An alarming new documentary, Web Junkie, recently aired on the PBS television network, and alerted North Americans to radical measures being taken to curb screen addiction among children and youth in China. It is a powerful little film exposing the alarming effects on teenagers who become hooked on video games, playing dozens of hours at a time without taking breaks to eat, sleep or even go to the bathroom. Doctors in China have responded by designating “screen addiction” as a clinical disorder and established boot camp-style rehabilitation centres to treat its victims.
Internet addiction among teens may not be a diagnosed clinical disorder here, but it is now quite prevalent nearly everywhere you look—in homes, public spaces, and schools. Most North American physicians and psychologists are concerned about the screen fixation when youths are plugged in and tuned out of “live” interaction for so many hours a day that it imperils their normal, healthy development. More shockingly, it starts in early childhood with toddlers being handed cellphones or tablets to entertain themselves. By the time kids enter school, they are already hooked on the latest devices.
The PBS documentary spurred Jane Brody, Personal Health columnist for The New York Times, to take a closer look at this subterranean issue. She unearthed a 2013 policy statement on “Children, Adolescents, and the Media” approved by the the American Academy of Pediatrics. In it, the American pediatricians cited these shocking statistics from a Kaiser Family Foundation study in 2010: “The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.” Television, long a popular “babysitter,” remains the dominant medium, but the study showed that computers, tablets and cellphones were gradually taking over.
Limiting and controlling children’s screen time was identified as a new and unfamiliar responsibility for today’s parents. “Many parents seem to have few rules about use of media by their children and adolescents,” the academy stated, and two-thirds of those questioned in the Kaiser study said their parents had no rules about how much time the youngsters spent with media. Busy and stressed out parents, it appears, see the devices as handy ‘electronic passifiers’ to calm perpetually active kids and to free up young adults themselves for screen activities, including ongoing social media interactions.
Recognized experts like Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard affiliated psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, are full of advice for parents, but less so when it comes to schools. Before age 2, children should not be exposed to any electronic media, the pediatrics academy maintains, because “a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” Older children and teenagers, according to the experts, should spend no more than one or two hours a day with entertainment media, preferably with high-quality content, and spend more free time playing outdoors, reading, doing hobbies and “using their imaginations in free play.”
Heavy use of electronic media can have significant negative effects on children’s behavior, health and school performance. Recent studies have linked “simulated violence” in video games to tendencies to act violently or to become desensitized to violence around them. Habitual users may become more adept at multitasking, but, over time, lose the capacity to focus or concentrate on what is important, affecting their problem-solving abilities.
Texting is the real electronic epidemic confronting most middle schools and high schools. About one-half of American teens send and receive 60 or more text messages a day — before, in between, during and after school classes. Teenagers from 12 to 17, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study averaged 3,364 texts a month. An earlier JFK Medical Center study found that teens sent an average of 34 text messages a night after they went to bed, contributing to the problem of sleep deprivation. One University of Rhode Island researcher, Kristina Hatch, sees a direct connection between heavy use of electronic media and social withdrawal and isolation, leaving kids “lonely and depressed.”
This is not just an American social phenomenon. A 2014 report conducted by WeAreSocial revealed that every day Canadians spend 4.9 hours online on laptop or desktop computers and, in addition, 1.9 hours on mobile devices. Just over two hours a day are now spent on social media, with some 91 % on Facebook and 46% on Twitter. It would be much higher for children and teens being raised in an electronic media saturated culture.
Canadian psychologists and psychiatrists are beginning to take action to address the incidence of Internet addiction. The Canada Life Chair of Teen Mental Health at Dalhousie University, Dr. Stanley Kutcher, is keenly aware of the problem and attempting to promote preventative programs. In a few cities, such as Windsor, Ontario hospitals are responding by establishing services to offer clinical treatment to children, teens and adults struggling with video game and Internet dependency.
How widespread is the problem of Internet and screen addiction among today’s children and teens? What can parents do to limit and control children’s screen time? Where do the responsibilities of parents end and the interests of schools begin? Is there a place for Internet addiction education the emerging mental health curriculum? Should we be looking at a public education program involving students, parents and schools?