India: Rural village tackles online addiction with daily detox

A siren goes off at 7pm everyday in the small village of Mohite Vadgaon situated in the Sangli district of West India, ITV News' John Irvine reports.

Words by Khadija Kothia, Multimedia Producer

While many people around the world complain they use the internet too much, one rural village in India has taken matters into its own hands - by going offline for 90 minutes a day.

A siren goes off at 7pm everyday in the small village of Mohite Vadgaon situated in the Sangli district of West India, signalling to the population of 3,000 farmers and sugar mill workers to switch off their phones, internet and TVs.

The idea came about after Covid-19 when village parents and elders noticed their children had become much more addicted to their screens.

"Everyone was using TV and mobile more. Schools were closed. Even after the start of school, most of the children were engaged in TV and mobiles. Most of the children had lost their interest in studies," Vijay Mohite, the village president, told ITV News.

The rate of internet penetration across India has risen more than threefold over the past decade, according to research by data company Statista. The pandemic itself was a catalyst for spreading internet connectivity even to remote areas, says Dr Vidhya Nair, an India-based clinical psychologist.

"In the last couple of years, since everything was virtual, the only way to connect with each other was through the electronic devices. Now, even the lower strata has somehow been forced to use it at that point of time, because it was a necessity," Dr Nair says.

A siren above the village temple signals for residents to switch off their TVs and internet

"So a lot of children were doing school online. Even in the villages, they were taking school online."

But Mr Mohite told ITV news that this "necessity" became a concern when children returned to school after the pandemic.

"When the school opened, the teachers complained that most children did not feel like studying. They don't want to write like before. But, on the other hand, mobile phones have become such a habit that they are engaged in it," he adds.

Mr Mohite pitched his plan to the village residents at a town hall meeting, who voted in favour of the ban.

Residents gather for a meeting inside the town hall in Mohite Vadgaon, Maharashtra Credit: Vijay Mohite

A siren was placed above the village temple on August 15, signalling the beginning of the ban.

Now the town switches off their TVs and phones and the internet from 7pm to 8.30pm everyday to improve children's education and increase socialising between families at home.

But not everyone agrees with the principle.

"I'm all for parents controlling or monitoring screen time but that's different from the entire village adopting a moral panic and placing a blanket ban," says Dr Murali Shanmugavelan, who researched digital inequalities at Oxford University.

"You're elevating what needs to happen at the family level, what needs to happen at the individual level, into a sort of village rule."

"It's not just always about the time as a quantity, it's also about the type of content quality as well and if you want the user to actually be responsible on social media platforms or using media technologies, that cannot happen via blanket ban."

But while villagers had a difficult time initially adhering to the ban, all villagers are now "accustomed and following the principle", says villager Namdev Mohite, a retired submarine crew.

"We now don't have to go to everybody's house to check whether they are observing or not," he adds.

A mother switches off her television set as her children study during the 7pm village-wide ban

Mr Mohite says the internet and TV-free ninety minutes are mostly used as a study period and has improved school results.

"It has benefited the children who were not interested in learning. Children who used to watch more TV, used more mobiles, it has reduced now."

"Children have started studying well and as a result, their school performances are also good."

The scheme is also helping to increase in-person interactions and improve mental health around the village.

"My mind is also doing well. My mind is feeling fresh," 22-year-old BSc final year student Irfan Shikalgar told ITV News.

But the ban isn't only to help children study.

"WhatsApp university", a term related to people excessively forwarding news to others via the social media platform, and evening soap dramas broadcasted by India's $1 trillion TV industry captivate the time and attention of the country's adult population, says Dr Shanmugavelan.

"There was a time when lynching was happening in the villages, because people had access to those horrible misinformation hate speech messages via WhatsApp," he adds.

Mr Mohite says the TV and online dependency was also keeping parents from focusing on their children.

"At home, children used to watch TV in the evening and the family members also watched TV, ate food and went to sleep. The conversation was short and mingling had stopped," Mr Mohite says.

Vijay Mohite, the village president Credit: Vijay Mohite

He says the programme has helped families spend time together.

"Now the parents also pay attention to the children, the family members talked among themselves," he said.

While Dr Nair says she "absolutely" thinks the programme will help to reduce internet addiction, she says it's not enough to deal with the full problem.

"You have to help people deal with whatever discomfort if it comes up, or introducing practices which are good for your mental and physical health, right, like a yoga practice, or dancing or art or something like that, in replacement in that one hour."

The rooftop view of Mohite Vadgaon and its 3,000-strong rural population

"What is the reason we are dependent on this device, what are we trying to do to address the core of the issue," she continued.

But for now, Mohite Vadgaon's programme is gaining attention across other places in the Sangli district of Maharashtra.

"Neighbouring villages are also thinking now about to implement this scheme in their village and some people are asking us how to implement," says the now-retired Namdev Mohite.

"You can implement," Namdev says, triumphantly.

"It is easy, no problem!"

Article written with assistance from journalists Sanjay Jha and Shahina Khatun

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