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‘FOMO’: Diving Deep Into What Troubles Adolescents in the Age of Internet, Social Media

It’s FOMO (fear of missing out) that has taken over adolescent minds today, which is forcing them to submit to peer pressure and consume alcohol, drugs as well as experiment with sexuality, experts said.

Recent surprise checks at Bengaluru schools revealed that schoolchildren were carrying mobile phones, cigarettes, oral contraceptives, condoms and large amounts of cash. While these findings left many shocked, education experts said such a trend was on the rise. The use of drugs, tobacco, or even indulging in sexual activity at an early age was a result of multiple factors but mainly peer pressure and overexposure to technology and the internet, they added.

News18 spoke to several school authorities and parents across metro cities to gauge the extent of this phenomenon. Educationists said there had been a major change in the behavioural pattern of children, especially after the pandemic.

Their return to offline classes had led to a marked change, especially among adolescents. Online classes exposed children to the internet, thus letting their curiosity run amok.

Meghana Musunuri, a Hyderabad-based educator and student counsellor, said worried parents had approached her saying they had caught their children smoking or drinking.

“Girls feel isolated if they don’t have boyfriends and look for ways to lose their virginity. Most of these students are studying in Class IX or X. After they have sex education classes, some students want to try out what they have learned. In schools with big campuses, students might seek out secluded spots to drink or smoke,” Musunuri told News18.

Binge-watching on OTT platforms, overexposure to gaming, and use of the internet for online activities could lead to access to lewd content while the impact of social media cannot be ignored, said Dr Manoj Sharma, professor at the department of clinical psychology at NIMHANS Bengaluru. He also heads India’s one-of-a-kind digital detox helpline and clinic called Service for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT) Clinic.

Dr Sharma said when parents put restrictions on the use of social media, the children develop a fear of not being part of the pack. This is when children get exposed to gaming, pornography, and other mature content that can easily be avoided.

“Many concerned parents who seek advice through the helpline speak of the overuse of mobile phones and gadgets by their children. They are seen to be binge-watching television shows or hooked to social media platforms on mobile phones. They keep scrolling on their phones and soon find themselves watching content they should not be, which piques their interest,” he added.

Challenges faced by parents working online and not being able to dedicate quality time to their children has added to them exploiting their screen time. From the language they speak to online material they read and material found in their possession like cash, drugs, and alcohol, children have been found to abuse their freedom, said educationist Mansoor Khan, who is also a member of the board of management at DPS schools in Bengaluru.

“Though many schools conduct random checks regularly, the rising trend of drug and alcohol abuse, and now the discovery of contraceptives has brought the focus back on good parenting, disclaimed schooling, and regulated access online so that children are not tempted into trying things that are not age-appropriate,” Khan told News18.

Khan said increased police crackdown on drug peddlers was needed as educational institutions have found schoolchildren in the possession of drugs such as cannabis, inhalants like whiteners among others.

“There needs to be strong regulation on the availability of cigarettes and vapes (e-cigarettes). Though the sale of tobacco is banned near schools, the introduction of vapes in the markets has become an attractive proposition for children who want to try and smoke. They come in all shapes and look like keychains and can fool anybody. Shops sell them and there is no regulatory law on them,” Khan added.

He added: “Children are found to have been bringing alcohol in their water bottles. This has been seen across schools in Bengaluru and is a matter of grave concern. School associations in the city are in the process of finding a way to address this immediately.”

The principal of a leading school in Bengaluru, who requested anonymity, spoke of how parents lived in denial when they were briefed of their children’s behaviour.

“Instead of taking our concerns seriously, they blame the school authorities and ask us to be stricter with students. Some of them threaten us and we are left with no option but to find innovative yet meaningful ways to advise children against deviant activities,” the principal said.

The general secretary of Associated Managements of Primary and Secondary Schools in Karnataka (KAMS), D Shashi Kumar said requests for over-the-counter emergency contraceptive pills and pregnancy test strips at medical stores had witnessed a spike among underage children usually in the age group of 15 to 18 years.

News18 has learnt from sources that in a medical camp conducted at a private school in a district in Karnataka, 14 girls were found to be pregnant and had confessed to having been impregnated by one of the male students. The school had children from the lower income group such as daily wage workers.

“Most of the cases go unreported as they are under juvenile confidentiality and brushed under the carpet. Smartphones are the new peers of children today. Even students of Classes V and VI are using expletives, or indulging in bullying and harassing their teachers,” Kumar said.

He added: “Teachers should be provisioned to take positive reinforcement measures with such students who repeatedly violate the rights of other children. Teachers today have no power to take minimum action and positive reinforcements. We are against corporal punishment but simple questioning leads to child rights violations and teachers are sent to jail; the real duty of a teacher is defeated.”

“Inadequate supervision by parents and lack of guidance when their bodies go through changes can cause problems. There needs to be an open line of conversation between children and parents or they begin to lie and hide their issues. Teachers can play an important role in guiding them,” said Karthika S, the parent of Class IX student.

Cannot police our children, say Delhi educationists

In Delhi schools, too, the situation is not far from different. Educationists said while coming across condoms, cigarettes, contraceptives or alcohol in the possession of schoolchildren was not unusual in the present context, it was largely the influence of the virtual world that needed to be checked and kept under control to ensure children were emotionally, physically as well as mentally safe.

Ameeta Mulla Wattal, chairperson and executive director (education and training), DLF Schools, Gurugram, said firstly it was not uncommon. Periodically, schools across cities have been conducting such checks where similar concerns have been raised.

“Every generation goes through its own experiments during adolescence. We have to understand that there is a huge technology-based situation that influences everyone and, here, we are talking about children going through puberty. Parents need to check the kind of websites or chat rooms their children are using. Ultimately, we cannot police our children; both schools and parents need to build an environment of trust so that children feel free to talk to them,” said Wattal.

Educationists also said the reaction of adults to such observations needed to be controlled so that it was not blown out of proportion, which could then backfire and make children more distant. Also, it could be misused as propaganda by political forces and school authorities must ensure that did not happen.

“There is no data or study so far to map whether students in this age group are different from previous generations of students. What we have is only anecdotal evidence. So, as educators our responsibility lies in reinforcing safe and age-appropriate behaviour in students. All teenagers test their boundaries, but we also need to help them realise that they are stronger when they own their boundaries. Children need to be told how to own themselves and be responsible for their behaviour,” said Meeta Sengupta, educator, adviser and speaker.

(With inputs from Kakoli Mukherjee)

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