A mother bought her six-year-old son an iPad for school, thinking it would help him, as the school seemed to endorse using technology and he loved reading. After initially playing educational games, he discovered the game Minecraft, which mum thought was "just like electronic Lego". At first, he seemed engaged in creative play as he explored the cube-world — it all seemed very innocent, albeit with the requirement that you had to kill animals and find rare minerals to survive. Also, the school had a Minecraft club, so surely this was a good activity.
However, there were changes in his character. He started losing interest in sports and reading in favour of the game. He even started dreaming about it. Temper tantrums followed whenever she attempted to remove the iPad. It became clear that something was seriously wrong. “He was supposed to be asleep, but what I found was him sitting up in his bed staring wide-eyed, his eyes looking into the distance, trance-like.” She tried to snap him out of his torpor, as she couldn't understand how her clever son had become so addicted to a game. We now know that all these devices are a form of digital drug.
Now, here’s a thing — Steve Jobs was a notoriously low-tech parent. Silicon Valley tech executives and engineers enroll their kids in no-tech Waldorf Schools. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page went to no-tech Montessori Schools, as did Amazon creator Jeff Bezos and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Many parents intuitively understand that glowing screens are having a negative effect on kids. Worse, though, we see children becoming bored, apathetic, uninteresting and uninterested when not plugged in. We now know that those iPads, smartphones and Xboxes affect the brain’s frontal cortex — which controls executive functioning, including impulse control — in exactly the same way that cocaine does. Technology is so hyper-arousing that it raises dopamine levels — the feel-good neurotransmitter most involved in the addiction dynamic — even as much as sex.
This addictive effect is why Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, calls screens “electronic cocaine” and Chinese researchers call them “digital heroin.” In addition, hundreds of clinical studies show that screens increase depression, anxiety and aggression, and this can even lead to psychotic-like features where the video gamer loses touch with reality.
Treatment can be challenging, and the general wisdom is that it's easier to treat heroin and crystal meth addicts than video gamers or Facebook-dependent social media addicts. Many eight to ten-year-olds spend eight hours a day with various digital media, while teenagers typically spend eleven hours in front of screens. So, once a person crosses over the line into full-blown addiction, they need to detox before other kinds of therapy can have any chance of being effective. With tech, that means a full digital detox — no computers, no smartphones, no tablets. The prescribed amount of time is four to six weeks and is the amount of time usually required for a hyper-aroused nervous system to reset itself. However, digital temptations are everywhere, so how do we do this? The key is to prevent your four-to-eight-year-old from getting hooked on screens to begin with. Replace iPads with books instead of running to Minecraft; nature and sports instead of TV.
Talk to your child about why you are limiting their screen access. Don’t ever allow tech at the table, and use art. Art engages children and allows them to express themselves. While having a creative session, you can explain the dangers of video games and how some people find it so difficult to stop. Children are quick to understand, and they may well observe the changes in their friends who have too much screen time.
Developmental psychologists understand that children’s healthy development involves social interaction, creative imaginative play and an engagement with the real, natural world. Unfortunately, the immersive and addictive world of screens stunts those processes. We also know that, if children feel alone, alienated, purposeless and bored, they are more prone to addictive escape. The solution, therefore, is often to help them to connect to meaningful, real-life experiences and flesh-and-blood relationships. The engaged child utilising creative activities and connected to his or her family is less likely to escape into the digital fantasy world. Therefore, you should make sure that your child's education is engaging and entertaining. If the child is bored, it's more likely that the digital world will occupy the entire attention of the kid. Consider the school your child goes to. Is the school good for your child?
So use a desktop computer in a healthier way, researching other aspects and interests. Be vigilant and remain a positive and proactive force with the child’s tech usage — because, as with any addiction, relapse can sneak up in moments of weakness. Making sure that they have healthy outlets, no computer in the bedroom and nightly tech-free dinner at the dinner table is part of the solution.