Dr Richard Graham is technology lead and consultant psychiatrist at Nightingale Hospital, he shares his insight into technology addiction, the signs parents should look out for and top tips to help parents and children get back into balance.
What is technology addiction?
When people feel an uncomfortable sense of withdrawal when not online, we know that the relationship with technology is not being managed properly. Nightingale Hospital has an online test that assesses the extent of one’s relationship with technology addiction – taking this test is an important first step in ascertaining whether technology use is abnormal or problematic. http://www.nightingalehospital.co.uk/test/technology-addiction-test/
Of course we need technology in our lives and parents often use technology as a means for teaching their children or keeping them occupied on flights, train journeys or whilst doing chores around the house. Children also see their parents constantly using their phones and this behaviour is imitated by children who want to use their parents’ iPhones and iPads; not only is it impossible to avoid, it brings a whole host of benefits. It can however, begin to take over children and adolescent’s lives as they spend more and more time online, plugged in and checking Facebook and other forms of online social engagement. This can become a compulsion to constantly be plugged in so that we don’t ever risk feeling that we are missing out, or stepping off a ladder. The by-product of this is that we are seeing more and more young people addicted to technology.
What signs should parents look out for?
For children who are addicted to technology, it is the primacy about the way they feel when using technology and they find that the buzz they experience when using technology is not achievable in another way. Children who are not addicted may get a buzz from a range of activities, not just technology. If a child is displaying signs of severe distress and agitation when separated from technology, then we know that there is an unhealthy dependence.
It is important that we can find the right balance between maximising the benefits of new technologies without forming an unhealthy dependence. When electronic devices start to have more influence over behaviour than anyone else or anything else, that is the moment when really you need to start changing things. Parents should ask themselves the following questions:
- Does your child ignore and avoid other activities to spend more time using devices?
- Does your child talk a lot about when they will be allowed to be back to being online when they are offline?
- Does your child argue with or feel criticised by parents about the amount of time they spend online?
- Does your child feel tense or bad if they can’t get online (a feeling which noticeably goes away when they are allowed to get back online)?
- Does your child hide or become defensive about what they do online?
How is technology addiction treated?
Technology and its use in the modern world is unavoidable and extremely helpful. Therefore treatment programmes centre upon controlled withdrawal, which may start with a few days of complete abstinence followed by a controlled reintroduction. After the initial 72 hour detox, the treatment varies according to the severity of the case and the level of adaption. Initially they will show distress and signs of withdrawal, much like any addict would feel. The challenge starts when we reintroduce technology back into their lives in a controlled manner, as technology is an integral part of our everyday lives it is important that a good relationship habit is established. Re-forming habits by breaking down old ones and establishing new ones can take many weeks.
It is important to restrict the time children spend using technology to help prevent forming an unhealthy dependence. Techniques include ensuring prolonged periods where children are focused on the ‘real world’ and play time with other children. Establishing a maximum daily time allowance can be a good place to start. It is also about making sure adults leave their phones off or on silent during meal times and when with friends and family as children learn behaviour from their parents. Real play is a first step in reducing technology addiction and will have huge benefits for the physical, mental and developmental health of children.
Technology addiction can be particularly complex to treat because (unlike with alcohol or drugs) a patient cannot simply decide never to use a technology again. Instead, they must learn to establish a healthy relationship with technology and that is the crux of the treatment; sleep and CBT are peripheral treatments that treat conditions that can sometimes coexist with technology addiction. It is especially important for sleep hygiene that iPads and iPhones are not used before bed time, so keeping them in a different room overnight will stop both parents and children from using technology straight before, during and after sleep.
What are the benefits of technology?
There are clear examples of the positive benefits gaming can bring to health, for example, rehabilitation for stroke patients. It aids relaxation, pain reduction, and can help with brain training and mood improvement. Further research is required in terms of establishing whether gaming benefits alertness or confirming its impact on delaying the onset of dementia.
We know that many enjoyable activities, including gaming, increase dopamine and the sense of reward but games are so complex now that we can’t always know which part of the gaming experience gives the buzz that may mean some games becomes more addictive than others.
What impact can social media have on our ‘real’ lives?
The benefits of face-to-face interaction on physical and mental health have been well documented. There have been many studies that show how social interaction combats loneliness and helps extend life expectancy. Of course online communication enables us to connect with people that we cannot see face to face easily or regularly, so it serves a useful purpose and particularly the written word has always helped us communicate that which is difficult to say out loud. Indeed, some highly sensitive and intimate communications that touch the heart or mind are based on words. Yet it is important to consider how public the space is in which these communications occur, and a personal message, via SMS, or some form of ‘chat’, or even offline, may be experienced very differently from something on Facebook or Twitter.
Of course we need technology in our lives; not only is it impossible to avoid, it brings a whole host of benefits including freeing up our time. It can however, drain us of our time as we spend more and more time online, plugged in, checking: emails, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of online social engagement. This can become a compulsion to constantly be plugged in so that we don’t ever risk feeling that we are missing out, or stepping off a ladder. So it is important that we can find the right balance between maximising the benefits of new technologies without forming an unhealthy dependence. When people feel an uncomfortable sense of withdrawal when not online, we know that the relationship with technology is not being managed properly.
When electronic devices start to have more influence over behaviour than anyone else or anything else, that is the moment when really you need to start changing things. If you can leave devices without too much stress, then you have the right balance and this is what people should work towards.
Top tips to weave yourself of technology:
- “Tell everyone that you are doing a digital detox, since the more people you tell about your detox, the more people will be watching you – and the less you will want to fail.”
- “Create offline activities that feel different but pleasurable. Plan fun activities to do which can distract you from feelings of technology withdrawal and enable you to actually look forward to detox days.”
- “Establish a maximum daily time allowance for your devices in order to give yourself guidelines and help you stick to your detox.”
- “Start with a few days of complete abstinence followed by a controlled reintroduction. After a 72hr initial detox period then avoid going cold turkey and just reintroduce technology use in a controlled manner.”
- “Try storing devices in a different room to your bedroom overnight, in order to prevent using them before, during, and immediately after sleep. Also turn off all screens 2 hours before sleeping.”
- “Create ‘clean’ times and zones for the entire family.”
- “Lock devices away.”