The 21-year-old male nurse hired to care for an 81-year-old man suffering from severe dementia repeatedly ignored pleas from the patient’s wife to help set her husband bed. The man was busy on his device, having brought two smartphones to work that day — each with sufficient charge to last his eight-hour shift. Having watched this happen repeatedly, that evening the woman, herself 75 years old and ailing, complained to the nurse’s employer. He was fired.

As India’s policymakers and telecom providers push ultra-cheap internet access — even Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Houston mega rally with US President Donald Trump mentioned the low price for 1GB of data — there’s a dark side to device addiction that is rarely addressed. The cancer has spread from young children to college students; and now, to the entire workforce, including millions in the informal economy.

India produces a lot less output per workday than it used to even a decade ago, at a time when the country should in fact be doing the opposite.

Early start

Addiction to devices is more dangerous than addiction to substances — alcohol, drugs or smoking — because device addicts start out much younger. Parents are complicit in this act, knowing that a smartphone can distract (and calm) a wailing child like no babysitter. After spending a year on a smartphone, the child wants nothing else.

Children like devices because they can control the environment — it is a world very different from reality. In a video game, if a character is hurt or killed, quitting and restarting brings the character back to life. If the level gets too difficult, it is easy to dial it back a notch to play within the player’s abilities. Any learning that occurs is restricted to what the game developer had in mind. The ability to critically think is further removed as children swipe and pinch their screens. These are hardly life skills young people ideally should be learning.

Today’s workers are losing the ability to talk, reason, listen or negotiate with other humans — the pillar skills that make a modern society function. When on their devices, they are in a state of bliss. The device never complains. It is never tired. It doesn’t misunderstand or get upset. It doesn’t show emotion or empathy, so there are no arguments or disputes. In such a comfortable zone, users can get whatever they want by commanding a device that is completely at their beck and call.

Internet detox

When devices are forcibly taken away from this environment — such as in an office meeting — addicts experience first-hand the difficulties of interacting with humans. This becomes uncomfortable, because in all real communication, the principle of give and take is inherent. Device addicts are not used to such interactions, and so they long to return to the virtual world.

This is a serious problem globally. A few years ago, the Washington Post reported that in South Korea, one of the best-wired countries, students diagnosed with Internet and device addiction are sent to government treatment centres. In China, militaristic government “boot camps” have treated millions of children. Japan, too, has trialled an Internet “fasting camp” for young people.

Device addiction in India’s middle and upper-class families has been a problem for years now. But, today, the addiction has spread to lower class workers in the informal and gig economy, which, by some accounts, supports 80 per cent of domestic GDP.

The toothpaste is already out of the tube. It’s going to be awfully hard to put it back.

The writer is Managing Director, Rao Advisors LLC, Texas