Tag Archives: smartphones

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.

Alone together: How technology competes for our attention (and wins)

textingYou know that moment when our children pour out of school at pickup looking for their parents? How they scan the crowd to make eye contact with the mom or dad who actually made the trip to school to collect them? According to MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, today’s children are just as accustomed to seeing the top of their parents’ heads, staring down at their Blackberries or iPhones. We are there waiting for them, but our minds are somewhere else.

Does that sound familiar?

Are you ever the parent in the park scrolling through your email while your kids build sand castles or play on the swings? The one who sneaks in a quick text message driving your kids to work, telling yourself it’s OK because you are stopped at a red light? Have you ever stolen a glance at the screen of your smartphone during the children’s school play or piano recital, because you saw the blinking red light?

C’mon. Tell the truth. At least to yourself. We’ve all been that parent.

Case in point: a few weeks ago, I surprised my three daughters with two days at Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando. To avoid roaming charges, I had shut off my Blackberry, and our day together roaming the Harry Potter castle was all about old-fashioned face-to-face togetherness. But when we got to Disney, I paid $10 for a day of data so I could use an app designed to let you know the waiting times for each of the rides. Cool idea. But having my phone wired again meant I could also text friends, check my email and upload pictures to Facebook of us having fun.  I tried to control this need to keep checking (after all, I was with my children in the Happiest Place on Earth!) but I succumbed several times. Finally one of my 12-year-olds fixed me with a withering glance and said “Mom, that is so rude. Who do you need to talk to? We are right here.”

Wise words from one so young. She was right. I shut the phone off. (Also my battery died. Damn Blackberry Bold.)

The truth is, those smartphones have radically changed our expectations and experiences of communication, according to Turkle, author of The Second Self. In her newly released TEDx Talks video “Alone Together,”  the director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self describes the way this new form of communication has dramatically rewired the ways we connect to others. Not just in practical, technological terms, but in the deeper sense of changing intimacies and rewired human relationships.

“We are very vulnerable,” she says. “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Connectivity offers for many of us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”

Wow. That hit home for me. It made me think of the glib status updates and tweets we are so tempted to send off without thinking. Sure it’s nice to connect with old friends and family online but how real is that? How dependable, when the time comes to really need actual people in our lives?

She explains that there is something innate in the human experience that leads us to text rather than talk. That connecting online lets us control the demands real connection would place upon us. We are too busy communicating to truly connect.

Turkle reminds us that those kids coming through the schoolyard are being trained by their parents’ smartphone use. They are learning that technology is the competition for their time together. Ironically, instead of despising the little portable computers in our purses and jacket pockets because they take us away from them, they cannot wait to get their hands on their own.

And when they do, they will begin to ignore us. We will have to text them to come downstairs for dinner. Accept their text-speak rendition of how their history exam went (it was gr8!) or how they are feeling when their girlfriend dumps them (sad emoticon). Or worse, we will suffer their half-attention to our conversations as they scroll across the screens in their hands.

Just as we have done to them.

Turns out it’s possible to feel lonely with your loved ones in the same room, if they have smartphones in their hands.

Turkle begs us to reconsider some conversations we’d shut down in our almost unthinking acceptance of these marvelous gadgets. She worries about the way we curate our online personas to only share what is easy to share. When we cut off conversations in our personal lives and professionally to omit the real problems and stumbling blocks of our daily lives, we make connections harder and less meaningful. She calls this “reclaiming conversation” and challenges us to consider the ways we can be more honest with each other in our status updates and text messages.

What do you think about the way our technology use has changed our ability to connect with our families? Have you ever experienced being “along together”? Do you see technology as competition for real time to connect with our kids?

Texting and driving a big problem with teens (and their parents)

Texting and driving a big problem with teens (and their parents)

Texting. Talking on the phone. Eating. Searching for a new song. We are so accustomed to our car culture that it’s easy to forget how dangerous driving really can be. A single moment’s distraction is all it takes to turn the family minivan into a deadly weapon.

And it’s only going to get worse. According to the Canadian Automobile Association, texting recently overtook impaired driving as the No. 1 safety concern among drivers. And since 95% of Canadians between 14 and 17 send or receive text messages (according to a poll quoted in the Globe & Mail), this is a problem that is only likely to grow.

An experiment conducted by students in three Canadian studies involved standing on busy intersections at rush hour and counting drivers simultaneously engaged in distracting activities. They counted a total of 802 distractions in one hour, with 199 taking place in Toronto, 314 in Montreal, and 289 in Moncton. Texting while driving ranked third in the total number of distractions (after eating/ drinking and talking to passengers).

The experiment was organized by Allstate Insurance, to draw attention to unsafe driving practices. “Driving while distracted is the equivalent of driving after drinking four beers, so even one distracted driver is one too many,” says spokesperson Saskia Matheson in a company press release. “All Canadian provinces now have distracted driving legislation in place, but it is not enough. Drivers need to be reminded of the dangers of taking their eyes off the road or hands off the wheel even for a few seconds,” adds Matheson.

But how much worse is texting than alcohol when you’re behind the wheel? According to this illuminating experiment by Car & Driver Magazine, it’s much, much worse. The texting drivers took an extra 90 to 319 feet to hit their brakes and stop their cars than the drivers impaired by alcohol (7 to 19 feet). Their reaction time to distractions was considerably slower.

The dangers of texting and driving have been reasonably well publicized. A 4-minute excerpt from a 30-minute film on the dangers of texting and driving produced by a South Wales police force became a YouTube sensation two years ago, with a particularly effective and jarring presentation of an accident and its aftermath (watch it here, but beware that it contains images that may be upsetting to younger viewers).

And yet, we see people doing it all the time. Parents do it with kids in the car. Kids who are watching their parents’ behaviour carefully, and will one day be behind the wheel of the car themselves.

The thing is, while drinking and driving have become socially unacceptable, we are only just coming to terms with the idea that it isn’t OK to have your cellphone in your hand. Even if you think you are a better driver than average. Even if you are just stopped at a light. Even if you’re in bumper to bumper traffic.

Part of the problem is that we have become so busy and so accustomed to multi-tasking, that the moments spent driving in our cars seem wasted if we are not also accomplishing some other task. But just because technology now allows us to catch up on our email or check Facebook at any time doesn’t mean we should. And yet over half of teenage drivers admit to texting, typing or reading behind the wheel.

If this isn’t a conversation you’ve had yet with your teens (whether they are driving age or not), it’s time to start talking.

And if you are one of the many, many adults who think you are somehow exempt from the laws of physics, it’s time to think again.