#teensexting | #sexting | The young and the restless

“Denial is what got us here and denial is what will take our children down.”

Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava in Stoned, Shamed, Depressed: An Explosive Account of the Secret Lives of Indian Teens

“I hate you! I hate you! You don’t want me to be happy. I wish I could go far away!”

The 13-year-old’s voice is teary and shaky but his anger comes through, loud and clear. His mother has told him he must stop playing his video game.

“How red-rimmed your eyes are! You’ve been on that phone non-stop for hours! I want you to stop right now!”

The teen is livid.

“My eyes are fine. You don’t want me to have any friends, just leave me alone!”

Within this fraught conversation is a story being played out in homes across India. But it’s a story that only hits news headlines occasionally. Like when a 12-year-old in Chattisgarh uses his parent’s phone to “buy ‘weapons’ worth Rs 3.2 lakh”. The ‘weapons’ were not real in the traditional sense of the word, but no less deadly in their effect. The ‘upgrades and additional features’ the child bought were meant for online weapons in a video game. And he made 278 money transactions over three months using his parent’s smartphone, before the latter even noticed.

That was in June 2021. In September, another 12-year-old (this time in Assam) was in the spotlight after he and three online ‘friends’ siphoned Rs 19 lakh from his parent’s bank account to fund their online gaming habit.

Perhaps, only when money is involved, the adults sit up and take notice. Or do they, really? A parent in Thiruvananthapuram went public in July after her 18-year-old son hanged himself. He had been playing an online game non-stop and then took the extreme step when he lost. The game he played, according to news reports, was a huge hit thanks to the lockdown and had over 80 million active users around the world. But the mother tearfully admitted her son had displayed addictive behaviour for years. It so happened that the pandemic made things worse. Infinitely worse.

The pandemic effect

Addictive behaviour is definitely on the rise among adolescents and also adults, says Dr Manoj Kumar Sharma, coordinator, Service for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT) clinic at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bengaluru. Dr Sharma says they now see more cases of gaming addiction (10-15 cases a week) as adolescents are brought in by parents desperately seeking help.

As per the World Health Organisation (WHO), the term refers to those in the 10-19 age group. A category going through deeply disturbing, distressing change, thanks to the pandemic. Plus there is the fact that India has the largest adolescent population (253 million) in the world according to UNICEF. And the problems are correspondingly scary as well. In her book, Bhargava cites Dr Sharma as saying: “The most common age group for gaming addiction is 15 to 19 years, which means that they get interested in gaming latest by the age of 11.” Meaning, the teenager at the beginning of this story is at the threshold of completely losing himself in gaming.

“The pandemic has disrupted routines,” Dr Sharma tells DHoS. And this disruption began when everything shifted from offline to online. Other factors were at play too: “The academic stress on young minds, the long hours of screentime and when class is over, the lack of recreational activities other than those offered via technology —mainly social media or gaming,” he explains. This, in turn, has led to addictive behaviours.

Dr Nithya Poornima, a clinical psychologist in Bengaluru adds: “A few months into the pandemic, we began observing that a parallel pandemic of irregular routines with excessive screentime had already begun in many adolescents. With each person and family having to deal with the pandemic differently on an ongoing basis, engaging in gaming appears to have met needs for stimulation, achievement, and peer engagement for adolescents while making them increasingly dependent on games much like being addicted to substances. So, they begin needing more and more time with screens and games to help them feel good, less bored. This tendency, with time, impacts their sleep, diet, and all other routine activities. Engaging in games is also likely to help teens be ‘out in the world’ and disconnect from the immediate environment,” she notes.

Routine helps

But an involved parent can be alert and responsive to the warning signs of such behaviour, believes Divya Anand, a high school teacher at an international school in Kozhikode (Kerala). Her teenager does spend time gaming with his group of friends. “They have this competitive spirit and they spend hours on games.” But teenagers, she stresses, also need outdoor physical play. “So I advise my kids to play outside with all safety measures, every evening. And I have also allotted time slots for screentime, for school work, and some gaming,” she adds.

The gaming industry though is set to become bigger. “India is currently home to over 430 million mobile gamers and the number is estimated to grow to 650 million by 2025,” reports Business Insider. But gaming is not the only problem adolescents are experiencing today. The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights commissioned a nationwide study in July 2021 of 5,811 respondents (including school-going children, parents, and teachers). It revealed that 37.8 per cent and 24.3 per cent of 10-year-olds have Facebook and Instagram accounts, respectively (though both platforms supposedly limit entry to only 13-year-olds and above). Also, 59.2 percent of respondents used their smartphones to ‘chat’ on Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Instagram.

