A Parental Call of Duty for Problematic Internet/Technology Use in Children

Two kids with tabletThe relationship between the Internet, video games, mobile technology, and mental health continues to be a hot button issue. With ever-increasing numbers of children, teens, and adults carrying smartphones, laptops, and tablets, access to the online universe has never been so open.

Although many of us are able to balance technology in these areas in a responsible way, the ability to manage this unprecedented access to information and immediate gratification poses a major challenge to others. Poor management of the technology can lead to problems at home, school, and work, as well as in relationships, especially among young people. Growing numbers of parents are becoming increasingly concerned that they are losing their children to screens.

But while the vast majority of young people appear to be able to play video games in a recreational and healthy way, there are certain groups of youngsters who show major problems trying to balance video game playing with other areas of their life. Hardcore gamers understandably resent the implication that they are “addicts.” Just because someone has a recreational passion for playing amazingly vivid and engaging video games does not make it a problem.

But many kids get so drawn into the world of multiuser online games that they have a hard time setting reasonable limits and can spend upwards of 5-10 hours a day (sometimes more) playing, all the while neglecting important school, social, and family obligations. This is where the problem can begin.

To be fair, young people aren’t the only ones misusing technology. Many adults and parents find themselves staring at their smartphones and tablets when they should be making eye contact with their friends, family members, and colleagues. Parents in need of a break are increasingly using laptops, tablets, and smartphones as technological pacifiers for their toddlers and young children. And couples may find themselves having more arguments over how excessive use of technology—checking work emails remotely, social networking, playing games—interferes with their relationship.

What is going on?

In this article, I will share what I have learned over the past couple of years as a psychologist, specifically relating to the individuals and families who have come to me for help with significant behavioral and emotional issues that came about due to excessive and problematic use of technology. I have worked with too many families who did not see the problems coming, so my aim is to help parents better understand what to look for so they might prevent issues from escalating.

But before we go any further, I want to clarify a couple of things. First, as of the writing of this article, there is no official psychiatric diagnosis of “Internet Addiction” or “Video Game Addiction.” Thus, I prefer to speak of these issues in terms of “problematic,” “excessive,” or “compulsive” technology use (Heron & Shapira, 2003; Meerkerk, 2009). These terms avoid the label “addict” and describe a behavior that still warrants concern.

I also want to disclose my own stance on technology. In my opinion, the devices we have at our disposal today are extraordinary! The phone I carry in my pocket is not only a portable computer with Internet access, but also a camera, camcorder, music player, portable movie theater, news/book/magazine reader, and GPS device! It allows me to communicate in a multitude of mediums, with small and large audiences, via texts, tweets, social networks, email, and even through live video broadcasting! I can turn it into a scanner, a mobile banker, an alarm clock, a language translator, and even a flashlight! I’ll stop there. You get the point.

As you can gather, I am pro-technology. I use my smartphone every day in countless ways that have made my life easier and more productive. But I also must admit that there have been situations when I used my phone at the wrong time, in a rude way, and in a way that disconnected me from others, rather than to stay connected and present with the people around me. I think most of us, if we’re being honest, would admit the same.

So, here’s one root of the problem: the same device that is such a power for good is also capable of stirring up social, emotional, interpersonal, academic, and, in some cases, even legal problems. For some people, these issues can be remedied rather easily. For others, it’s not so easy.

What separates those of us who can survive the night after putting away our smartphones when we walk in the door, from those who become paralyzed with anxiety and plagued with obsessive thoughts about what we might be missing?

What separates those kids who can turn off their game consoles without a hitch, fully understanding they need to eat, shower, and complete their homework, from those who continually request 10, 15, 20 more minutes, who engage in heated yelling matches with their parents, and who become verbally and sometimes even physically aggressive when their parents ultimately decide to unplug the device?

The answer is… we don’t know all the answers yet. However, we do have clues about some of the factors that lead to such problems. While more research is certainly needed, I have learned some things through my own clinical practice that I find helpful.

