Killing of a delivery man: Young people are deeply concerned and it’s time we took heed

We have reeled under the onslaught of sickening stories that have made headlines in recent weeks about young men killing their partners in a fit of rage that has shaken our belief in tender love and romance. This week’s news of a 20-year-old man who killed a delivery boy for an iPhone he ordered but couldn’t find the money to pay for it threatens to shatter any remaining faith in the world around us. After the initial shock and horror of reading the disturbing details of the incident, a number of questions came to my mind. How deeply damaged is our youth reacting so violently to frustration or disappointment? What kind of world have we created for our young people that triggers such extreme behaviors? Have Covid and its aftermath contributed to this disturbing reality? What role do gadgets and social media play in this seemingly complex dynamic?

As a society, we quickly find one-dimensional reasons that absolve us of any responsibility. Most people would be inclined to conclude that it is indeed rampant gadget use, screen addiction, and toxic social media that is pushing our youth to such extremes. And some of that may actually be true. Even before the Covid lockdown, parents, educators and concerned professionals were raising concerns about overuse of devices by children and young people. Oxford neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, in her seminal book Mind Change, draws on the climate change analogy to draw our attention to how the digital world is changing the wiring of our brains. She says the heavy use of digital technology is having effects on the brain, some of which are worrisome, and that there is evidence that significant segments of the population have taken digital technology use to extreme levels. This is also confirmed by convincing research results from South Korea and North America, where screen addiction is considered a major problem. There is evidence from several research studies that young people with screen addiction experience gray matter atrophy/thinning in the cerebral cortex, including regions of the frontal lobes, the seat of intelligence and higher cognitive function. As a result, there are difficulties performing skills including short attention spans, poor language development, poor impulse control, and frustration tolerance. And these are precisely the neurostructural and cognitive correlates associated with impulsive, aggressive, delinquent, and delinquent behavior in adolescence.

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The Covid disaster and lockdown has of course increased our use and dependency on devices many fold. There was no other way to connect to the outside world, be it for work/education, family and friends, or entertainment. The fear, uncertainty and nagging frustration of missing out on life and the rites of passage drove many young people to despair and they began to seek solutions in unhealthy spaces. The lines between legitimate online must-do activity and mindless, addictive delving into the dark trenches of the internet were blurring for most. In addition to exposure to violent content online, young people have had to cope with social media’s invasion of their personal spaces, which can be ruthless and demanding. Without the usual anchors and connections that give them a sense of self and purpose, many tended toward exploitative and violent maelstroms. When such violence is directed inward, it can lead to intense emotional turmoil and self-destructive tendencies. It was not surprising when, within the first year of the pandemic, following large-scale surveys in many countries including India, the WHO reported a five-fold increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm and suicidal behaviors. We in India, which already had the highest suicide rates among youth (aged 15-25), have seen a sharp rise in self-harm and suicides in recent years and have witnessed firsthand families and communities reeling from the tragic loss of young lives in this mental health epidemic.

It doesn’t take rocket science to understand what happens when the same violence is directed outwards. The shocking stories of violence among young people, even teenagers, ranging from trolling and cyberbullying to sexual assault and murder, are just the tip of the iceberg. The deep sense of loss, deprivation, and resulting pent-up anger takes many different aggressive channels in homes, schools, and playgrounds that are often swept under the rug.

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It is naïve to think that the emotional turmoil and behavioral deviations in our younger generation are caused solely by overuse of gadgets and social media. Indeed, it would be irresponsible and callous not to try to understand how we, as adults, have contributed to this world that is so damaging to our children and youth. What role models do we give ourselves with our bigoted politics, deep polarizations in society and dominant groups that act out of hate positions? It can be argued that the pandemic was beyond our control, but what have we done to protect our young people from its impact and aftermath, even when the writing was on the wall?

The relationship between gadgets and violence in our youth is complicated and dynamic. It has deep implications, with trauma and loss, the increasing mental health challenges in this age group and the fractured world around them. It will take a concerted and continued attention and effort from our state, our institutions, and the larger community to make a difference in their lives.

The author is a child and adolescent psychiatrist working in Delhi