Can our children actually be addicted to technology?
This is a question I’ve been wrestling with lately, so when CommonSenseMedia released the results of a recent study they conducted, I was intrigued.
They asked more than 1200 parents and their teens about their own tech use and their perceptions of other family members. You can read the executive summary, but here are a few of their findings:
- 58% of parents feel their teens are addicted to their mobile devices, and 50% of teens admit to feeling addicted.
- 66% of parents feel their teens spend too much time on their devices, and 52% of teens agree.
- 72% of teens and 48% of parents feel the need to immediately respond to texts and social media notifications.
- 69% of parents and 78% of teens say they check their devices hourly.
Parents aren’t off the hook
Just as telling are the findings on what the teens say about their parents’ tech use.
While 77% of parents say that their teens are distracted by their devices and don’t pay attention when they are together, a convicting 41% of teens say the same thing about their parents’ device usage.
56% of parents admit (admit) to texting while driving. And 51% of those new teen drivers say they see their parents using their devices while driving.
Is it addiction?
I’ve heard people throw around the term addiction when it comes to kids and cell phones, but I’ve always felt a little uneasy about that usage.
First, I think it lessens the impact that real addictions have on people, their bodies, their relationships, and their futures. Most of us have seen what an addiction to a drug, alcohol, porn, gambling, etc. has done to the addict. Is this really a fair comparison?
I’m not a psychologist or an expert in behavioral science (beyond hanging around teenagers a LOT for the past two decades), so I had to look it up.
According to the American Psychology Association, addiction is “a condition in which the body must have a drug to avoid physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. Addiction’s first stage is dependence, during which the search for a drug dominates an individual’s life. An addict eventually develops tolerance, which forces the person to consume larger and larger doses of the drug to get the same effect.”
One of the greatest challenges, indeed a defining characteristic of, any addiction is the physically or emotionally painful withdrawal symptoms.
So, as much as we joke about it sometimes, am I really going to go through that kind of genuine anguish if you take my cell phone away for a couple weeks?
The American Psychiatric Association has a slightly different definition that gets a little closer to our subject of tech use.
Addiction is a complex condition, a chronic brain disease that causes compulsive substance use despite harmful consequences. People with addiction (substance use disorder) have an intense focus on using a certain substance, such as alcohol or drugs, to the point that it takes over their life.
It goes on to define a rewiring in the brain and behavioral changes that may lead to difficulties at home, work, and social settings.
As with all addictions, “the first step is recognizing that there is a problem.”
Whether “tech addiction” is a real thing (or not), this strategy is a good one. This is why I cringe whenever I hear about classes or schools banning technology as a solution for the overuse of devices. It’s a salve (for the adults, anyway), but doesn’t get at the root.
Every year, I seem to become more and more cognizant of my own device usage, including how often I check my phone or social media, how much time I waste online when I could be doing something more meaningful, or how often I’m on a device when friends or family are in my presence.
This awareness, I believe, is something we must teach our children. While many of us have a non-tech background or remember a non-tech childhood and can see the benefits of being unplugged, our children need our assistance in appreciating this balance in their own lives.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse advocates the use of medication in the treatment of some addictions, but I also read this:
Therapy can help addicted individuals understand their behavior and motivations, develop higher self-esteem and cope with stress.
I can think of a dozen things off the top of my head that will improve their self-esteem and decrease their stress way more than spending an additional hour on their devices.
If that sounds like an anti-technology statement, it isn’t meant to be. It is, rather, intensely personal.
I know what too much screen time does for me. As a matter of fact, half-way through drafting this post, I realized I’d been on a screen so long that I was feeling the physical effects and that “tech-fuzziness” that sets in. A quick walk outside, some fresh air, and I was ready to dive in again with some clarity and focus. (Hopefully?)
And that is the key advantage that we parents bring to the table when talking to our kids about tech. No, we may not be as versed on the latest app or as comfortable in an online environment as these so-called digital natives are. But we have a whole chunk of life experience without devices and a whole chunk of life experience with devices.
It is our job to share with them each of those experiences.
My own (totally unqualified) conclusion
You can tell someone that they are becoming too dependent on technology. Go ahead and accuse them of becoming way out of balance with their technology use. You can even tell them it’s affecting their brain-wiring or their behavior.
But, with the possible exception of internet gaming addiction, I don’t think our use (and even overuse) of devices can be classified as an addiction.
[Note: I’d like to apologize here to any and all of my readers who actually are qualified behavioral specialists. Please correct me if I’m way off on this. I’m just here to learn.]