Here are ten things I think every parent should know:

  1. Video game playing can be a healthy form of recreation. Like everything else, it’s healthier when we engage in it with moderation and balance.
  2. Just because someone loves a certain game and enjoys playing it, does not mean they are addicted to it. Again, think about moderation and balance. But by using the term “addicted,” we run the risk of trivializing addiction and creating more confusion about what is actually taking place. Parents: be careful not to call your son or daughter “addicted” in a mean way. They will tune you out just as you tend to tune out people who treat you rudely. If you feel your child is spending excessive amounts of time using technology, sit down and have a respectful conversation about their behaviors that worry you (see #5).
  3. I have observed that people who are depressed, anxious, frustrated, angry, socially uneasy, bored, and lonely—or some combination of these—tend to spend excessive time engaged with online technology and/or video game playing and have more problems associated with their usage. It is not clear whether excessive use of technology causes these symptoms or whether it becomes a way to “self-medicate” (i.e., regulate feelings) when a person is already feeling socially anxious, stressed out, depressed, bored, or angry. Either way, if you notice that these symptoms are lingering and the amount of time on the technology is getting out of hand, it may be time to seek help.
  4. While it may feel good in the moment, excessive use of video games/online devices is not an ideal long-term coping strategy. Many teens who are hooked on technology will say the following types of things: “At least I’m not using drugs,” or “At least I’m not out doing bad things that other kids are doing.” While these statements may be true, if their technology use becomes more than just a temporary escape, it can create more problems that just add more stress (see #5). Burying oneself in a computer or video game is passive and avoidant. We ought to teach our children how to cope with their problems in active and assertive ways.
  5. The typical problems I have noticed in connection with problematic use of technology include: major drop in grades or work productivity; neglecting important responsibilities (at home, with friends/family, at school); increase in arguments with close family/friends; increase in irritability and anger when access to the technology is limited or cut off; constantly thinking about the technology when access is limited or cut off; major loss in sleep due to excessive use; and using the technology to escape having to deal with something uncomfortable (e.g., intense emotions, relationships, school work).
  6. People with major social anxiety and/or poor social skills tend to gravitate towards excessive video gaming and Internet use. Most likely, this is due to the anonymous nature of connecting with others online. It may be easier and less anxiety-provoking to engage in conversations and interact socially online than it is face-to-face. Unfortunately, when less time is spent interacting in live social situations, people can become more socially anxious, which may make them more likely to avoid social situations in the future. Over time this can increase social isolation, which could trigger or exacerbate symptoms of depression. Some people feel very self-confident in the virtual online world, but when they are in a room with other people they may feel nervous and suffer lower self-confidence.
  7. Students who have either a diagnosed or an undiagnosed learning disability also tend to gravitate towards excessive technology use. A pattern I commonly see is the following: The parent of a bright student calls me, describing a notable decline in their child’s academic performance, an increase in social isolation, a decrease in social activities they used to engage in, and an increase in arguments about excessive use (of video games/Internet). This typically occurs as the student’s workload becomes more challenging—e.g., when coursework that requires reading and writing becomes more demanding (often between 9th, 10th and 11th grades). The student becomes frustrated and uses the Internet and/or video game as a means of coping and escaping their frustration. Unfortunately, the time they could be using to study and get extra practice is spent unproductively using an electronic device. To make things more confusing for parents, the very computer the student uses for school work is the same computer that offers so many tempting online distractions. It’s important for parents to be compassionate yet firm with their children here. Way too often, I have noticed parents berating and criticizing their children for their excessive use of technological devices (which the parents, by the way, put in their hands) without clearly explaining and enforcing clear limits. Compassion will help a parent have a more productive conversation with their child. Establishing and enforcing limits that are clear and reasonable will send the message that the parent is being responsible and competent in taking care of their child’s well-being.
  8. While we clearly have a lot more to learn about the mechanisms, course, and addictive properties of problematic video gaming and technology usage, I believe it’s important to set limits and intervene as early as possible. When students’ grades and productivity are thrown off track by the time they are in high school, it undermines their ability to get back on a good academic or vocational path. Apathy towards working and/or going to college sets in and, as the challenges and demands increase, motivation and desire to overcome the challenges drop. If a parent sees a problem, it can’t hurt to call consult a professional. It doesn’t mean your child will be forced to take medication. And it does not mean your child is “crazy.” These are two barriers I have noticed often prevent parents from seeking help for their children. It has pained me to see bright young college students who failed out of school (even Ivy League schools) due to excessive video gaming and Internet use. For the parents, it may be an even worse pain, both emotionally and financially. The longer a parent delays taking action, the more off track their child will be, and the harder it will be for them to get their life back in order. So if you see what you think may be a problem, it can’t hurt to make a phone call.
  9. Parents need to take more responsibility for talking with their children about the responsibilities that come with the devices they put in their children’s hands. Who pays for the device? Who pays the monthly usage fees? Most kids and most teenagers do not. An electronic device is a privilege, not an entitlement. Too many kids are given these devices as if it is an inalienable right. Privileges can, and should, be earned and removed according to whether the person is being responsible and appropriate. This is how life works. Parents have an opportunity to teach their children this valuable lesson with technology devices. If you are a parent and you complain about how much your kids use technology, ask yourself this: Would you buy your child a minifridge, put it in their bedroom, and then stock it every week with a case of beer and then complain about the fact that they drink too much?
  10. Parents should set firm limits on technology time usage and should not hesitate to remove the privilege if used irresponsibly (just like the car keys). If a child becomes aggressive when the parent attempts to enforce such a limit, it may be an indication that professional help is needed. In this case, I wouldn’t blame the technology. It may be that the child has a developmental or psychiatric condition that makes it harder for them to regulate their emotions. It may be that the parent has a hard time setting and enforcing limits. Or it could be a combination of the two. Either way, help is out there. Parents should seek the help if they feel it is warranted.

