Parents whose toddlers and children have developed an addiction to tablets, mobile phones or the Internet tell pretty much the same story. Once hooked on digital media any withdrawal comes at the price of their children becoming socially unavailable and throwing tantrums once separated from their new toys (Brandon, 2010). Alternatively children spend most of their time hypnotized in front of their irresistible magical screens and estrange from family life.
The fact that digital media have the same psychological effects as chemical drugs is well-established. Withdrawal symptoms, cravings, the development of tolerance, loss of interest in other activities and lack of control are the most obvious symptoms (Ghose, 2013). They develop analogous to substance dependency as described in the DSM-V (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, Young, 1996).
Diagnostic Tools and CBT
Psychologists have developed reliable psychometric instruments such as the Smartphone Addiction Scale (SAS) (Kwon, Kim et al., 2013, Kwon, Lee et al., 2013) or the Internet Addiction Scale (Young, 1996, Mak et al., 2014) to measure the intensity and parameters of addiction. Effective therapy for device dependency is available. Proven for efficacy is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as outpatient treatment for 3-6 months (King et al., 2012). Young (2011) has developed a specialized CBT-IA program (CBT for Internet Addiction). Therapy is alternatively complemented with Motivational Interviewing (MI) for persons not ready to change their behavior, Mindfulness Behavioral Cognitive Treatment (MBCT), art- & music therapy as well as exercise rehabilitation (Kim 2013). Psychometric assessment tools for younger children have not yet been formulated.
Digital Detox Centers
If within reach, digital detox centers can be visited such as e.g., the Shambhalah Ranch in Northern California where participants eat vegan food, practice yoga, swim in a nearby creek, take long walks in the woods and keep a journal about being offline (Suddath, 2013). In the UK, child psychiatrist Richard Graham has established the first technology addiction program at the Capio Nightingale Clinic in London. A one-month digital detox regime can come up to 16,000 £. His clinic came recently into the spotlight for treating a four-year old girl for iPad-addiction. Parents who cannot afford such luxuries take the harder and direct route by sitting out their children’s tantrums, restricting and controlling (though not forbidding) the access to digital media and to positively engage in family activities. The experienced emotional warmth of parents is positively correlated to both non-addictive behavior and higher self-esteem (Yao et al., 2014). Instead of unilaterally blaming children for their digital addiction the question of responsible and engaged parenting is more than justified. From my experience I note that students whose parents are more involved in their children’s studies and who render more support, fare far better academically while they use digital media more maturely.
Neuroplasticity and Cognitive Development
Some parents wrongfully assume that digital media make for a perfect ‘pacifier’ since they keep their children calm and engaged. In reality a number of fairly harmful processes are unleashed this way. Corina Grecu (2013) argues that the neuroplasticity of a child’s brain is compromised by the lop-sided reinforcement of the brain’s reward-center responding to the game-structure of digital content (Grecu, p.102), subsequently impoverishing the brain for other activities. We might also argue with Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences that it is not a single type of mental specialization that makes us smart and adaptable, but the interplay of a great variety of intelligences such as e.g., musical, mathematical, lingual, emotional or logical-analytical intelligence.
Most digital content emphasizes the real-time nature of information processing and thus favors the right hemisphere. This leads to an under-employment of the left hemisphere (responsible for logic, reasoning and language development) and a reduced activity of the corpus callosum, the ‘super-highway’ between both parts of our brain allowing for higher order emotional-cognitive functions. The neglect of complex contextual stimuli leads in parallel to a reduced engagement of the prefrontal cortex which is home of superior mental processes such as attention and focus, motivation, behavioral controls, critical assessment of information and review of emotions.
What makes Games so Addictive?
Tam & Walter (2013) have identified three key-properties that need to be present for digital content to cause addiction. They are
1. Flow: the game must, from early on in play, be able to induce that elusive feeling of ‘being in the zone’, where a player’s consciousness becomes highly focussed, there is a distortion of time and there exists a sense of well-being or elation. For prolonged playing, a simple sense of enjoyment does not suffice: the challenges or difficulties must track along what is conceptualised as the ‘engagement curve’ (…) In crude terms, there is always a bigger reward, a more challenging course or a scarier demon to overcome or slay in a successfully engaging game.
2. ‘Fiero’: the Spanish term for ‘fire’ or ‘fiery’, this refers to the intense sense of satisfaction one gets within a game, upon completing a task. Put in neurobiological terms, this is the dopamine ‘hit’ when one achieves a strived-for goal, which can be immensely rewarding for the player.
3. Fun failure (or frustration): this key feature of a game’s addictive potential refers to the ‘near miss’ experience whilst playing. Here, the player is aware he is close to achieving his goal or target, and endeavours to keep on trying to reach that target, whilst not becoming discouraged.The reader will recognize that this is also a key feature that can ensnare problem gamblers.”
These features ensure the game’s playability and its immersing character. The transition from regular Internet use to problematic use and pathological use (addiction) depends on a number of factors (see below, click to enlarge).
Graphic: Tam & Walter (p.535).
Games, even in their simplest form, create a continuous dopamine high. Parents may find that they are no match to compete against the latest generation of ‘electronic drugs’. Real-world thresholds for rewards are set far higher than in games, rendering the actual life-world less interesting and dull by comparison. ‘Candy Crush Saga’, ‘Talking Tom’ and YouTube beat homework any time.
The Illusion of Life versus Actual Life: Children Can’t Tell the Difference
Tablets and smart-phones offer children content in decontextualized form within a framed and closed semantic environment. The digital habitat is detached from the physical, sensual world while affected children spend more and more time indulging in such isolated systems. The illusionary predictable safety that applications offer to children may explain their enormous appeal: It is easier to deal with the known comfort zone of applications rather than with the demanding unknown of the non-digital world. Our analogue world is far more stochastic, unpredictable, complex, multi-faceted and challenging. The withdrawal into cyberspace however denies a child the essential experience to grow along those challenges. The critical role of family- and peer-relations for human development has been elaborated upon previously, so has the role of social interaction for language and cognitive development.
It is important for parents to note that unsupervised prolonged access to digital media is likely to lead to problematic media use and even addiction. Tablets, smart-phones and computers counter-intuitively have a great potential to harm childhood- and adolescent development. Digital media can lead to a one-sided hard-wiring of neurological pathways evoking sub-typical behavioural, social and emotional-cognitive outcomes. Another issue is social learning. Parents are after all social role models and if mum or dad are continuously engaged with electronic devices then it wouldn’t be fair to blame children for simply trying the same. Supportive, proactive parenting styles and engaging in real-world activities are decisive factors to prevent device dependency. Oren Armitay, psychologist and media consultant from Toronto commented “If parents can’t intervene with a 3-year old, good luck with a teen.” (Ghose, 2013).
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