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Five-plus. That's how many hours a large number of children in India are spending on the Internet, and experts say this could be a sign of addiction. A recent survey conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) concludes that Internet addiction is on the rise in metros, with Mumbai having the most number of children online for hours together followed by Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai.

About 52% of children in the eight to 11 age group spent over five hours daily online, chatting with their classmates and playing games. In the same age group, 30% spent between one to five hours a day on the net while 18% said they did not surf daily.

The usage was higher among 12-15 year olds, 58% of who fell into the "excessive use" category. Only 10% of these children did not surf daily; 32% spent up to five hours a day in the virtual world.

Among 16-18 year olds, only 4% didn't go online daily. While 56% spent more than five hours on the Internet, 40% were online for less than five hours. Boys reported excessive Internet browsing than girls and all the older children used the net mostly for social networking, chatting and to help them with school work.

Children of working parents were found to be more addicted to the Internet, as there was lack of parental supervision. "It is a problem that arises with urbanisation. With both parents working, children are left unsupervised for long periods and see the Internet as a friend," said Dr SV Srikanteswar, consultant, neuropsychiatry department, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bangalore.

The survey, which defined over five hours of daily Internet usage as excessive, says this can cause social isolation, insomnia, depression and obesity. It can also affect eyesight and mental health. "The survey was done to ascertain the extent of Internet overuse, especially by children aged eight to 18 as they are most vulnerable to these problems," he adds.

School and college students as well as parents in 10 cities Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Pune, Ahmedabad, Lucknow and Jaipur were interviewed during July and August for the survey. An ASSOCHAM team questioned about 1,500 compulsive Internet users, both male and female.

Social scientists, educationists and counsellors are concerned by the findings of the study as Internet addiction affects all aspects of a child's development physiological, psychological, social and emotional.

"It's very disturbing as they are losing out on social space. They are at the age when they should be creating friendships and affirming relationships but instead spend hours glued to the computer," says Bernard D'Sami, social scientist, Loyola College, Chennai.

Children addicted to the net, the survey found, are less likely to have friends or confidantes as social networking sites provide virtual interaction with the outside world. "They are more prone to feelings of anxiety and depression. It can also result in depression, attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity," said Dr Srikanteswar. Since they neither do any physical activity nor exercise, it also makes them prone to obesity and lethargy. Most of the children also do poorly at school.

With Internet becoming more accessible, thanks to faster broadband and smartphones, the risk of addiction is only likely to increase. However, experts feel that it is necessary to come up with a creative solution to the problem, rather than just clamping down on Internet time.

"It is essential not to equate it with other forms of addiction, like drug addiction," says Delhi-based sociologist Shiv Viswanathan. "The Internet is an alternate medium of exploration," he says, adding that Internet addiction is actually a failure on the part of the education system and parents. "What you need is to change the way you handle education and offer the child interesting alternatives like an entertaining seminar or new book."

D'Sami agrees saying parents and teachers need to ensure that children have enough "healthy distraction". "Children usually don't get enough visual presentation in the classroom. Schools can help, by introducing children to books and introducing more audio-visual elements into the curriculum," he says.


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