As video games have turned into online social networking and multiuser worlds, and as Internet-related activities have gone increasingly mobile, children, preteens, and teenagers have been faced with an unprecedented challenge during this Age of Technology. Whether it is on a desktop or laptop computer, a tablet, or a smartphone, our children have more access today than ever before to these immediate gratification machines. These machines provide a lot of pleasure and thus they have addictive qualities that may be hard for some people to limit. They are remarkable and easily accessible alternatives to boredom and loneliness.

They are also great distractors from uncomfortable feelings, such as depression, anger, or social anxiety. They provide ways for young people to “get out” even if they cannot or are anxious to leave their house. In short, they are great “escape” machines. But keep in mind there is a difference between wanting to escape for a while, and needing to escape because you don’t have the skills, the patience, the tolerance, or the ability to cope with a situation.

So, moms and dads, we have an enormous task in front of us, as we all continue to adapt to the technological changes that seem to be occurring at the fastest pace ever in history. As a warm up, I challenge you to challenge yourselves and your children to take a weekend break from technology. Yes, a total break. Two days. No screens. Find something fun to do together. Talk to each other. Exercise together. Play games together. Experience what it feels like to be “off the grid.” Engage in real life. Can you do it?

Finally, I challenge you to consider the following as part of your Parental Call of Duty:

  • Your responsibility as parents to keep up with the technology, to know what your kids are doing online, and to know the signs to look for in your children when there may be a problem.
  • Your obligation to let your kids know what are acceptable and unacceptable ways to use technology.
  • Your time to take charge of the technology rather than let the devices take charge of you and your children.
  • Your commitment to engaging your children in ways that don’t involve an electronic device.
  • Your duty to protect your greatest resource. It’s your call.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Michael Fraser, PhD, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 11 comments
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  • Madeleine

    Madeleine

    May 15th, 2013 at 2:13 PM

    Thank you so much for this timely article. There are too many kids so tuned in online today that I think many of them have lost the ability to communicate with real live humans in the real world. This is so sad. I hate going to dinner and seeing far too many families checking their phones etc instead of u sing that valuable family time together to actually talk to one another about the things going on in their lives. I think that too many parents are using this as a crutch and they are failing to communicate and connect with their children in a way that will be so useful to them in the future. I am all for keeping up with new technological advances but I don’t want my own children to be raised on a computer screen. Family relationships are simply too valuable to let go like that.