‘Six grams only’

Last month, the phrase “six grams of charas” (cannabis) went viral across Indian social media platforms. The reference of course was to the arrest (and later, release) of superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan and his friend who had that much cannabis on him. The incident led to extensive media coverage. But the use and abuse of drugs and alcohol have been rampant among teens/college-goers for a while, says Bhargava in her book. And it co-exists besides troubling behaviour and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation to self-harm or worse.

These have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The UNICEF State of the World’s Children 2021 report (released last month) notes that 1 in 7 15-to 24-year-olds in India reported “often feeling depressed or having little interest in doing things.” Bereavement and loss had also left many anxious, afraid, and depressed, the report adds.

A challenge for families

Bhargava tells DHoS that the saddest thing is that we should have seen this coming. “I’ve always said that when the lockdown happened…as adults we were so concerned about our grocery shopping, our work-from-home (WFH) schedule, I’m not sure how many of us really gave the kind of attention our children needed. Between the senior citizens and the children, I think, we were so centered with what we had to do with ourselves, these two sets of people we pretty much forgot to check up on.”

Other latent problems have made things worse, notes Dr Poornima. “In families where communication has been difficult or conflictual to start with, it has been easier for adolescents to withdraw into their screens. It has also been the case in families where adolescents and adults did not spend much time together pre-pandemic because of their existing routines. These families have also found it very challenging to respond appropriately to the multitude of emotions that adolescents have experienced through this pandemic. There have been many teens who have developed intense feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, helplessness, worry, and anger, fuelling thoughts of hurting themselves and of death. When families could not pick up early signs of unmet needs and distress and reacted in a manner that did not allow the exchange of perspectives, challenges escalated very quickly,” she adds.

Listen more than talk

Skanda Subramanya, an educator from Bengaluru, who works with a prestigious school in the city, has had many students reach out to him through the pandemic. The ones writing their 12th boards this year are having an especially hard time, he stresses. “And I found myself limited in empathising with them because I really don’t understand what they are going through. Imagine you’re in 12th std and you don’t know whether you have an exam or not.

What is the attitude you will have towards learning? Perhaps their seniors are the ones who can help the current batch the most,” he says. Parents and even teachers need to understand from their children how they are dealing with the pandemic emotionally and mentally. “Step down from assuming you know better. To have a conversation, there must be mutual learning,” he adds.

Non-judgemental conversations led Bhargava to write the book in the first place. “You need them to open up and more than that, you have to be willing to open up yourself to understand they could have mental health issues. We need to pay heed to what a lot of psychologists have been saying — mental health is the epidemic after the pandemic! A lot of children, strangers to me, open up and tell me their problems. It just goes to show they’re ready to speak. So why are we not having those conversations?”

Frightening reality?

In Stoned, Shamed and Depressed, Bhargava lays bare a world that many parents would rather not know about. Where yes, the always-excelling students are the ones into sexting, random hookups, cyberbullying, vaping, porn addiction, rampant drug usage/pill-popping, and alcohol addiction, gaming/social media addiction. And also everything that follows — insomnia, anxiety, depression, body insecurities, bulimia, suicidal ideation, and worse. Are peer pressure and high expectations the cause? Perhaps, chasing excellence has left these teens feeling isolated, unhappy, and hollow. Maybe their parents have given them everything except their undivided, unbiased attention and love. The book is an honest no-holds-barred look at what Indian teens are doing and why they do it. A frightening but also fiercely illuminating read.

Rehab for the rich

The SHUT clinic at NIMHANS started in 2014 and is considered the first in India to study the detrimental impact technology can have on mental health. But across India, thanks to the pandemic, there are now a rash of rehab centres or clinics aimed at helping those 18+ or older. These luxury wellness centres offer everything from bespoke treatment to residential care. A centre in Delhi, for example, offers 24×7 WiFi, a pool table, a swimming pool, birdwatching excursions, a jacuzzi in every room, and nutritionally balanced meals in 150 cuisines. And the treatments? Addictions to alcohol, sex, cocaine, cannabis, OCD, anxiety, trauma, process addiction (gaming, work, codependency), and more. Another luxury residential rehab centre is in Gujarat. Drug addiction is not a one-size-fits-all programme here. Specific therapies target addiction to ecstasy, meth, ketamine, marijuana, heroin, amphetamine, cocaine, GHB (the date rape drug), and prescription pills. And to treat disorders like cricket betting addiction, gambling, gaming addiction, porn addiction, poker, and social media addiction. This place also offers “personalised care for celebrities and high-profile individuals struggling with addiction”. A spokesperson told this reporter that inpatient numbers have definitely gone up since the pandemic began.


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