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Entertainment or addiction?

“Megan is glued to her phone texting her boyfriend and ‘bestie’. I wish I knew how to get her to cut back.”

“I haven’t figured out a good way to limit iPod/computer time yet. Sometimes I allow them an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. Then the next day, I let them play all day. I’m not consistent with it. What drives me really crazy is when we are doing something together and all of the sudden one disappears and goes to play Minecraft without me knowing (I think he/she is heading to the bathroom).”

Do these statements sound as if they’re describing your family?

It has been a few weeks since school ended and children are home for the summer. How many of them, however, are glued to their cell phones or computers?

While most children and teens enjoy using their cell phones and computers for playing games and connecting with others via social media and can do so responsibly, engaging too frequently in these types of activities—in which use becomes obsessive—may be more harmful than just being an annoying habit. “Process addictions,” such as rampant overuse of cell phones and the Internet, are becoming of increased concern because of possible health risks. Some countries in Asia, in fact, are labeling these addictions as some of their nations’ most significant public health risks.

Can kids become addicted?

As with chemical addictions, process addictions become problematic when they begin to interfere with a person’s daily functioning. For children, overuse may negatively affect physical health (obesity and sleep deprivation), academics, and socialization; may result in increased conflict at home; and, for those who drive, may increase risk of mortality related to texting or checking email when driving.

Although process addictions do not involve the use of chemicals, the impact on the brain is similar. When someone has a process addiction, chemical and biological changes occur in the brain. Just as in substance addiction, process addiction stimulates neurotransmitters in the brain that reach the “reward center.” These chemical changes are at the heart of addiction and create the “high” that supports continuation of the addictive behavior. Just as in substance addiction, the brain “craves” this high; without it, the person may display symptoms of withdrawal such as anger and irritability. When the external stimuli are not introduced, the person may experience depression and anxiety. In fact, studies of the brain using positron emission tomography scans have shown how the brain is stimulated when individuals are shown pictures of devices or chemicals to which they are addicted.

A red flag arises when a child or teen continues the compulsive behavior despite experiencing negative consequences such as poor attendance at school, failing grades, increased conflict with parents, or missing work. Unfortunately, as with other addictions, a compulsion to continue use may exist even after the person stops using the device. This means the person will need to make behavioral changes to manage triggers that promote continued use..

Problems resulting from addiction

Concerns arise when children—as with adults—start using these devices as a way to relieve feelings of boredom or to escape negative emotions such as depression or loneliness. I have observed instances in which adolescents have spent an entire paycheck purchasing games to play on their phones.

Some believe such obsessions may eventually lead to other addiction behavior. Children with a familial history of addiction may be particularly vulnerable. In a time in which we are treating children who have started using marijuana and alcohol as young as nine years of age, this is of distinct concern.

In addition, there are the well-publicized issues around cyber-bullying through social media or texting (which has been associated with some suicides among victims), along with an increase in “sexting” (sending graphic messages and photos to one another).

Many of the behavioral issues we encounter with young people who spend a great amount of time in front of the screen are related to academics. During the school year, these activities may lead to poor attendance, failing grades, and increased conflict at home particularly when parents attempt to monitor or set limits on use.

Children and teens may be up late at night texting or using social media and are too tired to get up for school in the morning. When they do go to school, they may be irritable most of the day. They are not able to focus and concentrate on academics.

Overuse also can negatively affect peer relationships. In working with families, for example, I often have to address issues that arise between couples who have adopted texting rather than speaking as their primary form of communication with each other. Because texts lack the nuances of body language, facial expressions, or vocal inflections, they can easily be misinterpreted, leading to conflict.

How much is too much?

From everything I have read, it is suggested (particularly with computers) that electronic devices not be placed in the child’s room because use is then more difficult to regulate. It also is suggested that one to two hours a day of use is fine as long as the child completes other chores or tasks beforehand.

An important point: Each child or teenager should be viewed individually. If a child is doing well in school, socializing with friends and family, engaging in other activities and completing other responsibilities such as chores, there is not as much a need for concern.  If that behavior starts to deteriorate, then something may need to be addressed.

However, if a child has a pre-existing mental health issue such as depression or anxiety, being on the computer or cell phone—which is, after all, an isolating activity—could exacerbate the condition.

Some professional articles indicate that children with ADHD and autism/Asperger’s are more prone to Internet addiction. These articles usually address the addictive nature of video games. For children with autism, issues arise from the repetitive nature of the games. The implications for children with autism are that frequent use could lead to further impairment of social and communication skills as well as problems with attention.

For children with ADHD, especially those who are not medically managed, the stimulation and excitement of computer games or related media may visually facilitate the addiction. It is also thought that the stimulating nature of the games increases inattention and hyperactivity in children who have ADHD. Because many children with ADHD and autism/Asperger’s often have difficulty fitting in with peers, computer usage may become even more attractive.

Please note, however, that this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. If you suspect your child is struggling with this type of addition, please do not hesitate to speak to a trained family counselor. Internet and cell phone addictions are real and can have serious consequences if left untreated.

Patricia O’Donnell, MS, NCC, LPC, CAADC
Clinical Director, Drug and Alcohol Services
Diakon Family Life Services

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