Ananya, counselling psychologist at a Gurugram-based school. Imagine yourself at a restaurant. Your child is not interested in the food and seeks your attention. Instead of starting a conversation, you hand the child a phone to silence her. Such behaviour perplexes a child.

If one can call it an epidemic, the prevalence is near universal, adds Ananya, who also runs a private practice. In about a third of the cases which come to her, the symptoms are severe where children exhibit low attention span and refined motor skills like writing are hampered. On platforms like Discord and Instagram, kids discuss ‘cool’ methods of releasing the pain of not being loved, via self-harm; some are obsessed with creating senseless click-bait video content.

“I would strongly recommend parents not to wait till their child grows up to have frank conversations. Keep screens aside when you spend time with them. Also, limit junk food intake which induces lethargy and pushes children to the screen," Ananya said.

Parents must learn how to spot red-flags. They often reach out for help only when academic performance takes a hit, said Roshni Sondhi, clinical psychologist with Fortis Healthcare. Look out for symptoms like missing a bath, refusing to go to school, staying locked up and not stepping out, and turning aggressive when screen times are limited. Watch out for young boys since they take longer to process emotions and discuss problems, compared to girls.

Amit Sen from Children First advise parents who resort to disciplinary methods to reconnect with the child instead. Offer them a safe space to talk without fear. Engage them in activities—be it manga, music, or a trek to the hills. There is so much more to the person your child is, than just this problem of digital addiction.

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