Technology Addiction

TECHNOLOGY ADDICTION
Our organization increased its social media presence this past winter. We posted videos and beefed up our Facebook presence. I found myself slowly being drawn into the “technology trap.” Soon, I was checking Facebook almost nonstop, monitoring every alert my phone signaled to me about activity on our page, checking the visits to our web pages and videos, constantly reading emails about unsubscribed users or new subscribers, etc. I felt I needed to know the detail of every little event that transpired on the web.
Looking back, I can now see that I was consumed by social media. I found myself checking my phone, when I should have been participating in real life.  For a brief period, I had become a “technology addict.” It was actually a very concerning shift in my perception of gaming and social media addiction. That brief encounter with my own unyielding need to have my phone in my hand, night and day, motivated me to share my perceptions about this societal epidemic.
As with all activities that have addictive potential, not all users of technology (gaming and social medial) become addicted. This said, we all build our “Island of Competence” around something: We all need to feel that our life has purpose and that we are good at something. Before technology dominated our lives, kids explored a host of avenues to find their personal Island of Competence (e.g., sports, music, hobbies, collecting, building, exploring nature, fishing, art, community involvement, scouts, dance, and so on). It was not easy for some; the entry to be truly good at one’s chosen passion was sometimes high, and the rewards for some were low. As such, a child would continually try new things, until they found something in which their interest was high, and their ability to be good at it was also high. Some children search forever, but the search itself is a method of building character strength and social skills.
This is not the case with gaming and social medial. The barrier to entry is low, and the results (i.e., perceived success) are systematically manipulated by the designers of these entertainment platforms to create an illusion of mastery, when in fact, success in the social media/gaming world typically has no value in the physical/real world. When a child spends countless hours in these “cyber worlds,” believing it is of excellent value to become good at gaming, tweeting, posting on Instagram and Facebook, sending Snapchats, etc., it creates an illusion that they are “masters” of something.
When you remove these perceived “Islands of Competence,” what is left is a child who has mastery over nothing. If one’s Island of Competence is built around social media and/or gaming, taking it away from them may in fact result in anxiety, anger, a loss of self-esteem, and perhaps even depression. If they have no other Island of Competence to fall back on, their lives become meaningless. We must guard our kids from falling into this trap.
My generation, which is actually called the generation of “digital immigrants,” did not grow up with the same temptations as younger generations. In fact, individuals born after 1985, are considered “digital natives.” That is, they grew up in a time when technology and cyber-reality was becoming, or became, dominant in everyday life.
As a child, I remember clearly spending Saturday and a large part of Sunday mornings watching cartoons (Road Runner, Flintstones, Tom and Jerry, Huckleberry Hound, Yogi the Bear, Scooby Doo, etc.). No one was worried that we were having too much screen time; we were just doing what kids did. We spent a lot of hours in front of the TV. While some individuals did in fact grow up to be “TV junkies,” becoming recluse addicted, most turned out ok. So is the case with social medial and gaming. Yet many more individuals are falling into a trap that is much more sinister in design with regards to addictive potential.
Children don’t watch much traditional television anymore. In fact, they don’t do much that requires more than 10 seconds of sustained attention. Most have multiple screens running, and are bombarded incessantly by stimulation coming from a host of technology-based devices. However, they have become much more agile and capable of managing more things per unit of time; shifting attention more quickly and responding faster than kids of past generations. In fact, many are extremely skilled at multitasking, and see this as normal. What they find hard to do is completing one task at a time. This has profound impact in classroom education, as it is simply harder for children to pay attention, unless the curriculum is delivered in a very creative and engaging manner.
With all this said, we are seeing more and more children, adolescents, and adults become technology addicts. In my professional career, I have encountered multiple promising teenagers and young adults who have fallen deep into the grip of computer addiction that could not be pulled out. In many cases, these individuals are still living in their parents’ homes as young adults, huddled in their rooms, and living in a virtual reality where they only interact with others in the cyber world. Their dreams, their family’s dreams for them, and the contribution these often high IQ individuals could have made to society, are all lost in a world that only exists in cyberspace. They lacked an Island of Competence to fall back on because they never searched for one. The happiness and success they found in the cyber world derailed any other attempts to build a sense of self around something in the real world
As parents, how do you minimize the possibility that your child will become, as I have fondly termed, “The King (or Queen) of Nothing”? (e.g., a master gamer, a teenage girl with the most followers on Instagram, a social media influencer, etc.). Some suggestions are provided below. I did not make these up, but incorporated them from a variety of formal and informal sources over the years:
  • Have “electronic blackouts” – pull back from technology the hour before you go to bed. Also, try making Sundays a “no technology day.”
  • Create schedules for playing games and stick to them. When the time to cease playing draws near, use a method of alerting the child time is coming to an end (e.g., using a timer). In the early phases of developing game time schedules, family rules should not tolerate loose limits. Be explicit in your expectations: do not say finish in a few minutes. If the child argues, consequence them with the loss of computer time for the next day.
  • When young, utilize tools such as “Net Nanny” or other programs that turn off the internet at designated times in designated rooms. This may not work for kids that are “addicted.” They may find a way around your computer/internet blocks.
