An open letter to Chetan Bhagat: Sir, using phones won’t destroy our youth

The assumption that smartphones are making the youth of our nation “lazy” might catch the eye of a reader, but expresses bleak expectations and an utterly discouraging label on our young generation. The youth is never lazy, sir, our opinions, expectations and demands often slow them down

Dear Chetan,

Your recent open letter to young India caught my attention.

Consider this letter as a discussion, the kind we enjoy, that gets us thinking and not at all like the roaring TV news disagreements that have changed our perception of healthy debates.

A parent of two, and a practising psychotherapist, I am not a fan of gadget overuse myself. Does that qualify me to critique your open declaration for the youth that you threatened with the most painful experience for humankind, of becoming invisible, destroyed or being forgotten? Maybe not. While your intention may have been to caution, the approach was most certainly defeatist. Brain research proves that being forgotten causes the experience of the same pain in a body as actual physical injury. Being ‘forgotten’ is one of the most common causes of anxiety. Your suggestion to stop using smartphones or be forgotten is probably coming from a place of concern but is completely unviable, drastic and coercive.

That being on phones for hours is a waste of time is a no-brainer, just as one may sit with a book for hours or idle away time on an athletic track. The judgement that the youth today are playing video games and surfing celebrity news on their phones is the typical underestimation that irks them. It is our trust that energises and motivates them. What is needed is giving liberty with responsibility, education in tandem with privilege.

I personally recommend several meditative apps, fitness links, resources to learn skills and study online, intense search for jobs online and startups with the help of smartphones and cheap data. And it works.

The assumption that smartphones are making the youth of our nation “lazy” might catch the eye of a reader, but expresses bleak expectations and an utterly discouraging label on our young generation. The youth is never lazy sir, our opinions, expectations and demands often slow them down.

We could agree on a ban on tobacco, drugs and unsafe sex, as that can impact an entire generation. But I cannot agree on stopping them from using phones, when we stay glued to our gadgets pretending to do important things, like writing, reading and currently for me counselling several families a day.

You wrote that “/Our brain has two areas – cognitive and emotional. A good mind is where both work well. When you watch junk, the cognitive brain disengages and is used less/”, followed by “/soon lack the ability to think, reason or argue something logically./” Your research misses findings only by a decade. New brain research indicates that both the cognitive and emotional parts of the brain are highly integrated. Recent behavioural, neuropsychological, neuroanatomical, and neuro-imaging research suggests that emotion interacts with cognition and vice-versa, in the brain.

You said, “You function with your emotional brain alone as your cognitive brain is numb”. The amygdala, earlier viewed as the emotional region of the brain, is now also associated with attention, decision making and critical components of cognitive functions. Our brain cannot be compartmentalized into fragments, especially in its functional framework. It is a dynamic, integrated system of multiple functions that co-occur and support each other.

That watching junk finishes our ability to think, reason, use logic, see different points of view and multi-task, would make an interesting longitudinal study for every generation that has lived, given who doesn’t watch junk? The operational definition of “junk” itself is hard to agree upon, given the subjective prejudices and choices people have. As far as multi-tasking and logical reasoning are concerned, the youth is undoubtedly better at such and more than their seniors.

You wrote: /“Constant hours on the screen kill your motivation and energy. Success in life comes from setting goals, staying motivated and working hard towards your goals. However, watching a screen makes us lazy…”/

I see how you meant to help. Perhaps you are just letting the melancholia in the air get to you.

There is evidence of neuronal connections becoming stronger and denser on repeated exposure of information resulting in learning and processing, even on screens.

Constant hours on screen today define education, with students attending online school; it defines entertainment and a restful break for exhausted families, and indicates hours of good work put in by millions of people around the world, trying to stay motivated, afloat and productive during this pandemic.

Whether we like it or not, the agents of education are changing. The methods of learning are evolving and technology is a significant part of this evolution in learning. Instead of chasing ‘success’, wins or achievement, the youth now needs to shift focus to ‘contribution’, setting goals to ‘add value’ for it is when they chase the mirage of success, that they find themselves paralyzed with ‘fear of failure’. It is critical we change this narrative, stop using labels such as laziness, aimlessness and phone-addicted generation for a potentially energetic, motivated, well-informed and creative youth.

Chetan, the generation we are talking about will use technology and bank on it for education, careers, socialising, leadership, entrepreneurship and even philanthropy. So our role becomes important in educating and exposing them to both sides of the coin, not taking it away.

Had the great rulers and warriors of India banned swords from their armies and kept their children away from training with ammunition and cavalry, we would probably not have survived. Even further back, if the cavemen didn’t teach their children to use spears, bow, arrows and sharpened sticks, because they could hurt, we would not have evolved.

Our youth and their attention becoming a commodity for a trillion-dollar industry is certainly worrisome, especially when it is piggybacking on a perfectly normal and often essential commodity. What we need is a balanced approach aimed at educating and empowering our children and the youth to use mindfully, just as we did when we held their hands and taught them to use a pair of scissors, or light a candle without hurting themselves.

I am a parent who strongly believes in giving information to my children to enable choices and autonomy, a psychologist who promotes and practices psycho-education, creating awareness and encouraging people to make healthy choices. I believe in restoration and recovering from damage, not threatening with doom. This generation more than any other is open to learning and growing. Educational and not punitive measures will help.

Technology has been a solution and a boon during this world crisis caused by the coronavirus. While we take on the smartphone, we have to remember that it this gadget that is keeping fragmented and stranded families connected, community reaching out for help for people they don’t even know, people doling out the most creative ideas as start-ups and leaders keeping the morale of their teams high.

We need to walk this one with them, navigate challenges, consistently remind, partner them in finding ways of better and safe usage. For this, I look up to contributors such as you, to guide and share well thought out philosophy, action points and educational reforms strongly rooted in trust, rationality and research.

This ‘4G generation’ is a valuable and powerful force of grit, genius, gumption and green consciousness, a lot of which our generation despite the absence of smartphones, did not have. Keep the faith, have high expectations and give them great goals, for these ‘go-getters’ will achieve exactly what we expect them to.


Dr Shwetambara Sabharwal

(The author is a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist)


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