  • Karenna

    Karenna

    May 16th, 2013 at 3:52 AM

    Wouldn’t it be wise to use some kind of filtering system so that your kids wouldn’t have access to sites or sites with specific content?
    I know that this isn’t a shield that you can plan to always be able to use, but I think that if something like this is available then that would be a good thing for parents to look into.
    It is just too easy for them to get to websites with questionable content, things that you might not ever want them to be exposed to. I know you can’t protect them from everything, but you can keep trying.

  • Sally High

    Sally High

    May 16th, 2013 at 4:46 AM

    I have worked with many adolescents, children and even adults that are lost to this world of video gaming. Although there is no official diagnosis coined yet for video game addiction, I feel it falls under the category of addiction and fits the same criteria. The obsessive thinking, inability to stop playing the games, isolation from others, increased anxiety when not playing, loss of connection from the real world, decrease in daily functioning, drop in grades or work performance). This sounds like addiction to me! Games such as Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, etc are harming our children and creating a false spence of reality! I agree with this post that parents must be vigilant about the amount of time our kids are playing, what games they are playing, etc. If adults don’t step up and monitor and regulate their child’s access to these games, it can have devastating effects on their lives and personal growth into adulthood. By seeking a therapist or treatment for gaming addiction parents and our youth can learn to create balance, look for signs and symptoms, and educate themselves of this increasing problem society is facing today.

  • Sally High

    Sally High

    May 16th, 2013 at 4:53 AM

    Parents become more aware of the advancements in technology and how it is affecting our culture. Adults as well as adolescents today have thousands of social media apps, games, etc that distract us and leave us detached from one another. Children need our undivided attention. Put down the phone, step away from the computer and be present in the here and now! Set a good example for your children and help yourself as well reconnect with reality and be present and engaged in what is going on in day to day life. Seeking counseling can be helpful to learn how to balance your life and be active in the present without all of the distractions so easily at our disposal.

  • lori

    lori

    May 17th, 2013 at 4:03 AM

    Ha! Parents know that if they start to call out their children about their computer usage then they might in turn get called out too! I see families where the kids may try to engage with one parent or another, but the mom or dad is too busy checking email and looking at what is going on at work. I don’t want to be like that, but I know that I have been guilty of it too. Parents need to be that role model for that idea that there is a time for everything, but family time has to be held sacred. Because if the adults don’t do that then what makes you think that the children are even going to remotely think that that time together is important?

  • Mason Young

    Mason Young

    May 18th, 2013 at 5:48 AM

    Why does the use of technology always have to be viewed as a problem? It is what our workd today revolves around, we all have to have it in our lives, so what’s the big deal?
    You can’t shield your children from everything all the time and I think that if you are involved in your kids lives you will talk to them about online safety and stuff like that that they need to know about. I just don’t see the harm in kids being tech savvy and learning from an early age how technology can impact their lives in positive ways too.
    They or any of us are going nowhere without it.

  • Tate steele

    Tate steele

    May 20th, 2013 at 5:04 AM

    we want advances, we want to get ahead, and yet we don’t want our kids to use it? doesn’t make sense

  • Michael Fraser

    Michael Fraser

    May 20th, 2013 at 10:14 AM

    With all due respect, the past two comments posted on this thread are indicative of what I believe is yet another challenge technology has created. Specifically, I am referring to what Nicholas Carr described in his article on the effects of “Google” on our thought processes (Atlantic, 2008). In short, he pointed out that rather than read with depth, we tend to skim the surface.
    To address Tate’s concern, I certainly wouldn’t (and didn’t) suggest that our children shouldn’t use technology. And to address Mason’s comment, I don’t view technology as the problem. In fact, I specifically wrote the opposite in my article. I enjoy healthy discussion on this topic, and I think it’s important that one read an article in full prior to expressing opinions that could mischaracterize the writer’s words and intentions.