  • Do not allow phones in school until middle school. In middle school, phones should be kept in lockers or book bags – no phones in class, even if they promise to keep them in their pockets. Like a drug with a junky, you don’t want it within their reach.  If there is an emergency, someone at the school can notify the child.
  • Don’t let your child/adolescent use their cell phone as a clock/alarm at night. Having it next to their bed will illicit checking it. Instead, have a charging station in the kitchen or in a room close to where parents sleep.
  • Require outdoor play – movement and activity are good for both physical health, and more importantly, mental health.  Insist your child finds a real world Island of Competence such as joining a gym or playing sports. Don’t let technology entertain your child, find real world activities!
  • The sunlight and movement aids in the development of brain systems (somatosensory system), social skills, and the biochemistry of emotional regulation (serotonin levels are enhanced). Monitor your child’s body weight. Computer time, beyond schoolwork, typically comes at the cost of activities involving movement with other real people.
  • Try to have high school students get a part time job if they have free time – especially for kids coming from families of wealth. These kids often want to go from school, to millionaires, with little awareness of what work is and how hard it is to make money.
  • No multiplayer games until 15 years of age. Engaging in such games with penalties (e.g., abandoning other players before the game ends) can lead to emotional dysregulation and oppositional-defiant behaviors toward the authority figure that tries to insist they stop.
  • Make computer time contingent on grades, behavior, and community activity (volunteering or playing outside).
  • For every hour of agreed upon computer time, insist on one hour of computer time that is geared toward empirically-supported programs to increase cognitive or academic efficiency. Learn something important from your screen time. A host of enrichment activities for cognitive and academic skill development are out there that are very valuable! (see www.childproviderspecialists.org).
  • Keep computers in a highly visible area of the house so informal monitoring of activities is easily managed.
  • Although technology is a behavioral addiction like gambling, just as with alcohol and other chemically addicting substances, the later you start, the lower the probability of addiction. Holding off on letting children use devices until they are older can help decrease their chance of addiction.
  • Choose your child’s friends carefully. Peer pressure can exert its influence at almost any age. Encourage them to hang out with kids with diverse interests that like to play outside!
  • Do not allow toddlers and preschoolers unlimited access to devices. I see very young children in restaurants playing on iPads the entire time they are sitting down to eat. Unfortunately, this may come at the cost of not developing oral language skills (communications/social skills). Parents must talk to their kids; the more words they hear and learn between birth and 5, the stronger they will be in all aspects of life. Don’t let a screen entertain your young child.
  • For kids 6 to 10, supervise their internet activity and include lots of educational games. Have minimal windows of time each day for gaming that are nonnegotiable.
  • For kids 11 to 14, relinquish some control, but monitor closely where they are going and what they are seeing in the cyber world. Again, restrict multiplayer games. Playing video games with older kids can introduce them to things they should not see.
  • For kids 15 and older (high school and beyond), create family contracts of what is expected (e.g., grades, family time, social involvement, interests that are in the real world). Try and talk with them frequently about what they do on social media. They may be the perpetrator or the recipient of bullying. In the old days, someone may write a mean note and pass it around the room. Now, when mean things are said on social media platforms, it goes to the masses. This can be extremely damaging to the development of self-esteem in young people.
  • Involve the child in old fashioned, community-based activities. Have them play outside and don’t be afraid they may get hurt. Park swings, monkey bars, jump rope, hopscotch, trampolines, swimming, diving, somersaults, and so on are all developmentally important to the maturation of brain systems, which creates a solid foundation for other systems to build on.
  • Children are living in a chronic world of controlling everything in their space with a keyboard and having immediate results. They have not learned how to “chill” and do nothing. They are trapped in a cycle of fear of not being in control and/or missing out on something happening in their cyber-universe. Teach them to stop, relax/meditate, and do nothing.

Technology addiction is a true behavioral addiction such as pathological gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, compulsive buying, and compulsive sexual behaviors. It has become a significant mental health concern that is associated with high rates of social-emotional-family dysfunction. Although research into the biology of these behaviors is still in the initial stages, recent advances in the understanding of motivation, reward, and addiction have provided insight into the possible pathophysiology of these disorders. Biochemical studies, functional neuroimaging, genetic studies, and treatment research have suggested a strong neurobiological link between behavioral addictions and substance use disorders. In other words, from a biochemical perspective, behavioral and chemical addiction is working on the same chemical pathways in the brain. The brain chemical dopamine, which is associated with pleasure, is released when we are stimulated, whether that is by food, sex, excitement, or even screen time!

It is reported that 1 in 8 Americans suffer from problematic internet use, according to a study published in The International Journal of Neuropsychiatric Medicine. Rates are reported to be even higher in many Asian countries. Phil Reed, a Professor of Psychology at Swansea University in the U.K., estimates that 6-10% of smartphone users’ display signs of internet addiction. While there’s currently no standard for what constitutes smartphone addiction, some experts define it as spending more than 7 hours per day using the phone, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when cut off from the device.

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