Tag Archives: computers

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.

Parents, kids and technology survey – update

This isn’t just your usual boring, annoying reminder to participate in my quick parenting survey about kids and technology. That’s because the initial response has been so positive, and I’d like to share a few of the emerging facts BEFORE I urge you all to: 1) spend two minutes to complete it yourself (if you haven’t already) and 2) to please share/ repost it for your friends and followers.

One of the questions I ask parents was what their top concerns were about having their kids online. Now it’s important to bear in mind that all my respondents, since they found me through my blog, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or some other online source, are already at least somewhat comfortable online, and this may colour their responses somewhat. Nevertheless, their top 5 concerns jive pretty closely with what I’ve been hearing from parents in workshops over the years.

Chart

Personal information is really a huge concern, as it should be. Not only do parents worry about the privacy issues, but they are also concerned their kids may jeopardize their future job and social prospects with inappropriate posts now while they are young. Time is a huge issues, and helping our kids control the impulse to be online constantly is a difficult battle to win when most adults struggle with the same issue. Finally, dealing with sexual and violent content on the Internet remains a justifiable concern, as research indicates in desensitizes our kids to these things at younger and younger ages. There are other concerns listed here as well, and some parents were kind enough to share their own fears with me as well.

These results are fascinating to me, and I plan to spend a lot more time discussing them individually, but I need your help. The amount of data I’ve collected is a great start, but I’m still limited by what I can say until I get the numbers of responses up there. Please help me out by sending the link (https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/RWRparentsurvey) to your friends and colleagues, sharing it on your walls or Twitter accounts, or even putting it at the bottom of your own blog posts.

In return, I promise to write about the results and offer some practical suggestions to parents and teachers based on current research, best practices and whole load of common sense. Because as a mom of three pre-teens/ teens myself, I know how confusing it can be to stare at a lot of scary numbers.  My goal is to translate those charts into practical steps that will make sense in your home, with your kids.

The Internet redeemed: check out these amazing, creative online activities for kids

Girl on laptopThe first time I stepped into a university classroom as a teacher, I felt like a television. After more than 5-10 minutes of lecturing — no matter how interesting the subject — their gazes began to glaze over. Even those students who were engaged in the material seemed to quickly forget I could see them sitting there at their desks.

They picked their noses. Played with their various piercings. Doodled in their notebooks. Activities that would be openly insulting if I was speaking to them one on one.

I quickly learned to jazz up my material with media clips, punctuate lectures with frequent discussion questions, group work, pair and share activities. I moved around the whole classroom, worked hard to modulate my voice and throw in joke. I’d leave each class thoroughly drained but satisfied that I’d kept their attention.

I thought of this as the Sesame Street/ MTV effect. These students had been weaned on non-stop entertainment, on rapid jolts of audio-visual stimulation. They were not accustomed to sustained periods of focused attention. Video games seem to accentuate this tendency to prefer hyper-kinetic media forms.

I’m very sensitive to this with my own children. I have no problem with some exposure to the Wii’s, Nintendo DS’s and iPads that fill their days. I let them eat their Cheerios with Elmo and Dora, and move on to Wizards of Waverly Place and (eventually) Glee. But I was always insistent on time also spent with real books, on the kind of art projects that make your fingers dirty and adventure games played outdoors with flesh-and-blood friends (not just onscreen with avatars).

As they get older, the struggle to keep this balance is harder and harder. Most of their homework is done online (often in very creative ways). There’s no more trudging over to a library to look things up in books. Everything is online. Instantaneous. Rendered in live-streaming, HD-quality video. Teachers instantly email them feedback and answer questions on Saturday afternoons.

Although I still work very hard to make sure they do spend some time outside (not just skiing on the Wii) and meet their friends face to face, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to maintain a more balanced understanding of the time our kids spend online. It isn’t fair to lump it all under the rubric “screen time” as if Photoshop were the same as Phineas and Pherb.

Because it’s not.

A couple of years ago I interviewed Michael Hoechsmann, then a professor in McGill University’s Faculty of Education (and now at Lakehead University), for an article in Montreal Families Magazine about whether socializing online was actually bad for our kids.  Dr. Hoechsmann, himself a father of two teenaged boys,  urged parents to make a distinction between using a computer for production and consumption. When his children are writing on a blog or posting a poem, for example, “I consider it the equivalent of time spent drawing or building a model.” However, ‘”If they are just doing consumption online [such as watching YouTube videos or playing a game], I consider it only a slightly more active version of watching TV.”

Some of the things our kids can do online are downright amazing. They have access to the most powerful, creative and productive technologies ever produced. The potential for learning new things, stimulating their growing brains, developing new interests and exploring new talents is phenomenal.

So I thought that instead of joining the mob decrying the impact of computers and the Internet on our children, I’d use this post to remind us that used judiciously, in moderation, technology is pretty damned amazing.

One of my older daughters has devoted time over the past year to writing her own novel. It’s almost 150 pages long now, and she has enjoyed the writing as much as the research she can do instantly on her iPad. I can’t imagine time better spent.

As both she and her twin sister enjoy different kinds of creative writing, both girls are members of a website called Figment.com, where young writers can post their work and enjoy a moderated, copyright-safe feedback forum of other kids and teens.

A similar site called Deviantart.com invites teens to post their original artwork (the right-click is disabled so images can’t be copied) and invite moderated feedback.

All of my girls have spent hours on a free, user-friendly animation building website called GoAnimate.com, where kids can build all sorts of interesting cartoons. You can check out one of Sophie’s earliest animations here. Kids can build their own stories with graphics, movement and audio and send them to their friends. They can also use them for homework assignments and class presentations.

Kids who are really into animation should check out the National Film Board of Canada’s excellent StopMoStudio workshop online. The scant 19-minute video has some of the NFB’s experts demonstrating their techniques. And once they’ve been inspired, they should go to the NFB’s PixStop stop-motion animation. Available for free on iTunes, this iPad app was originally developed for classroom use, so it has plenty of tutorials and a very intuitive interface.

Other cool animation apps for Apple products include iStopMotion for user-friendly stop-motion animation for iPhone, iPad and Mac, as well as the point and click StopMotion Recorder for iPhone. Users can use the onion-skin views to reposition the camera and integrate Instagram-like features (such as noir, sepia and Lomography).

Do your kids love computer games? Let them try and build their own on My Doodle Game, where they can design the landscape, put in their own challenges and choose from a wide-variety of characters and obstacles. This is a great example of creativity, problem-solving and sequencing.

Have a reluctant reader at home? Check out ReadingRewards.com, a safe social network devoted to reading, which incorporates gaming elements to encourage kids to read, review and recommend books to others.

Curious about the world? Dealing with homework questions mom and dad can’t help with? Direct kids to the award-winning HowStuffWorks website and get lost in a fascinating, informative virtual place where it’s hip to be smart. Aside from articles, there are quizzes, games and podcasts on what Apple called one of the “best apps of 2011.”

These sites and apps offer just a hint of the amazing, innovative and creative potential of the web. It’s not all Facebook, YouTube and World of Warcraft out there. Challenge your kids to check out some of these creative and production-oriented sites so you can cut them a little slack if they want to spend hours in front of their screens.