I just took an Internet Addiction Test (IAT). It was in a packet from an informative seminar I attended yesterday given by Holli Kenley, LMFT called, “Power Down & Parent Up: Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children”. I scored in the mild level – “you are an average on-line user. You may surf the web a bit too long at times, but you have control over your usage.” An online version of the test is available at http://www.internetoveruse.com/?p=171. Some of my higher scored items included staying longer than intended online, checking email before doing something else I need to do, neglecting chores, telling myself “a few more minutes”, and failing at cutting down the extended online time. As screen time is integral to most families and provides quick and easy access to education, business, socializing and entertainment, what is the problem?
This may be difficult to discern as screens are woven into so many aspects of our lives and mostly to great benefit. But by pulling the veil away, we find research that shows there are negative impacts of all that screen time. What happens is that screen activities stimulate the brain’s pleasure center, increasing dopamine. A continual release of large amounts of dopamine (similar to many other addictions) causes clinical and behavioral problems. Dr. Victoria Dunkley identifies a new disorder, called “Electronic Screen Syndrome” and is particularly concerned about the effects on children. Dunkley defines ESS as “…a state of dysregulation where children lack the ability to modulate mood, attention, and/or levels of arousal…” (Dunkley, 2015, p.16). The more over-stimulation, the harder it is to regulate arousal, so kids remain in a state of hyper-arousal, which causes stress and can contribute to irritability, depression, mood swings, tantrums and aggression. Gaming addiction, especially with role-playing, is particularly damaging. What all this screen time creates is a brain that is “wired and tired”. It means the child is often over stimulated by overuse of screen time, then drops into exhaustion until they hear the call to get back online. What is missing is that middle place when we are calm and able to enjoy engaging eye to eye with the live humans in our midst.
Pulling back the curtain to see the impact of screen time, especially on children, has inspired many professionals to address the issue and offer solutions. I want to thank Holli Kenley for her exhaustive list of resources. Her own booklet includes a section on cyber-bullying and offers specific guidelines to help parents change and monitor screen usage at home (Kenley, H. (2017) Power Down & Parent Up…).Here are a few of her other suggested readings. Adam Alter traces the shift from harmonious passion to obsessive passion in his 2017 book,Irresistible: The Rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked. Dr. Nicolas Kardaras, a former online gaming addict, has written about, “how to break the trance” in his 2016 book, Glow Kids: How screen addiction is hijacking our kids – and how to break the trance. Dr. Dunckleyoffers a treatment plan in her book (Dunkley, Victoria L. MD (2015), Rest your child’s brain: A four week plan to end meltdowns, raise grades and boost social skills by reversing the effects of electronic screen-time. A parent/life coach wrote this book on reconnecting (Kersting, T. (2016), Disconnected: How to reconnect our digitally distracted kids. Finally, the team from the award winning documentary, Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age, has developed the “Away For The Day” (AFTD) initiative to help transform middle schools into cell phone free spaces (awayfortheday.org).
POSTSCRIPT: I ignored my phone the entire time I was writing this piece. But to do so, I had to place it out of arms reach (harms reach, I almost wrote). I have learned that I need to be humble about my attraction to check in online when I am bored, as a distraction or as an avoidance. With that awareness, the tendency to resort to the screen is less automatic, giving me more power over my choices and you know, maybe some of those neglected chores will finally get done.