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The Social Media Generation: Behavioural Addiction in Children and Adolescents is a Real Concern

By: Dr Sasha Raikhy Sain

Last Updated: December 29, 2020, 13:45 IST

Representative image.

Representative image.

Behavioural addiction is a form of addiction characterized by a person’s compulsive need to engage in a rewarding, non-substance related behaviour, referred to as the ‘natural reward’.

Living in an age of constant technological advancements, especially in the field of computer science, has a lot of benefits. The children and adolescents of today lead a drastically different lifestyle from their previous generations. While we have seen the slow invasion of computer technology in all spheres of life, the upcoming generation has led a digitalized lifestyle since the very beginning of their existence. The present era rightly gives credit to computers for making our lives easier. Yet, an unpredicted drawback that accompanies coexistence with technology is the rising cases of behavioural addiction, especially in children and adolescents.

Addiction is a biopsychosocial disorder that causes a person to develop a compulsive need to indulge in substances or engage in activities that are detrimental to themselves, as well as to those around them. Behavioural addiction is a form of addiction characterized by a person’s compulsive need to engage in a rewarding, non-substance related behaviour, referred to as the ‘natural reward’. The latest edition of the taxonomic and diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), also recognizes behavioural addiction as a form of addiction. While the DSM-5 only recognizes gambling addiction, there are a lot of debates going on about the inclusion of other widespread forms of behavioural addiction, such as addiction to shopping, sexual intercourse, watching pornography, playing video games, scrolling social media apps, and surfing the internet.

Of these, video game addiction and social media addiction, two major branches of internet addiction, are the most widely observed forms of behavioural addiction in children and adolescents.

Internet addiction can be defined as an excessive dependence on the internet as a maladaptive means of coping with the stresses of life. Despite not being recognized officially by DSM-5, internet addiction is a major cause of concern among children and youth due to its negative physical and mental repercussions.

In the year 2018, the World Health Organization updated its guidelines to include gaming addiction as a form of mental health disorder. There has been a rising awareness of the terrible effects of gaming addiction on the physical and mental health of a person.

Prior to the ban of the multiplayer battle royale game ‘PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG)’ in India, we would frequently read news articles about deaths related to players of the game. The latest news that came into the limelight before the game’s ban was the death of a 16-year-old boy from Andhra Pradesh due to starvation and severe dehydration after playing the game continuously for several days. The addiction to the game has been extremely widespread with a video being circulated in the year 2018 where a bridegroom was seen playing the game during his marriage ceremony. Another example of a game which wreaked havoc and cost many of its players their lives due to its addictive nature is ‘Pokemon Go’. While the ill effects of the game were not as widely observable in India as they were in the rest of the world, there did emerge news reports of an 18-year-old meeting a road accident while playing the game.

A 2017 study carried out on a group of 584 adolescents from Pondicherry noted that 29% of the participating adolescents showed at least 8 out of the 14 signs of gaming addiction. It was also noted that a correlation can be established between gaming addiction and physical complaints, as well as mental complaints such as problems relating to anxiety, social functioning, sleeping and depression. Another study carried out in 2020 on a nationwide level, estimated that gaming addiction in adolescents ranges from 1.3% to 19.9% with instances of gaming addiction being observed more frequently in boys. The year 2020 also saw the formation of the model called Michael, which was developed by researchers as a visual representation of gaming addicts in 20 years’ time. The model had horrifying features including obesity problems, bloodshot eyes due to excessive screen time, and stress-induced eczema among others.

Another common behavioural addiction observed in Indian youth is social media addiction. The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI) had reported in 2016 that India has 143 million social media users. Unlike substance abuse, which is restricted only to the youth of affluent families of India, social media addiction is a mental health disorder that plagues children and adolescents of all backgrounds. The sufferers of this terrible addiction have been noted to spend up to 10 hours a day surfing social media apps, liking and disliking posts. Psychiatrists from all over India report that they observe at least 10 instances of social media addiction in the youth every week, with addicts being as young as 12 years of age.

Social media addiction has been noted to have terrible psychological effects on the afflicted, with common symptoms being instances of insomnia, poor academic performance, decrease in attention span, change in thought processes, and even changes in the brain anatomy.

Behavioural addiction is a rising concern among the youth of India. However, the silver lining is that it is a highly treatable condition. Psychiatrists mainly point towards two main methods of overcoming this disorder, namely the employment of psychotherapy which is based on personal interactions with a certified practitioner, and psychopharmacotherapy, which involves the usage of drugs to combat the problem. It is essential that parents educate themselves about the early signs of behavioural addiction in children and adolescents so that they can get their wards the treatment required.

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