Can kids get addicted to the computer? What parents need to know.

girl on tabletMy son woke up at 3 a.m. to check on his game.

My daughter couldn’t fall asleep until midnight because she kept logging in to play with her characters.

As soon as he gets home from school, he logs in to Minecraft.

She spends hours taking “selfies” (pictures of herself) to post on Instagram and Facebook.

I hear these kinds of statements from parents all the time, peppered with the rhetoric of addiction: She’s hooked. He can’t stop. He lied about what he was doing in his room, saying it was homework, when he was really online. I took away their games so they could go “cold turkey.”

The language parents use belies our deep concern and anxiety over the amount of time our kids spend online, whether it’s Facebook, Minecraft, a game like Moshi Monsters or a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft. And yet these are the same parents who can’t put down their own smartphones at the dinner table or at red lights, texting madly with others right through their face-to-face conversations. Answering a work email. Playing a round of Words with Friends.

Our kids are watching us, soaking up our behaviour like sponges. Waiting to model it right back to us.

But addiction? That’s a term that carries some heavy duty implications. Can kids really be addicted to the computer, the Internet or their cellphones?

The official word is inconclusive. The current version of the“psychiatric bible,” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), does not acknowledge game addiction as a disorder. Internet and video game addiction have not been explicitly included in the fifth edition of the DSM (due for release mid-2013) with the category of “Internet Gaming Addiction” instead being considered for future research.

However, mental health experts also acknowledge that there are some serious concerns. We hear stories about gamers in such extreme marathon sessions that they die (as with this young man in a Taiwan Internet cafe), or (as with this South Korean couple) allow their real baby starve to death while they play a game raising a virtual child. And many parents see their own children choose computers and games over playing with friends, going outside, doing their homework, or even eating dinner and taking bathroom breaks.

I used to call it the computer “crazies:” as little kids, our girls would get so wired up by playing their Wii, Nintendo DS or computer games that they would get really angry and upset when we told them to stop for dinner, homework or a trip to the park. I tried to discuss this uncharacteristic behaviour with them, and they grudgingly acknowledged that the play was so immersive and all-encompassing that it was really hard to stop.

Yeah. We all know what that’s like.

Computers, smartphones and the Internet change the nature of childhood and interaction with friends in many real and tangible ways. That parents worry is understandable.

So what does Internet addiction actually look like to the experts who believe it is a legitimate health issue?  In this article in The American Journal of Psychiatry, author Jerald Block outlines the following set of components to break down the experience of Internet addiction, whether it revolves around gaming, email/texting or accessing online porn. Individuals who experience more than one of these on a regular basis may require intervention.

  1. Excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives;
  2. Withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension, and/or depression when the computer is inaccessible;
  3. Tolerance (or increasing need for more stimulation to achieve same satisfaction), including the need for better computer equipment, more software, or more hours of use;
  4. Negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation, and fatigue.

Now I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist, so when parents at my workshops approach me with these concerns, I always tell them that if they are worried about their kids’ specific behaviours, they should consult a mental health expert. But I do think the question that needs to be asked is: does use of the computer/ game/ smartphone interfere with the normal activities of daily life?

If the answer is yes, the parents should act. That action may not mean calling the doctor or rushing in to see a therapist. It’s often more about teaching our children to control their impulses and manage their own behaviour than it is about addiction.

For example, if a child’s grades are suffering because the game is so compelling that she cannot break away, then a rule limiting screen use until all homework is done may be necessary. If your kid has stopped reading because it’s much more fun to play Virtual Families or post pictures of puppies on Instagram, then give them 30 minutes a day online and let them figure out how to fill the rest of their time. If your child spends more time playing with virtual characters on Order and Chaos than he does with real people in real life, it’s time to help him find an extra-curricular activity that suits his interests and temperament.

It’s really the same common sense parenting we use for everything else. And these are rules that need to be put into place as soon as our kids learn to click and swipe on our smartphones and tablets as infants:

  • Everything in moderation.
  • Prioritize activities: getting physical exercise, doing homework and speaking to people face-to-face must always come before screen time. 
  • Help them understand what are “healthy choices” for screen time, the same way you would teach them about good eating habits.
  • Involve them in age-appropriate discussions about time limits for computer use or gaming that suit your family’s schedules.
  • Model good behaviour yourself – put away the phone during dinner, playground visits and family time.

10 responses to “Can kids get addicted to the computer? What parents need to know.

  1. Promoting kids health & fitness classes in the UK

  2. totally right, the kids are just into the video games, computers. they are not physically active. they remain into their bed and keep themselves engaged with smartphones, laptops etc. they dont eat well, they do not get proper sleep. i have recently shared an article on my blog The Med Guru about tips to cut short of kids’ computer addiction.
    riya recently posted..Tips to cut-short your kid’s computer addiction!My Profile

  3. Make a schedule for playing computer games, that will reduce the addiction.
    Cool post by the way, interesting…
    Justin recently posted..The Top 7 Game Design Schools in FloridaMy Profile

  4. This is a great post.

    I have recently stopped my kids from playing video games in the week as I find it totally kills their productivity and has a negative impact on their learning.

    I now allocate 3 hours per weekend for them to play and encourage reading

    Tanya recently posted..Get up to 50% Off – Exclusive EA DealsMy Profile

  5. One way to forget about pain is to do something you will be in completely, so computer games. It’s okay to play computer games just make sure that it’s not like playing the whole day and also make sure that the game that you kids are playing educational, that way while they are having fun, they are also learning.
    j_gamer_d_games recently posted..10 Tips to Crush Your Gaming Job InterviewMy Profile

  6. They talk about video games like they’re a drug or psychological condition when really they are just another form of media like movies or television. Just like any other form of media people can become addicted to them but that isn’t in itself a bad thing, there are plenty of people who are addicted to things like television, movies, or books. I don’t find that video games are bad in themselves but are like any other form of media and can be over-consumed like any other form of media. A person who sits around playing video games for extended periods of time is similar to the kind of person who will sit on a couch watching television for an extended period of time or even someone who will sit and read books for extended periods of time.
    PARM LANIADO recently posted..Blind Date Dos and Don’tsMy Profile

  7. According to me! I would say Yes!! modern children are addicted to computers. Btw I think the things you covered through the post are quiet impressive. I found it very interesting and enjoyed reading all of it…keep it up, lovely job..

  8. I do believe that kids can get addicted to video games, Facebook, etc. Why not? However, this can only happen if we allow it to happen by permitting long hours of game play or online interaction. Therefore, I agree with the author – everything in moderation.

    It also helps to spend time with your kids doing whatever they’re doing online. That may mean playing a video game, chatting on Facebook, etc. Let’s get together with our kids!

  9. Hey!!!
    Video game addiction is real and growing and is without a doubt, becoming this century’s most increasingly worrisome epidemic, even when compared to drugs and alcohol abuse. The video game addicts come in all shape and sizes, yet all display the same addictive personalities.But no doubt video games are a real source of entertainment and can keep the gamers preoccupied for hours and hours. Often this seemingly harmless mode of entertainment gradually eats into our precious hours and turns us into addicts.
    Thank you for great sharing.

  10. Old post but important subject.

    There is no doubt kids can get addicted. I was for several years playing world of warcraft. My mom took me to see a therapist, and later a priest. After several years I am now free from my addiction. Finally.