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Net Detox

Is the Bangalore clinic only the first volley in the drive to help harassed parents get their young net-junkies back on track?

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Net Detox

Last month, on a trip to Mumbai I did my usual homage-giri to a dear, old, respected and cherished friend, Gulzar. The latest recipient of the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award, was his usual warm, witty, modest and engaging self. Unlike some before him, he accepted the honor with suitable grace and tongue-in-cheek eloquence (“As somebody who has dealt with words all his life, even converting it to a professional calling, for once I have to confess, I am speechless!”) and refused to be cynical and interpret the award as a send-off gesture, choosing instead to perceive it as a gracious acknowledgement of his endeavor across five decades in creativity.

One of the rare breed of old timers who, while saluting the past continues to passionately embrace the present, Gulzarbhai is in the habit of cautioning the misty-eyed from getting carried away romanticizing the past and blinkering off the exciting challenges and opportunities offered by the here and now. While he remains totally bullish on the triumphant and relentless march of technology and social media, acknowledging their huge contribution in the area of communication across all frontiers, he however feels that somewhere a line has to be drawn between Facebook and face-to-face! Human contact — touch, feel, see, talk — after all has no substitute, because life, in the real sense, can never be lived by proxy. If human contact is ignored at the altar of technology, he anticipates problems.

Bollywood’s Poet Laureate couldn’t have said it better or at a more appropriate time because, as we speak, The National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences [NIMHANS] has opened a brand new Technology De-Addiction Clinic in Bangalore, the first of its kind in India! It will cater to anxious parents seeking treatment for their wi-fi’d kids’ unstoppable obsession for social networking, chatting, texting, mobile games, etc.

Observations from the health professionals indicate two worrying parental concerns: a steep decline academics and their children’s determined plugging away from social interaction to luxuriate in their own private space where Smartphones and Facebook rule. The moment these are denied or embargoed, pouts of inexplicable loneliness, melancholy and boredom follow.

“It’s as if the virtual world is their blissed-out reality and the real world, an intrusive, unwanted and uncomfortable domain,” complains a baffled mother of a 16-year-old net junkie. Mental health professionals admit that this is a very serious mental disorder akin to drugs or alcohol and needs to be urgently addressed on a war-footing at a time when tabs and smartphones are flying off the shelves across the land. A recent report of a 13-year-old girl in Bangalore hanging herself after her mother ordered her to delete her FB account, is, they warn, just the tip of the iceberg.

Resurgent and hot-wired India seems to be a soft target for these lethally seductive techno-toys. Telecon giant Ericson reckons that the nation would have a whopping 500 million mobile and broadband users by 2020, a four-fold leap from the present level. The mobile-user base is predicted to grow to 1.14 billion by 2020, up from 795 billion in 2013. Facebook has already crossed 100 million.

It is a widespread, rampaging and contagious disease, says Dr. Vivek Benegal, a reputed professor of psychiatry at the Centre for Addiction at NIMHANS, with younger and younger kids joining the party every day. Parents seem clueless, helpless and at sea against this techno onslaught and have begun to actively seek help from counselors and medical professionals. For this disturbing state of affairs, who is to blame — kids, fixated on these gizmos with their astonishing power to connect with anyone, anywhere, in the privacy of their bedroom — or parents, who are conditioned to old-fashioned methods of dealing with raising kids, oblivious to changing paradigms and the need to re-invent the art of engagement with new-age children of Marc Zuckerburg?

As always, the views are polarized. Social networking fans insist that online families promote interaction with friends, offer the education community valuable access to funding and materials, facilitate social, cultural and political change and, most importantly, disseminate urgent and useful information at lightning speed.

The other side laments that it discourages face-to-face communication, wastes time on frivolous activity, alters kids’ focus and behavioral patterns, exposes users to predators like pedophiles and burglars and spreads false and dangerous information.

In her seminal bookAlone Together, MIT social psychologist Sherry Turkle offers a compelling narrative based on research and interviews with teens about how kids today, while more connected to each other than ever before in human history, have never been more lonely, isolated and distant in their unplugged lives, leading to emotional disconnect, mental fatigue and high levels of anxiety.

One of the most dramatic change that social networking has had on society, she reckons, is the uncanny ability to be elsewhere at any point in time, to sidestep what is difficult and hard in personal reaction and go to another place where it does not have to be dealt with. “When teens tell me that they’d rather text than talk, they are expressing another aspect of this new psychological affordance of this new technology — the possibility of hiding from each other. A phone can reveal too much, they say.”

Turkle also believes that while social networks can indeed help keep real friendship lively and updated, there is another disturbing trend where kids befriend friends, they don’t know, leading to problems. These superficial bondings can provide the comforting illusion of companionship without the demands, responsibilities and commitment of friendship. Turkle makes a telling point when she suggests that teens always complain about having to perform a character on social network, living multiple lives, leading often to performance anxiety. Between the performance, exhaustion and the sense that they never had their parents’ full attention, young people are subliminally nostalgic for something they’ve messed out. Turkle concludes by saying that she is gravely concerned about “kids losing touch with the kind of reality and solitude that refreshes and restores.

She could well be speaking about the Indian scenario where to de-tox, the De-addiction clinic has arrived. Can this Frankenstein be tamed? Is the Bangalore clinic only the first volley in the drive to help harassed parents get their young net-junkies back on track? Will Social Network destroy innocence of childhood and adolescence, forever? Will Facebook alter the face of society? It’s a tough call.

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