    Tate and Mason- I agree with you both that technology in and of itself is not the problem, and that we absolutely need to teach our children how to use it responsibly. Teaching them to read, digest and process information (depth work) prior to formulating an opinion is a valuable place to begin.

  • Ciaran O'Connor

    Ciaran O'Connor

    July 31st, 2013 at 2:37 AM

    Thanks for this article, Michael. You’re way ahead of me! I’m a therapist in Brighton, UK and while I’ve not yet had a client for whom excessive gaming has been an issue, I do work with a number of young people for which gaming has clearly taken too much of a hold.

    As a gamer myself I have generated a strong interest in this – I’m going to be running a group specifically around gaming addiction up at my local university. Your article was a great read. I specifically like the way you’ve steered away from the concept of addiction, something that my drug and alcohol colleagues are doing at the moment.

    I have a belief, based on Przybylski et al’s ‘Dualistic Model of Passion’ (2009) and my own experiences that as long as a player is enjoying their gaming, they are not gaming excessively. When a gamer starts to play for other ends such as avoiding their family, gaining a sense of control they feel they lack elsewhere, keeping up with their guild members etc they are not actually enjoying themselves. This is when I believe it risks becoming harmful. Be good to connect on this and share ideas, feel free to contact me!

    Thanks again!

  • Donna

    Donna

    September 3rd, 2013 at 4:53 AM

    I understand use of multi player games to just play a good game is all right. However when someone starts to game as a mere excuse to real interactions, to avoid important school work or to just feel little well then that is a concern. Sometimes parents don’t understand the problem due to its complications and it is important to seek help as addressed by the writer. One of the comments I read, stated things would have been easier if parents could simply block objectionable websites and badcontent online… and yes there definitely parental and monitoring applications and software that can do the much needed task of 24/7 monitoring. The smartphone and tablet monitoring software like Mobile Spy and parental monitoring software like PhoneSheriff comes with logging of all major phone/tablet activities like websites visited, emails sent/received, apps installed, photos clicked, IM and Chat logs, GPS details of the phone and its users, mess, message logging, contact logs, call logs, calendar logs etc. One can hear silently the background of the phone too and click stealth pictures with the phone or tablet’ camera. Parents and proactive employers can block phone access during certain times. The application is fully stealth and very robust in taking care of the harmful effects of Internet today.

  • Mary Beth Buckwald

    Mary Beth Buckwald

    October 3rd, 2013 at 12:35 PM

    I realize I am late in reading this article. I really enjoyed it, but for a slightly reason. Being a speech and language pathologist, I am looking at this from a different perspective, which is the impact of technology on developing language in our children. Speaking specifically about younger children, it is concerning to me that some parents are quite satisfied with the computer and/or ipad as educational enrichment at home. While the feeling might be it is “better than TV”, children still do need interactive learning. While on the computer or when playing with a hand held device they are missing valuable language skill development. This serves as an important role in the later development of problem solving, verbal expression, social language skills and overall communicative effectiveness.
    Parents should also be aware as to how often their children are “plugged in”, as it is during those times they are missing out on listening to what is going on around them. How can children learn how to have a conversation if they cannot hear one? I realize that sometimes those headphones come in handy, but our kids learn a lot from hearing us converse. I am not talking about the content of the conversation, but rather the structure of the conversation; the exchange of information, the turn taking, the commenting and questioning.
    Years go by and now that same child has suddenly turned from that cute 6 year old in the back seat watching the Disney DVD with headphones on to the teenager driving the car. What? It really does seem that fast! He has that first job interview soon. He says he is fine. Parents…Have a conversation with him and make sure. A good job interview is like a good conversation and there are definitely elements of each that this generation is not getting on a daily basis. It is a new world, full of amazing possibilities. As a parent of three young adults and a professional who sees children and adolescents for a variety of communication issues, we need to be aware that children still need certain things in order to development into happy, self-sufficient adults.
    Google cannot teach them everything.

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