Health & Fitness Kids Parenting Wellness

Let’s talk about screen addiction

Technology is here to stay, says Dr Quratulain Zaidi. So, we have to learn to manage how we engage with it – and how our children engage with it.

Recently, on a panel discussion at a parenting conference, I was asked by a mother from the audience, “Can an 18-month baby be addicted to screens?” It was shocking to hear that for myself as a parent and a psychologist, and for almost everyone in the room. Yet, screen addiction is a problem that is becoming far more prevalent.

There are two established organisations that classify mental disorders: the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the American Psychiatric Association. Classification of addiction has to meet certain criteria before it’s considered pathological behaviour, and this has to be backed up with validated research. In January 2018, “video gaming addiction” was listed by WHO as a disorder. At the same time, a standardised diagnosis of “internet addiction disorder” is yet to be officially established; it’s listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a disorder that needs more research.

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In general, internet addiction disorder (sometimes referred to as problematic internet use or pathological internet use) can be subdivided into varying categories. Among the most commonly identified of these are:

• gaming;
• social networking;
• emailing;
• blogging;
• online shopping; and
• inappropriate internet pornography use.

“Social media addiction” is another term that is being researched by scientists today. Recent studies carried out in the UK show that a technological compulsion like social media addiction comes with all the behavioural signals that are associated with chemical addictions. The most important sign is whether or not a person can differentiate between healthy use, and a relationship with social media sites that is negatively affecting their life. These negative effects can be seen in the form of physical impairments, social and functional impairments, and emotional impairments.

Internet addiction disorder is thought to affect the pleasure centre of the brain. The addictive behaviour triggers a release of dopamine to promote the pleasurable experience, activating its release – and, like most addictions, more and more of the activity is needed to induce the same pleasurable response, creating a dependency.

Mind N life screen addictions kids

How it affects children

Recent studies have shown the impact that screen exposure can have on children across a wide range of areas:

• Screen use (TV and interactive-screen media) distracts parents and impairs parent-infant interaction.
• “Heavier media multi-taskers” show differences in cognition, psychosocial behaviour and brain structure.
• Language and attention development are negatively associated with screen media exposure before the age of two.
• High exposure to screens has been found to negatively affect language use and acquisition, attention, cognitive development and executive function in children younger than five years.
• Screen media exposure (and TV in particular) distracts infants and disrupts their behaviour.
• Among youths, digital and social media use is associated with lower life satisfaction, increased anxiety and depression, decreased empathy and disrupted person-to-person interaction. These findings are disturbing for us as parents, and responsibility lies with us to guide the younger generation of “cyber citizens”. What we can do These are the most recent guidelines for screen use published by the American Academy of Paediatrics:
• For children under the age of two, it’s strongly advised to avoid giving them screen time altogether (except video-chatting apps like Skype and FaceTime)
• For children aged two to six years, limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programming. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
• For children aged six years and older, limit screen use to one to two hours per day. Place consistent limits on the time spent using media and the types of media being used, and make sure screen time doesn’t take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviour essential to health.

Beyond this, there are some recommendations around the ways parents can ensure healthy media consumption in the home:

• Turn off devices during schoolwork or learning.
• Discourage eating while watching TV or movies or while playing video games.
• Limit exposure to scary or intense media.
• Create media-free zones, such as the bedroom or the dining table.
• Carefully monitor children’s exposure to advertising online or on TV.
• Model the behaviours you want to see in your children: so, limit your own use of TV and digital technology.
• Maintain a dialogue with them about online citizenship and safety (sexting and online pornography, for example), including treating others with respect both online and offline.

Are we, as parents, fostering a generation of internet addicts? In my experience, what I notice around me in more recent times is that eye-to-eye contact is decreasing as eye-to-screen contact is increasing. Technology is here to stay and it’s an amazing tool, yet it is up to us how much time we allocate towards it. Even though we are the cyber “immigrants” and our children are cyber citizens, and the digital landscape is constantly changing, the same parenting rules apply.

Parents play an important role in helping children and teens navigate the media environment, just as they help them learn how to behave when offline. So, when an 18-month-old baby seemingly is addicted to the screen or cries for the screen to be on, you as the parent need to take charge and say no, and put some guidelines into place.

Dr Quratulain Zaidi is a clinical psychologist specialising in individuals, families, couples and teen issues including cyber safety, teen parenting, bullying , eating challenges and self-harm. Her private practice, MindNLife, is in Central. 6347 9955 | mindnlife.com

See more in our kids section:

ADHD and teens: How to help

Tips on how to help your child handle bullying

This article first appeared in the August/September 2018 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.