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Are our children screen addicts?

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We try to ensure that our children stay away from drugs, alcohol and other addiction-forming substances, but internet technology is a challenge for parents, given its prevalence in the world today.
by ELIANA CLINE | Jun 21, 2018

Young kids are adept at trawling through apps and by age 10, are self-taught experts at smartphone or tablet navigation. “Just Google it, Mommy” has become part of their daily lexicon.

Children spend a significant portion of the day interacting with screens. By the age of four, research shows that they are spending almost 150 minutes a day navigating screens and by age eight, consume almost three hours of media in a typical day. This includes computer, cellphone and tablet use, as well as listening to music and reading, says Dr Brent Conrad, a psychologist in Canada who runs the treatment centre, TechAddiction.

Many parents know that excess screen time is detrimental, but may not be aware of its effect on the brain’s development.

Dr Nicholas Kardaras, a US-based addiction expert and author of the 2016 book, Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids – and How to Break the Trance, describes how compulsive technology use can neurologically damage the developing brain of a child in the same way that drug addiction can.

In an interview with Vice, a US magazine, he explains: “Kids’ brains develop during key developmental windows when they engage their active imagination in such things as creative play. These windows are when the body builds the most neuronal connections. Kids who are just passively stimulated by a glowing screen don’t have to do the neural heavy lifting to create those images. The images are provided for them, thus stunting their own creative abilities.”

A crucial part of childhood development is the process of creativity. Research shows that kids who spend hours every day on screens have a lower creative ability.

Says Kardaras. “One of the best things that a child can do developmentally is to use their imagination. Kids have to read books and use their imagination to create the visual imagery of the story.”

There are functions that develop at certain age milestones, given the right environment. While the brain can adapt at any age, the results are optimal when we use these specific developmental stages to grow these skills.

Take language development, for example: in the right window of development a child’s grasp of language will flourish. If this ability is stunted from an early age, the neuro-synaptic muscles which work to fine-tune language comprehension tend to atrophy.

Robert Lustig, a professor of paediatrics in the division of endocrinology at the University of Southern California and the author of The Hacking of the American Mind, also addresses the addictive properties of technology. “It’s not a drug, but it might as well be. It works the same way,” says Lustig.

In studying what happens to our brains when they’re addicted to something – be it to sugar, heroin or alcohol – Lustig has found that the brain responds to technology in much the same way it responds to other addictive substances.

“Technology, like all other ‘rewards’, can over-release dopamine and over-excite and kill neurons, leading to addiction,” he says.

Too much use of technology can cause stress in the brain, which has two negative effects. Firstly, more stress leads the brain to release cortisol, which can kill neurons on the hippocampus – the brain’s memory centre. Secondly, the stress can inactivate the brain’s prefrontal cortex, or the “executive” part of the brain, which limits dopamine and our sense of pleasure or reward. When the brain gets used to a higher level of dopamine, it wants us to keep seeking out the addictive substance or habit, explains Lustig.

Kids who are exposed to screens are more vulnerable at younger ages. So-called “high screen-diet kids”, who are raised on iPads and the like, are more prone to develop addictive behaviour when it comes to technology. These include kids who are over-exposed to Minecraft in first grade or to social media in adolescence. The result is mood disregulation when they have their screens taken away.

“You see the exact same withdrawal symptoms with screen addiction that you see with substance addiction. I’m not saying that screens are as lethal as heroin, but they’re certainly as addictive,” says Kardaras on fatherly.com.

Signs of digital dependence:

Even if a child is not addicted to the extreme, parents should watch out for:

1.    Lack of interest in other activities.

2.    Constant distraction by technology. Are you unable to communicate with them when they’re using digital devices?

3.    Problematic behaviour when they’re unable to access digital devices. Are there tantrums when they’re unable to access their phones or tablets? Do they become aggressive or act out of character?

4.    Constant talk about their screen time. On occasions when they’re not using screens, do they often refer to them – for example, by discussing things they have seen or done online?

5.    Withdrawal symptoms. Do they seem anxious or upset when they can’t access their devices – and then calmer once they can?

Parents need to understand the power and the danger of the internet, and take responsibility for deciding on how your children access it. That way, you equip them with the correct skills to use, manage and incorporate technology into a balanced life.

By setting up healthy habits for screen time while they’re young, kids will be better able to take these habits into adulthood and navigate the digital world in a more mindful and productive way.

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