He held a mobile phone for the first time when still an infant. His mother gave it to him as a distraction so that he would eat easily when she fed him. When he was four, the parents gifted him a phone of his own, by now “his favourite toy”. At nine, the boy from a district in Haryana near Delhi is in hospital, having taken to cutting himself with a knife when deprived of the phone.
Recently, the Class IV student was rushed to a Delhi hospital with a cut in his forearm from a kitchen knife. The boy was first treated by a general surgeon before the doctors, realising the underlying problem, referred him to Sir Ganga Ram Hospital’s consultant psychiatrist, Dr Rajiv Mehta. “It is one of the youngest cases of mobile dependence,” says Dr Mehta.
The doctor says the parents gave the mobile phone to the child at first to “save time”. “Both parents are working, the father a businessman and the mother a lecturer, and had very little time for the child. It was also found that when the child was an infant, he was given the mobile for entertainment. Slowly, it developed into a habit. He would have his meals only when he had a mobile. Either he would see YouTube or play games while having food,” says Dr Mehta.
When the counselling began, the boy initially sat absolutely silent, refusing to talk. “He opened up when we started talking about his relationships and the mobile phone. He said he preferred the mobile over outdoor games.”
The parents, who are being counselled separately, admitted that they too never pushed him to go out, telling themselves this would keep him from bad company.
They started realising something was wrong around a year ago when the boy started showing symptoms of withdrawal, anger and tension when the mobile phone was taken from him. “He had started having constant headaches, which were found to be due to failing eyesight. He was advised spectacles. To control further deterioration of his eyesight, parents were advised not to let the child use mobile phones and other screens like laptop and television. However, by this time, his habit had transformed into mobile dependence. Any effort to remove the mobile invited irritable behaviour and temper tantrums. He would bang his head against the wall if his wishes were not complied with,” Dr Mehta says. “Finally, he tried cutting his forearm with the kitchen knife to have his way.”
According to the doctor, cases of mobile phone dependence are getting increasing attention, with its effects now seen to be equivalent to substance abuse. “Anything is termed as dependence when it is in excess and when it starts affecting social and occupational life. In case of substance dependence, the person knows that excessive consumption of the substance is affecting his social and occupational life but still he cannot control it. Just like in drug dependence, in this case, the child had signs of craving, social isolation, feelings of anger and tension when the mobile was not with him. While ‘mobile phone dependence’ has still not made its way to the diagnostic manual, psychiatrists are now using this nomenclature,” says the doctor.
The boy is now being advised about “alternative ways of living”, the doctor says. “While he has been put on anti-depressants, the main treatment is changing his dependence. He is trying to meet new children. We are ensuring he has new hobbies. We are encouraging him to play table-tennis. He has started liking it. He is also going for music classes to relax his mind.”
Dr Mehta also emphasises the role of “positive parenting”. “The main focus of the treatment is positive parenting. We have told them to spend quality time with the child. We have asked them to have gadget-free time at home. And this should continue till he is 13. We have asked that they must have one meal a day together and go for walks together. That is key to his recovery.”