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Detox for digital addiction among children
September 22, 2018, 5:36 pm
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Addiction might seem too harsh a term to describe the fixation that children have for spending time on their digital devices. Most people would be averse to thinking the time their children spend on smartphones, tablets or gaming devices is similar to major addictions such as gambling, drug abuse, smoking or alcoholism. However, medical experts and sociologists are increasingly concurring that obsession with the digital screen is just as disruptive to normal life as other forms of addiction.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently cautioned that video game addiction is a “mental health disorder” similar to an addiction to gambling. Reiterating this view, Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics focused on endocrinology at the University of Southern California, speaking at a conference earlier this year on the consequences of children’s obsession with their digital devices, said: “It’s not a drug, but it might as well be. It works the same way… it has the same results.”

Elaborating on the mechanisms behind the addition, Professor Lusting said: “The brain responds to technology much in the same way it responds to other addictive substances by releasing brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin that are responsible for a sense of ‘reward-motivation’ and a general feeling of well-being and happiness. Excessive of technology results in disproportionate release of these chemicals that then overexcite and destroy neurons in the brain.

“Too much use of technology also stresses the brain and leads to the release of cortisol a hormone which in excess can kill neurons in the hippocampus, the ‘memory’ center of the brain. Excess stress also inactivates the brain’s prefrontal cortex, or the ‘executive’ part of the brain, which normally limits dopamine and our sense of pleasure or reward. When the brain gets used to a higher level of dopamine, it wants us to keep seeking out the substance or habit that produces dopamine in the first place, whether it is gambling, substance abuse or digital media.”

Spending too much onscreen time transfixed on games or social media keeps children, especially adolescents, away from developing interpersonal social skills. It prevents them from spending time with family, enjoying outdoor physical activities, and forming friendships and real face-to-face relationships with peers.

In its report on the influence of technology on children and its “disturbing tradeoffs”, the United Nations’ educational organization, UNESCO, emphasized the need to rebuild in children what it called ‘transversal competencies’ — critical and innovative thinking, interpersonal skills, intrapersonal skills, global citizenship and physical and psychological health.

Signs of developing addiction among teens and toddlers include tantrums, agitation and aggression, as well as despair and depression when deprived of access to digital devices. Some of the consequences of spending too much digital time are, lack of concentration, falling grades in school, sleep deprivation, irritable temperament and social withdrawal.

Parents who spend an inordinate amount of time on their digital devices, whether engaged in talking, or in chat groups and social media postings, are as much to blame for the digital addiction of their children. It is particularly disturbing to watch toddlers who are kept engaged by their parents on digital gadgets, or left unattended as they sit transfixed to screens watching cartoons. Parents need to take responsibility for the behavior of their children and set an example by fixing digital time limits for themselves before expecting their kids to do so.

All this talk of digital addiction and hand-wringing about social media obsession among the young is creating a backlash from the very people under scrutiny. A recent survey of school-aged children in the United Kingdom found an overwhelming two-thirds of them saying they would not mind if social media had never been invented. It is also interesting that more and more young children are beginning to forego the lure of social media of their parents’ generation, such as Facebook and Twitter. However, it is disconcerting that they are finding new digital venues to fill their social media gap.

Restricting or depriving children, especially teens, from digital media will most likely be a futile exercise. But it is quite possible to change their online behavior by leveraging their innate interest in digital technology and focusing it on fun-filled productivity projects that they can relate to. Today, most teens spend their time online passively consuming content in the form of games or social media interactions. It would only be small step from here, to inspire and get them engaged in active content creation through learning coding.

Beginning with simple coding projects children could be encouraged to gain expertise in coding in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Teachers, parents, schools and web companies all have a role to play in helping children make this transition. From being dumb consumers of digital content, children could use their digital devices to gain the STEM skills critical for success in the market and economy of the 21st-century. Of course, this less of Facebook and more of coding should not come at the expense of spending more face-time with their peers.

- Staff Report

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