Parents have a crucial role in managing their children’s digital behaviour, as well as preventing and detecting addiction. Their success depends on their own relationship with digital devices.
“I had thought it was a harmless distraction. I didn’t realize he was using this world as a haven. Here, he lived a parallel existence, one of his choosing, where he could defy reality and its complications.” This confession belongs to Connor’s mother, a boy caught up for years in the whirlwind of the digital world, an antidote to reality’s shortcomings.
At the age of 10, Connor discovered that the virtual world was a place where he felt validated, a world in which the small and big dramas of everyday life were neutralised with the first few strokes on the keyboard. A car accident that had left him with a limp, his parents’ divorce, moving to another city, and the feeling that he could not fit in at school were the main factors that pushed him into the webs of digital devices. Seven years later, he was completely addicted to the screen that carried him into a much more bearable reality, and his parents had reached a point of despair after the appointments with psychologists, antidepressants, sports, and special diets failed to change anything.
Connor skipped class frequently, eager to play the games he wasted most of his nights on. When his mother began to limit his time online, he ran away from home several times. One time, he went missing for so long that his parents alerted the police. He often snuck into the bathroom and, on one occasion, after being missing for several hours, he was found hidden in a closet, completely absorbed in a game.
He had discovered massive multiplayer online role-playing games and the world they portrayed, one in which the player’s real-world age, gender, or appearance don’t matter. These types of games involve the interaction of a large number of players, each building their own character, and playing their part in a team.
The excellent graphics of the games, the action that stimulates dopamine, and the fact that the game never ends, nor can it be paused (on the contrary, taking a break to eat can allow you to be surpassed by the other players) greatly increase the risk of addiction.
An online gaming addiction expert told Connor’s desperate parents that his recovery would only begin if the boy wanted to get rid of the addiction. Although hope faded with each failure, one night, when he was 17, Connor announced to his mother that he wanted to end this bittersweet addiction. The first proof that he was serious came very soon, when he sold his virtual character for $800. The healing process had already begun.
Not all children that are captivated by the screen end up in a spiral of addiction, but, as Connor’s mother confesses, it can be difficult for a parent who is caught up in the hassle of daily tasks to realize how their child’s digital behaviour is changing, or how important it is for the child to draw healthy boundaries in the use of the phone, before the digital universe swallows them completely.
Digital behaviour by the numbers
Statistics show us worrisome data: children of all ages can be bound to any device that is connected to the Internet, while adult surveillance is missing or superficial.
In 2011, 52% of children between the ages of 0 and 8 had access to a digital device, while in 2013, access had increased to 75% in children of the same age group, according to data presented by the American Academy of Paediatrics. A 2015 study showed that over 96% of children aged 0 to 4 had access to a digital device and that most children aged 2 used such a device on a daily basis. According to parents, their children mostly watch YouTube and Netflix. A significant minority play various games or watch cartoons, while a small percentage of children watch educational programs or use learning applications, such as those for learning numbers or the alphabet.
More than 70% of teenagers feel pressured to respond immediately to messages or notifications on social networks, while 78% check their phones at least once an hour, according to a survey conducted in 2016 by Common Sense Media.
A study conducted by Pew Research Centre in 2015 showed that 24% of young people aged 13 to 17 report being online at almost any time of the day.
One in four children/adolescents has a dysfunctional relationship with their smartphone, according to a study published in BMC Psychiatry which analysed data from 41 studies, involving nearly 42 000 subjects from Europe, Asia, and America. Research suggests that excessive phone use is associated with poorer mental health, but further studies are needed to confirm these results, one of the limitations of the research being that self-reporting was used rather than diagnosing mental health problems. The quality of the evidence is poor, admitted Dr Nicola Kalk, co-author of the study, but sufficient to continue the investigation. In fact, the first set of data shows that a significant minority of adolescents report behaviours similar to those of people affected by various addictions, Kalk said.
For a parent, it’s very important to know the first signs of problematic use of the smartphone, but also the first signs of the fact that the child has fallen into an addiction.
Excess or addiction?
It can be quite difficult for a parent to distinguish between normal and excessive phone use, especially for older children, who use digital devices both for entertainment and various school tasks. In the special circumstances created by the pandemic, the boundary line is even more difficult to draw.
In any case, a parent should not be concerned exclusively with the fact that their offspring uses digital devices, but should rather check the apps they use and how they’re using them, says Katie Davis, a professor at the University of Washington.
Psychotherapist Hilarie Cash describes several red flags that should alarm a teenager’s parents: a sudden mood change when the phone is not available, absence from various social events due to time spent online, neglect of sleep and daily activities, lying and non-compliance with the family’s rules regarding phone usage.
South Korean researchers designed a 10-question survey to identify vulnerability to smartphone addiction in adolescents. Signs of an addiction having been already installed or in the process of being installed include, according to the researchers, difficulties concentrating in the classroom due to smartphone use, pain in the neck or wrists while using the phone, agitation caused by lack of access to one’s phone, thinking about the phone even when it’s not being used, continuous checking of what is new on social networks, or the teenager’s relatives warning them that they spend too much time scrolling on their phone.
Paediatric neurologist Martin Kutscher notes that at the time of the publication of the DSM-5 (the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 2013), there was insufficient research to classify Internet addiction as a real condition. In fact, not even the name of the condition has been established yet, writes Kutscher, listing a number of names used by researchers to designate the same problem: Internet games addiction, Internet use disorder, iDisorder, problematic use of the Internet, problematic time spent in front of the screen.
The criteria for addiction also varies depending on the researcher, the most prominent being the person’s inability to control their behaviour and the problems caused by this lack of control.
