The age at which children first own a smartphone impacts their mental health as adults, said a new global study. The study, conducted by Sapien Labs, found that as the age of first ownership went up from 6 to 18, the percentage of women experiencing mental health challenges decreased from 74% to 46%; for men, the percentage declined from 42% at six to 36% at 18. Anecdotally, this is not difficult to understand. A flurry of research and reports show how unregulated social media fuel negative stereotypes, alienation, aggression, and even suicidal thoughts. There is enough to suggest that Big Tech firms have known about these side effects, but chosen to do little so as to safeguard their profits.
What does this mean for India? Data from the National Family Health Survey shows smartphone ownership among young people is still low. Only 51.2% men and 33.3% women in the 15-49 age group reported having used the internet ever in the 2019-21 round. These numbers drop to 25.7% and 8.6% for the poorest 20% men and women. In fact, many regions face the opposite problem – where a lack of smartphone and internet access leads to a drop in educational standards when classes go remote. Still, with dirt cheap data and phone prices plunging, this may soon reverse. The answer then lies in a mix of the global and the local – force Big Tech to monitor their products, especially social media, more robustly and ask parents to regulate their children’s screen time. In a world where everything, including tuitions, may soon be imparted online, and where not being connected at all times could mean not being able to even do basic things (such as travel by bus), doing this may require some innovative thinking, and a fine sense of balance.