We are living in extraordinary times leading to extraordinary changes in our lives and lifestyles, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The phased lockdown and social distancing norms enforced upon us since the last several months have disrupted every aspect of our lives, from studies to work, socializing to shopping and leisure activities. The most telling aspect of this ‘locked in’ scenario across the world has been the ubiquitous growth and consumption of digital technology. According to a recent report released by Google, the average Indian has spent 4-5 hours per day on their smartphones after the lockdown began.

As families spend more time at home, the only meaningful way to interact with the outside world is via digital technology and devices. While we understand that this switch to online activities is necessary and unavoidable, there is also a growing concern on how this is going to impact our health and well-being in the long run. More than any other age group, the concerns around young people, including children and teenagers’ digital usage patterns are worrying parents and health professionals.

Are we staring at an alarming prospect of a generation that will grow up to be digitally dependent in their future lives? Is digital dependence, an offset by the current shift in lifestyles due to the pandemic, going to be an irreversible reality of our lives? Is digital well-being an unattainable dream we are chasing? Let’s examine these pertinent questions and bust some myths around the concept of ‘digital dependence’ or ‘tech addiction’ as many refer it to as.

Myth – Excessive usage of digital devices is harmful.

There are research studies that highlight some of the harmful impacts of long term excessive usage of screen time, both physical such as vision, obesity, posture problems, and mentally such as inattention and memory functioning. However, it must be emphasized that most often these are not permanent and can be reversed with an adequate course correction.  

For example, while it may be necessary for a student to do online classes for 4-5 hours a day, enough care should be taken by schools and colleges that there is no back to back screen engagement. Class schedules should give a 10-minute break in between for the students to walk around, stretch, listen to some songs and relax with deep breathing exercises, etc. These timed breaks help them to pause and disengage from the continuous screen time and give the body as well as the mind to reset temporarily to be ready for the next class. Additionally, after-class screentime engagement for social networking, gaming, watching shows and browsing video, can be limited and interspersed with more offline activities as well as conversation with family members or friends.

With a sensible and thoughtful approach to screen time usage, we can ensure that we can balance our prolonged exposure to digital devices and at the same time also safeguard our children’s physical health and mental well-being.

Myth – Being online continuously will lead to digital addiction.

Increasing use of digit technology platforms and devices, especially among the younger generation, is an indisputable fact. But does that mean they are destined to be set on a course for digital addiction? No. We must understand that unlike substance addictions such as for cigarettes, alcohol or illicit drugs where there is an actual chemical alternation in the brain pathways leading to a ‘chemical dependence’, that require lengthy and complex treatment and rehabilitation, the concept of ‘digital addiction’ is more of psychological dependence. While for some people there is a greater stimulation in the ‘pleasure centres’ of the brain, it is more a habitual behaviour pattern rather than a true chemical addiction. 

We should also remember that every time we log in to a digital device, it is not necessarily a pleasure-seeking activity. Most of the times, we use it for our studies, office work, homework assignments that involve browsing the internet, something that is certainly not considered ‘addicting’! Hence the myth, that more time spent on devices is indicative of digital addiction is untenable. It is the quality of the digital activity rather than its quantity that is crucial to our well-being.  

Mindless scrolling of videos or hours spent on gaming sites at the cost of one’s other activities such as academic or active social engagement with friends and family, albeit online, is what spells real danger for changing behaviours. If the children are taught about the value of self-regulation of their time, we can be confident of raising a generation of smart digital users!

Myth – It is virtually impossible to switch off digital devices.

Isn’t this a familiar refrain? We love to believe that we cannot do without our digital devices – the young and old alike! In reality, we have led ourselves to believe this myth. What has probably fuelled it is the fact that so much of our lives and activities are now conducted online – now more so that a few months ago! While we should acknowledge this truth, we also have to take responsibility that as an adult or teenagers, we have not invested enough time and effort in exploring alternatives to being incessantly hooked to our digital devices. 

How many of us have looked upon the situation as a great opportunity to increase our bonds with our families and be involved in offline activities like playing indoor or board games, conducting indoor picnics, going through the photo gallery to walk down the memory lane, cooking or gardening together (even potted plants are okay!), playing antakshari, reading or listening to podcasts, or just talking with friends and family? All of us need to disengage with the digital world and spend time with family through such fun and relaxing activities. The right way to go about balancing screen time with such activities is to have a flexible schedule. Inculcate the use of screen time apps that are available on most smartphones, both for our children and even for ourselves as adults. They help to set limits on our usage times and track our digital use. 

But, nothing works better than being positive role models for our impressionable children. Imagine, as a whole family or even with friends as a peer community, if we encourage and foster mindful use of digital devices, we move into a sphere of a regulated and healthy balance between our online and offline life!

The only discernable truth is that just as everything else in life, it is we who are the drivers of our choices and our decisions as to what lies in our best interests. There no doubt that an excess of anything can be harmful, but if we and our children exercise intelligent and mindful choices in our use of digital devices, we can choose to walk away from a path of dependence to one of digital well-being!