In late March, the Government elected to impose a wholescale lockdown in India to facilitate physical distancing. Similar measures are being enacted worldwide. While lockdown is being eased in many parts of the country, a return to normalcy seems a way off. One effect of the pandemic and ensuing physical distancing measures researchers are flagging is that on children and adolescents and their development. In particular, is digital technology a boon or a bane?
The Hindustan Times reported earlier this week that young people are using electronic devices at an increased rate during the lockdown, citing research conducted by the JK Lone Children’s Hospital in the Rajasthan state capital Jaipur covering thirty cities. The results indicated that 65 percent of children are ‘addicted’ to electronic devices and that fifty percent struggled not to use such devices in just thirty minutes.
The report quotes senior professor and medical superintendent at the hospital, Dr Ashok Gupta, who was one of the doctors involved in the study. “Children were found to be flying into a fit of rage, uncontrollable crying, disobedience to their parents, and also displayed irritable behavioural [patterns], if they were told to lay off their electronic devices,” he said. The study also found that 45 percent of young people were experiencing a detrimental effect on their sleep health as a result of reduced physical activity and increased screen times.
Excessive screen time has long been warned about as a negative force for child and adolescent development. Time spent in front of a screen as opposed to engaging in physical activity can facilitate a sedentary lifestyle for young people, which has negative effects. As previously reported by Health Issues India, “physical inactivity among Indian kids is leading to health issues ranging from obesity to vision and hearing and breathing disabilities.”
However, these are not normal times – and the increased use of digital technology by young people may not be a complete evil. Last week, a Viewpoint published in The Lancet drew attention to the impact of COVID-19 on adolescent development and mental health due to engendering social deprivation. It suggested that use of digital technology could ameliorate this.
“Feeling insufficiently connected to others is associated with profound and lasting negative consequences on physical and mental health,” the study warned – emphasising that “the negative effects of physical distancing and social deprivation may be particularly profound for adolescents.” However, the report added, “many adolescents are well positioned to mitigate some of these social shortfalls using digital means of connection.” (Adolescence is defined as between ten and 24 years).
India is home to more than 680 million active users of the internet. Social media usage is common among Indian youth. As reported by Statista, “in 2020, the highest number of WhatsApp and TikTok mobile app downloads in the world were from India. The average internet user in the country spends over three hours per day on social media. And a large proportion of this user base were millennials and gen Z. In 2018, over 73 percent of Facebook users in India were between 18 and 24 years of age.” The first phase of the COVID-19 lockdown saw a spike in social media use in India.
Increased use by adolescents can actually be beneficial, the Lancet article observes. “Although physical distancing measures would have stopped all adolescent peer contact except the landline phone and letter writing just three decades ago,” the authors write, “active social contact can now be mediated by digital applications, whether that be social media, video chatting or conferencing, blogging, or online gaming.” Digital technology has also enabled some continuity of education, although parents surveyed in the study cited by The Hindustan Times expressed misgivings. Approximately one-third said their child’s education had not improved in quality during the adoption of e-learning. Nineteen percent felt the quality declined.
Social media can, of course, have negative effects. The Lancet Viewpoint acknowledges as much, noting “to understand how digital technologies affect adolescents who are physical distancing, we need to differentiate between connection promoting (ie, active and communicative) and non-connection promoting (ie, passive) uses of social media, instead of focusing solely on the time spent using this medium.” The Viewpoint outlines that passive use of social media “such as scrolling through social media newsfeeds…have routinely not been linked to positive outcomes. There is initial experimental evidence that such passive uses could even negatively influence wellbeing, possibly by increasing social comparison and envy.
Another consequence of social media use is cyberbullying. According to an IndiaSpend analysis, cyberbullying affects one in ten Indian adolescents. This can negatively affect wellbeing – exacerbated by low awareness and the fact that half do not report to responsible adults or the social media firms in question.
COVID-19 presents a challenging state of affairs, with few easy answers. Screen time ought to be moderated – but at the same time, the negative effects of absence of physical contact between peers could be offset by the use of digital technology.
“There needs to be more information provided about the potential merits (and harms) of digital connection,” the Lancet Viewpoint authors assert in their conclusion. The increased use of digital technologies can be a force for good and a force for evil. The need of the hour is for responsible usage and vigilance. The debate over digital technology and social media is not clear-cut. COVID-19 has underscored how nuanced the situation is.