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.
- Excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives;
- Withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension, and/or depression when the computer is inaccessible;
- 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;
- 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.