Tag Archives: Addiction

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.

Is Internet addiction real?

CC license codiceinternet

Pop culture has adopted the language of addiction in very casual, offhand ways. We speak of people getting hooked, of going through withdrawal, of needing rehab for all sorts of things, whether it’s Blackberry cellphones, Angry Birds or sugary soft drinks. Addiction has become a shorthand for talking about all sorts of things, from pure laziness to real impulse control.

But for most of these things, we know where the joke ends, and the real addiction begins. A destructive inability to stop using alcohol, tobacco or drugs is no joke. These things ruin lives, kill people and destroy families.

Lately, we’ve seen an extension of the language of addiction into grey areas, like sex, gambling, video games and the Internet. Can people really be addicted to these things in the true, psychological sense of the term? This is a very contentious issue in psychiatric circles, and the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) — the bible of the field that establishes the parameters for diagnosis of mental health disorders — has been negotiating these questions for the 5th edition due to be published in May 2013.

The current draft replaces he category of substance abuse and dependence with “addiction and related disorders,” which offers more wiggle room for including other items. It also creates the new category of “behavoural addictions,” which names gambling as the sole disorder. They did consider adding Internet addiction, but the experts on the judging panel felt there was still insufficient research on the topic. The solution was to put it in the appendix and recommend future study.

So what does that mean for parents and teachers of teens, who may be worried that their kids’ use of the Internet interferes with their lives? The evidence seems to point to some disturbing parallels with addiction. A new study by a group called Intersperience in the UK (reported here in the Daily Mail) found that 53% of Britons felt upset when denied access to the Internet and 40% felt lonely when they couldn’t go online. One respondent said not being able to access the Internet was “like having my hand chopped off.”

A related experiment at the University of Maryland  earlier this year (called The World Unplugged) challenged 1,000 college students in 37 countries to unplug completely from communication technologies, using only a landline and books for communication. Researchers recorded physical and physiologial symptoms comparable to withdrawal from a drug or smoking addiction. They reported feeling anxious, fidgety and isolated, saying that it felt like going “cold turkey” on a hard drug habit or being on a restrictive diet.

Interesting. The Mayo Clinic offers a list of symptoms of drug addiction, which we can adapt for our purposes here:

  • Do you feel the need to regularly use the Internet, daily or several times a day?
  • Do you fail in your attempts to stop using the Internet?
  • Do you make certain you maintain Internet access (wifi, smartphones, etc.)?
  • Do you ever spend money on Internet access even if you can’t afford it?
  • Do you ever do things you wouldn’t normally do to get access, like stealing? (For Internet, I would suggest adding missing significant amounts of sleep or meals.)
  • Do you use time on the Internet to avoid dealing with problems in your life?

They also suggest looking out for warning signs in teens related to drug abuse:

  • Neglecting schoolwork
  • Physical health problems – lack of attention to appearance, fitness, sleep, eating
  • Change in behaviour – becoming rude, insolent, withdrawn, closing themselves in their rooms for long periods
  • I would also add changes in social groups – Internet use can be isolating, especially when they are playing games that replace conventional forms of social interaction with virtual ones.

Now, I’m not a counsellor or psychologist, and these lists are intended to be thought-provoking and not used as checklists for diagnosis, but it seems to me that any activity that starts to interfere with our quality of life is a problem that needs to be dealt with.  The majority of our social interaction should be face to face, not online. There’s a fine line between making the most of technology, and becoming a slave to it.

If you think your teen’s time online is having a negative impact on their life, it’s OK to intervene. And if you have difficulty getting through to them, talk to a teacher, a guidance counsellor, their pediatrician or a social worker. Because our lives in the real world are ultimately the ones that count!