Digital Addiction in Youth

Digital Addiction in Youth

Unless you’re an adult with your own Xbox or PlayStation console, you probably question why so many young people spend so much time enraptured by video games. But consider that nostalgia paints childhood with rose-colored glasses. The reality for kids is that general daily life contains a lot of boredom, no independence, having to do everything you’re told (even when you don’t want to) and rarely getting to be the toughest, strongest, smartest or most popular. The few who find themselves with these qualities are a coveted minority.

But in the virtual world? You can have it all. There is ceaseless stimulation, the sense of being a grownup who can do anything (even things which aren’t physically possible or morally acceptable in the real world, which might make them seem especially fun), and you get to be the strongest, smartest guy or the strongest, smartest, sexiest girl. (There’s a lot of emphasis on sexy for female characters in the gaming world.) So it’s really a no-brainer that kids (and plenty of adults) enjoy gaming, and with the constant stimulation — where the brain’s reward center is fully engaged — addiction becomes possible.

Victoria L. Dunckley, MD, board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist, writes about “transhuman” behavior in youth and their particular vulnerability to gadgets. It isn’t just the video games, she says, but the instant gratification of texting, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and the wealth of social media apps endlessly appearing on the cyber horizon. Dr. Dunckley writes, “Google offers an endless stream of facts, just enough to impress attention deficit adults.

The result? The desire to escape from the real world to the virtual gets stronger and stronger, as does the desire to become the false image created on Facebook, to become the TV, sports, or gaming character, to become the device, to become transhuman.” Transhumanism is a “belief or theory that human beings can evolve beyond their current limitations, especially by means of science and technology.”

Transhuman Behavior in Kids

Dunckley reports by way of example that in the recent past, when she’d ask her child and adolescent clients what they wanted to be when they grew up, they’d often respond that they wanted to become video game creators. Today, she says, many more of them respond that they’d like to grow up to become a certain video game character.

By age 8 or 9, this sense of unreality has often diminished. Logic and reasoning are developing and a better understanding of certain rules about the way the world works begin to take root. But when gaming is a persistent habit, youth may fail to connect with the real world’s rules. Virtual reality is an entirely different landscape governed by an entirely different set of laws.

Young people who spend a lot of time with Internet-connected devices may also be less likely to connect socially in real life, naturally and without anxiety. This doesn’t mean they aren’t connecting at all; social media presents a seemingly endless variety of means through which young people can “meet” and get to know one another, usually around shared interests and ideas. It’s probably unwise to dismiss these relationships; Internet friends can feel just as real and important to youth (and adults) as IRL (in real life) ones.

Following Mom and Dad’s Example

I belong to the first generation of parents who was able to offer my preteen a cell phone as a way to stay connected with Mom and Dad as we were going through, and after, divorce. It seemed like a handy way to help her feel the other parent was always just a touch of a button away, even if we were no longer all together in the same house. Shortly afterward, it allowed us to stay in touch with our growing teen, any time of the day or night — and even to track her location if she happened to go missing. We liked this new tool.

Though cell phones weren’t accessible to the general population when my daughter was a baby, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have allowed her to play a game or watch a video on my phone in order to settle her down or help her out when she was bored and whiney during a grownup event. Still, it’s easy to see how parents who pass iPads to toddlers who crave their attention, and all the while, stare into their own phones are probably doing more harm than good. It isn’t just teenagers who walk around with their faces turned downward, staring into small screens; it’s practically all of us.

Socialization and Making Time Without the Screens

“But society now has a growing number of children, youth, and adults who would much rather live in the virtual world, devoid of movement, touch, attachment, and nature … four critical factors for health and success,” says Dunkley. “The virtual world has a lot of advantages, which is why it’s so addictive … it’s immersive, immediate, controllable, reward-based, and somewhat social …” Instead of winning again and again in the real world, youth face the simple reality of failure — an inevitability for any human; it’s part of how we grow.

And according to Dunkley and other clinicians, there seems to be a rise in young people showing up to therapy visits who experience the consequences of a lack of socialization. When our children are constantly engaged with their screens, they become more likely to throw tantrums and express aggression. Simply put, they don’t learn to self-regulate their emotions, a necessary feat of development, and one of the most important predictors of future success. So without shaming the gaming (putting down their gaming behavior is likely to backfire), it’s important to your child’s health and development to set healthy rules and boundaries around time spent in front of screens — and to enforce them. And be sure to provide other interesting and developmentally appropriate things to do — visit museums, hike through beautiful parks, enjoy each other over a picnic lunch. These years will fly by way too fast; take advantage of all the non-screen time you can.

By: Julie Jordan Avritt

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