Rise of screen time puts children at high risk of social media addiction

August 11, 2022 - 10:00
The National Children's Hospital recently has received much more child patients with mental illnesses relating to the increased screen time they spent during the COVID-19 pandemic when outdoor physical social activities were limited.
Children are exposed to increased risks of online harms, especially during the outbreaks of the COVID-19 with increased screen time. — VNA/VNS Photo

HÀ NỘI — The National Children's Hospital has recently received more child patients with mental illnesses attributed to the increased screen time they spent during the COVID-19 pandemic when outdoor physical social activities were limited.

Doctor Ngô Anh Vinh, deputy head of the hospital's Department of Adolescent Health, said that after the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of children coming to check for mental illnesses related to social networks increased.

"Many of them need treatment for social media addiction. Some children are admitted to the hospital after they have attempted suicide," Vinh said.

"Currently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) considers social network addiction and game addiction as a mental illness with consequences that severely affect the child's mental and physical health and quality of life," Vinh said, adding that as long-term consequences, the children could even lose integration into the community and society.

Seeing their children using social networks too much during the pandemic, some parents banned children from using phones. In such cases, many children reacted very strongly, the doctor said.

"Failing to convince her child, a mother reported beating the child, who then took sleeping pills to commit suicide. Fortunately, the child was discovered and taken to the hospital in time," Vinh said.

In another case, after parents installed surveillance cameras to stop their child from playing games and using social networks, the child used a red scarf to commit suicide.

Addiction to social networks greatly affects a child's physical development and can lead to skipping meals, playing games online/using the internet all the time without taking a rest, which can make them sick, tired or even exhausted, the doctor said.

Children may also have some psychological and mental symptoms such as emotional disturbance, irritability, fatigue, drowsiness, and indifference to everything around them. In some severe cases, long-term social network addiction can lead to mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.

"However, at present, many parents are not clearly aware of the problem of social network addiction, its consequences and impact. Therefore, authorities need to guide parents to know how to recognise when children are addicted to social networks, know how to help them use social networks rationally and avoid falling into addiction," said Vinh.

Accordingly, typical signs to identify a child with a social network addiction include the child's inability to control the level of internet use. They are glued to smartphones/computers anywhere and anytime, always give priority to the use of social networks, neglecting things around them, and continue to use them more and more regardless to the consequences or parents' advice.

In social network addiction, when children use too much, the brain will release endogenous hormones to help them feel happy and comfortable.

The more they use the internet, the more comfortable they feel. The colours and images in the games and movies make them more and more drawn into and immersed in the virtual world.

"These hormones are increasingly produced, making it difficult for children to resist the use of social networks," Vinh explained.

“It is necessary to have a strategic plan to help children get off social networks or use them effectively, rather than just giving prohibitive actions or forcing children to stop," Vinh said.

"Disrespecting, forcing, and judging children are inappropriate for this age group. Parents need to spend a lot of time confiding with their children, making it clear to children about the long-term harms of social network addiction," Vinh said.

"Proper parental supervision, early detection of signs, and understanding children's thoughts and aspirations could help children make appropriate adjustments," Vinh recommended.

Parents and children need to come up with a reasonable and age-appropriate standards for using social networks.

“Children have become accustomed to using the internet a lot during the pandemic break, so after the pandemic, children need to be physically active. In the children's free time, children need healthy physical activities such as doing sports, going on a picnic, and participating in group activities," Vinh said.

Besides physical outdoor activities to replace screen time, children also need social activities which would get them along better with people, improve social relationships, and gradually separate them from online social networks, Vinh said.

In particular, if a child shows signs of addiction to social networks as warned above, parents need to take the child to a medical facility, see a psychologist, receive the right diagnosis and appropriate intervention.

Lê Thị Thảo, deputy head of the Child Protection Hotline at 111, said over the past two years, the hotline received hundreds of cases asking for advice and intervention after suffering online abuse relating to social networks.

“For over the last two years, children have accessed and used social networks more and more. Online learning and online entertainment have increased and this increases the risk of children being abused in the cyber environment," Thảo said.

Statistics via Hotline 111 show that, from 2020 to now, more children and care givers called to talk about online child abuse. In 2020, the rate of online child abuse accounted for more than 2 per cent of intensive counseling and intervention calls. By 2021, the rate was about 3.5 per cent and in the first six months of 2022, the rate has been more than 4 per cent, Thảo said.

Nguyễn Thị Nga, deputy director of the Department of Children under the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, said that seeing the increase of online harm, last year, Prime Minister approved Decision No. 830/QĐ-TTg on the first national programme to protect children online in an attempt to make the internet a healthy and safe place for children to learn, socialise and express themselves.

Việt Nam established a network to rescue and protect children in the online environment including State management agencies, businesses providing products in the online environment, press agencies and international organisations and social organisations advocating for the protection of children's rights in Việt Nam.

"Children face a number of risks and challenges online, especially in accessing inappropriate images, clips and content," Nga said, adding that Hotline 111 received many reports on online harm to children and immediately checked/verified the content or violations according to the provisions of the Law on Children, the Law on Cybersecurity or the legal system of Việt Nam.

"We also suggest the Ministry of Information and Communications and the Ministry of Public Security simultaneously work with network operators. We requested to remove and block all infringing content according to the provisions of Vietnamese law. At the same time, the Ministry of Public Security handles individuals/organisations posting such content," Nga said.

"Prevention is the most important way to protect children in general and to protect children in the online environment in particular," Nga said, emphasising that communication for a proper understanding among parents, children and teachers was necessary.

A training class for children organised by CyberKid Vietnam that was founded with the mission to ensure the safety of Vietnamese children from cyber security threats when interacting on the Internet. — VNA/VNS Photo

With the boom of information technology today, it is not appropriate to restrict children from participating in the online environment.

"It is important that we create a "digital vaccine" for children so that they can increase their resistance and vigilance, and protect themselves," Nga said.

Children need proper understanding to identify what content is appropriate for their age, and know what to do when exposed to content and clips that do not comply with the community standards of network operators or that violate laws, Nga said. — VNS