In a remote village in India, a siren can be heard from the local temple every night at 7 p.m. — signaling the commencement of a daily “digital detox.” For the next 90 minutes, the population of 3,000 in Sangli district’s Mohityanche Vadgaon lays aside all the electronic gadgets in the vicinity, including mobile phones and television sets.
The second siren goes off at 8:30 p.m., indicating the end of the intermission. Until then, the villagers are encouraged to focus on activities such as reading, studying and engaging in verbal conversation with one another.
Proponents of the initiative carried out at a village in the Maharashtra state of India say it is the solution to the “screen addiction” afflicting residents in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and brings back the value of human connection.
The tactic was devised by Vijay Mohite, “the sarpanch” (Indian head of the village council) at Mohityanche Vadgaon.
Jitender Dudi, the chief administrator of district development in Sangli, brought Mohite’s idea into fruition.
'Mobile phone addicts'
Jayawant Mohite, who retired from teaching at school in the village two months ago said that the children turned into what he called “mobile phone addicts” after the COVID-lockdowns started and they were made to attend classes online, using mobile phones, in 2020.
“Students were found engrossed in their mobile phones for hours, even after online classes ended for the day. Once regular offline classes began last year, most of them were very inattentive in the classes and were found losing interest in academics,” the former teacher told VOA.
“After interacting with the families of the students, we discovered that they were still spending long hours on their mobile phones before and after school hours. We counselled them and their families, but could not wean the students off their mobile phones. Finally, we approached the ‘sarpanch’ of our village and apprised him of the situation,” Mohite said.
The concerned schoolteachers of the village also told the sarpanch that if the habit of overusing or misusing mobile phones by the students was not controlled swiftly, the future of the students would be doomed.
Dr. J.R. Ram, a clinical psychiatrist in Kolkata, said, “extended screen time can result in several adverse effects, but during the pandemic, the forced incarceration of young people at home has amplified its impact.”
He said that it becomes an obstacle for students’ progress in learning.
“Surfing on the internet—that is, multi-tasking deprives students of their ability to concentrate for longer periods when they need to study,” Ram said. “They get used to scrolling on social media, watching videos and exchanging text messages during classes. Such a situation can have negative consequences on one’s cognition or thinking ability.”
Sarpanch Mohite told VOA that he held meetings with other village leaders and started devising strategies to stop the misuse and overuse of the technology by the students.
“Some leaders said that it was impossible to distance the children from their mobile phones, adding that they had never heard of any community that had succeeded in such an initiative. Some other leaders said that we should try to do something. ‘There’s nothing to lose, in case we fail,’ they said,” Mohite said.
The villagers, however, were won over by the collaborative awareness program orchestrated by the village council employees, retired schoolteachers, anganwadi (rural childcare center) workers and members of Accredited Social Health Activist- a nation-wide community health service network, or ASHA, composed of female community health workers.
The women in the village played a crucial role in the digital detox initiative.
“We gathered the village women, including the mothers of the students, and explained to them how the misuse of mobiles was destroying the future of the children,” Sarpanch Mohite told VOA. “When we proposed the idea of a digital detox, they all agreed with our concerns about the children and supported our idea, too.”
ASHA workers, who were also instrumental in persuading the villagers to embrace the idea of a digital detox, are local women trained to create awareness on health issues in their communities, according to the National Institute of Health and Welfare, India.
The daily digital detox is now observed as a mandatory practice by the residents of Mohityanche Vadgaon, with a locality-wise team ensuring that every villager is adhering to the discipline.
“In August, we made a public announcement, requesting the villagers to help implement the ‘No Mobile, No TV, for 1.5 Hours Daily’ proposal. On August 15—observed as Independence Day in India—we introduced Digital Detox at our village in our style.
“Initially, some families were not cooperating. But, in such cases, their neighbors would report the cases to our village leaders, and our volunteers would immediately arrive at the houses of those families to convince them otherwise.
Every family at the village is now complying with our digital detox rule,” Vijay Mohite told VOA.
“After we have got a very good response from the villagers, we are pondering over an idea to extend the ‘No mobile, No TV’ time to two or even 2.5 hours in near future,” the sarpanch added.
Word on the initiative at Mohityanche Vadgaon has traveled fast that five other villages in Sangli district have emulated Mohite’s concept and implemented similar steps.
Rajubhai Mujawar, a resident of a nearby Nerli village, said that a daily ban on mobile and TV for 90 minutes will be introduced where he lives soon.
“The children have become mobile addicts. We have decided to introduce the rule of ‘No mobile, No TV’ for 1.5 hours daily in our village soon, following what Mohityanche Vadgaon village has done,” he said.