Problematic digital behaviour
Psychologist Kimberly Young, an expert in Internet addiction, formulates four criteria for this type of addiction:
1. Excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives.
2. Withdrawal symptoms while attempting to quit, such as anger, tension, or depression.
3. Tolerance, creating the need for an ever-increasing dose to achieve the same effect.
4. Negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation, and fatigue.
There are a number of factors that explain the addictive nature of the digital environment, according to neurologist Martin Kutscher and mental health counsellor Natalie Rosin:
Digital technology is always available, Lutscher and Rosin note, adding that parents find it convenient, in many ways, to install a TV in their child’s room. Even parents reluctant to implement this idea are forced to accept the presence of a computer with Internet access for their children’s homework. Because they are ubiquitous, many teens are not even aware of how addicted they have become to these devices. On the other hand, the fast and quiet access that the smartphone allows, facilitates its use without parents knowing about every incursion into the online universe.
The fascination of digital technology
The Internet’s supply is practically unlimited; there are programs and applications for everyone’s taste, and the multimedia experience engages several senses. There is also the brain’s fascination towards moving images.
Satisfying mental needs, especially in adolescents
Technology allows the rapid expression of sexual instincts, the creation of flexible identities, and satisfies the need adolescents have to declare their independence. It also facilitates an escape from real problems and ensures permanent fun, factors that contribute to the onset of addiction, notes psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair in The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.
What kind of a role model am I for my child?
We should be more concerned by the parents who are only fitfully present in their children’s lives, for the same reason we are concerned by a child’s screen obsession, says educator Erika Christakis, in a comprehensive analysis of the harmful effects of distracted parenting. While it is true that today’s parents spend more time with their children than they did in previous generations, this physical presence is unfortunately doubled by emotional distraction, says Christakis, blaming parents’ excessive concern with digital technology.
Today’s parents suffer from what technology expert Linda Stone called, more than two decades ago, “continuous partial attention”.
It is, in fact, a new style of parent-child interaction, one that breaks the old model based on receptive communication, a pillar of human learning, so “we’re in uncharted territory”, concludes Christakis.
Besides the fact that they must pay attention to the time they spend online in the presence of their children, parents must be vigilant to detect any indication that their child’s relationship with his or her smartphone has become harmful.
“When you ask how young a person can come to be addicted, I think the real question is how young can a person be to be adversely affected by a smartphone”, says Professor Adam Alter. There is no age at which time spent in front of the screen is harmless. As soon as a child begins to spend time on a device connected to the Internet, time that they could use in interactions with others, the possibility of compromising their well-being is already there, explains Alter. To avoid this scenario, the professor believes that it is up to the parents to discover the first signs of distraction, disconnection from real life, or unhappiness resulting from improper use of technology.
Strategies for the correct management of digital behaviour
As fascinating as technology is, not all online activities are addictive. Among the most susceptible to addiction are the interactive activities that take place in real time (such as interactive games), the multisensory activities (which also contain sound and video) or the online role-playing games with multiple players, which have already been mentioned. On the other hand, time spent communicating with friends or searching for information on certain topics tends to be less addictive. By knowing the type of online activity the child is involved in, the parent can more easily build strategies to help him maintain a healthy balance.
Honest discussions about the benefits and risks of online browsing are a promising starting point. It’s difficult to put the phone aside, whether you are a child or an adult, because every notification comes with a release of dopamine, and the fact that we do not know exactly when the notification will come makes everything much more interesting, writes the director of education of the MediaSmart organization, Matthew Johnson.
Demonizing technology will dispel any interest of children for dialogue on this topic, writes Johnson, explaining that a discussion in which parents talk about the methods they themselves use to temper their desire to surf online, the benefits of using smartphones, but also about the beauty and importance of offline activities, can be far more fruitful.
Setting boundaries, an acceptable timeframe to use the phone, and periods without technology (for example, at night, at the table, or before homework) is also an absolutely necessary measure if we are to teach children to use technology intelligently.
Rules must be followed by parents as well, says Gail Bell, co-founder of Parenting Power, explaining that, according to studies, drawing rules that the whole family follows facilitates the formation of good habits.
Apps that limit children’s time on sites like YouTube are a necessary tool as we help children develop self-control. The stopwatch should become a good friend of the child and it should not be used as a punishment, but to mark the transition to another activity.
Educating the digital behaviour
Teaching a child to evaluate information on the Internet is another responsibility of the adult. The ability to critically evaluate information does not develop automatically, even at older ages, unless it is shaped by parents and educators. A study of 100 students found that none of them had ever checked the level of education of a site’s authors and that a third did not know that search engines could contain sponsored links.
The University of Illinois Library recommends a number of website evaluation techniques: Who recommended the website? (If it is cited by another trusted site or recommended by a professor, it’s more credible.) Who wrote the information (author education, contact information)? What is the purpose of the website? How accurate is the information? (Are the sources specified, is there a bibliography, and is the information up to date?)
In the case of addiction, some basic principles must be applied. Prevention remains the best medicine, writes neurologist Martin Kutscher, emphasising that setting rules and boundaries is the basis for preventing Internet addiction. The realistic goal to be pursued is moderate use of media technology, not total abstinence. However, abstinence remains life-saving in certain areas (for example, abstinence from betting sites or using the phone after a certain time in the evening). Since addiction is a disease, in which psychological, neural, biochemical and genetic factors intersect, the intervention of a specialist should be considered, Kutscher concludes.
Digital education has many advantages (for example, reading in digital format facilitates access to books and information on topics in spite of limited resources), and digital devices are strong learning and development tools. The parent’s responsibility is to help the child understand that these tools should not be the only ones used to explore the world.
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.