Boy tries to stab mom for cutting internet access

Written By Unknown on Rabu, 10 September 2014 | 22.23

MUMBAI: A 15-year-old Pune student addicted to the internet tried to attack his mother with a kitchen knife recently when she tried to turn off his computer and take away his smartphone.

No one was injured, but the shocking case highlights hard-to-treat psychological problems caused by excessive dependence on technology.

Even as smartphones burrow their way further into our lives, mental health experts warn that internet addiction, especially among children, could become as complex a societal issue as drug abuse.

Already, the figures point to an alarming trend: many psychologists and child counsellors are reporting a 40 per cent year-on-year rise in the number of internet addicts aged between 8 and 18. Some other experts, like leading psychiatrist Harish Shetty, say the cases have gone up by 200 per cent in the past two to three years.

Proponents of technology blame poor parental supervision for the problem. But psychologists say it's not that simple to make teens log off from social networks and countless free messaging apps that provide them constant stimulation.

The Pune science student, who cannot be named for legal reasons, spent hours on his smartphone and computer, ignoring his studies and shutting out family members and real friends. Across different messaging platforms (WhatsApp, LINE, WeeChat, Viber), he had around 500 friends, most of whom he had never met in person.

When his 47-year-old teacher-mother, worried about his odd behaviour, tried to wean him off the Internet, he went berserk. He tried to stab her on August 6, but was restrained by his 50-year-old father, a municipal employee, who rushed from the adjoining room after hearing her screams.

Boy stripped naked in protest

The next day, the parents drove him to Mumbai and got him admitted to Byculla's Masina Hospital for psychiatric treatment. But the teen, who initially did not resist being taken to the hospital, caused a further stir by stripping naked there to protest his parents' decision.

"The boy had become so hooked to his online life and friends that he lost his mental balance," said a doctor at the hospital.

The teen underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), commonly known as shock treatment, and returned to Pune only on Monday. But he will still have to undergo three more sessions of ECT and stay in Chaitanya Rehab Centre on the outskirts of Pune for three months.

"Internet and smartphone addiction is causing children to behave aggressively, sometimes even violently. Such patients could harm their family members if they are denied access to their digital devices," said Nilufer Mistry, a senior counsellor at Masina Hospital.

There has been no known comprehensive study on the extent of the problem across the country, but all the experts Mirror spoke to said they were treating more patients for internet addiction than they did three years ago.

"The number of cases has increased by 35 to 40 per cent in the past one year alone," Mistry said.

Psychiatrist Harish Shetty, who runs a rehab centre in Andheri, said: "I have several cases in my hospital right now. I blame smartphones. Every time I meet parents concerned about their child's excessive net use, I ask them to replace the smartphone with a simpler device."

Dr Parul Tank, a psychiatrist at Fortis Hospital in Mulund, gets three to five such cases every month. "The number of cases has definitely gone up in the past three years. Most of my patients, who spend up to six hours on social networks alone, are in the age group of 12 to 20," she said.

Dr Tank recently treated a 14-year-old boy who had become so hooked to the Internet that he had started abusing and hitting his parents whenever they tried to stop him.

"The Std IX student used to stay awake till 3 am to watch a UK television series online. He would sleep during the day, which affected his studies," Dr Tank said. "I would call it Internet obsession rather than addiction."

Losing track of reality

The Pune boy, too, used to stay closeted in his room with his computer and smartphone for hours. He was 12 years old and in Std VII when he got his first mobile phone. From 30 minutes of surfing and playing games online every day, he started spending hours by the time he graduated to Std IX.

His parents said that he started living an increasingly isolated life, talking only to friends he had made online. "His life revolved around the online connections. He would skip school so he could talk to them when they were free," the boy's father said.

The couple are a middle-class family and both work to raise their two sons. They were not always around to monitor the troubled son's activities.

"Initially we had given him an ordinary phone costing Rs 6,000, but later we bought him a smartphone. His net use increased significantly after that. I sometimes saw him chatting online all night," the father said.

While his virtual connections grew, the teen became increasingly uncomfortable interacting with other children in person or playing with them, the parents revealed.

"Such patients live in a make-believe world where they have people available to them at their disposal. They are just looking for instant gratification," said Dr A M Gabhrani, director of the counselling centre at Masina Hospital.

"Someone is talking to them throughout the day, so they cannot keep their phones and laptops aside even for a minute. They even take the devices to the toilet."

Early signs

First signs of trouble came in Std VIII when the Pune teen's parents tried to put him in a boarding school. He was unwell and was admitted to a nearby hospital, from he ran way and returned home.

The parents did not realise then that limited net access at the boarding school had probably prompted the boy to run away.

"He was never aggressive before. We noticed a change in his behaviour two years ago when we admitted to the boarding school," his mother said.

"After returning home, he stopped socialising and even reduced his interactions with us. He would keep saying 'I am getting disturbed, leave me alone'."

According to Dr Gabhrani, online chatting offers children a way to escape emotional problems. "They even get sympathisers online. The children then started thinking that these online friends care for them more than their parents," he said.

Stealing to fund mobile recharge

The Pune science student's parents tried to wean him off the Internet by reducing his mobile recharge allowance. But that drove him to steal some valuables from home. "He would even borrow money from nearby shopkeepers. One day, they all showed up at our residence demanding their money back," the father said.

The parents sought advice from a few psychiatrists, but the teen stubbornly refused to attend counselling sessions or take prescribed anti-depressants.

The matter finally came to a head on August 6 when he tried to attack his mother. Dr Mistry of Masina Hospital said that after being admitted there, the boy threatened to harm himself if he was not provided uninterrupted web access.

"Such people need Internet access for 16 hours a day. They cannot think rationally or work without it, and feel a void - feelings which could drive them to attack someone in frustration and anger," Dr Mistry said.

'I know I am trapped'

Before the teen left for Pune, Mirror spoke to him at Masina Hospital about his struggle to overcome the addiction. "I know I am trapped. I know what I have done. The coming days are going to be very tough. I never expected that I would land in such a situation," he said.

He appeared unable to answer further queries; he was constantly fidgeting, his palms were sweating and his legs were shaky. Doctors then asked ward boys to take him back to his bed.

Dr Matcheswala, head of the hospital's psychiatric department, said that "timely intervention" by parents could help prevent such extreme cases.

How widespread is net addiction?

Psychiatrist Dr Deepak Goel has conducted a study on the issue, interviewing 987 college students in Mumbai. The study found that people with a compulsive behaviour towards using the Internet were more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than moderate users.

Of those surveyed, 74.5 per cent were classified as moderate users, 24.8 per cent as possible addicts and 0.7 per cent. "Excessive web use may affect social and professional occupational life of a person," aid Dr Goel said.

Other forms

Not all those hooked to the web are into chatting. A 12-year-old Andheri boy has been undergoing treatment at psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty's centre for the past month for addiction to online gaming. His condition came to light when he started stealing money from his parents to fund visits to cyber cafes.

"He would lie to his mother and visit cyber cafes twice a day. He would steal money from the locker and flatly deny it when confronted," said his father, who works as an office boy in a private firm. "We are usually struggling financially, and his habit made matters worse."

Dr Shetty said that it was not just the well heeled who were affected by internet and gaming addiction. "I have told the boy's parents to try and spend more time with him. These problems usually occur in families where both the father and mother work."

In the past year, eight to 10 of Dr Shetty's patients had to be hospitalised because their condition had made them violent.

Inputs by Lata Mishra & Vikrant Dadawala

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