When is staring into a screen for hours entertainment - and when is it a problem?
Published in Leadership for Student Activities, March 2011, Vol. 39, No. 7.
National Association of Student Councils
It's often a joke among parents, who recite the hours their children spend online, texting, or playing computer games. But then you detect the hint of worry in their voice. And experts say they have reason to be concerned.
Internet / Computer Addiction Services in Redmond, WA, estimates that 6% to 10% of the approximately 189 million Internet users in the United States have a technology dependency that "can be as destructive as alcoholism."
Two other studies showed that 10% of South Korean youth are considered to be at high risk for Internet addiction and 18% of British students were considered to be pathological Internet users whose excessive use of the Internet was causing academic, social, and interpersonal problems.
"There are no official DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - the guidebook to mental and emotional issues] diagnoses for video game or Internet addiction," says Dr. Brent Conrad, a clinical psychologist at St. Mary's university in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who has studied the issue and provides a website on it (www.TechAddiction.ca).
Whether Internet addiction should be included in future versions of the DSM is often debated in the mental health community, but there is no question that some children and teens play far too much and that this can cause significant difficulties in other areas of functioning - most notably with family relationships and academic performance, he says.
Conrad says that he often works with teens who spend 40 or more hours a week playing online games - the equivalent of a full-time job. And that is not unusual, he says. "It is very easy to see how school performance, family relationships, and physical health would be negatively affected by this level of play."
He says parents often described "lost potential" of students who spend too much time in front of a screen, and notes that one of the things research is starting to suggest is that people who become addicted to video games and online worlds are often very intelligent and high achievers at school or work.
"I can recall a number of really smart kids who watched A's become D's and F's as their online time increased. Parents and teachers start to feel that they are losing this child to the virtual world, that they are being influenced too much by their gaming or online friends (many of whom they have never met in person), and that their child is missing out on real world activities."
Conrad sees these issues:
Significant drop in grades
Increased family conflict
Poor eating habits (extended online sessions tend to lead to unhealthy snacking)
Poor physical health (excessive gamers may give up physical activities to spend more time online)
Poor sleep habits (this is especially true when the computer or console is in the child's room)
Fewer social connections with real world friends
Increased irritability - especially when he/she is unable to go online
Decreased interest in taking advantage of other opportunities (e.g., joining teams or clubs at school, extracurricular activities, going on vacations or outings with family)
His advice for student groups:
"I think parents and educators must accept it that this technology is absolutely here to stay. We now have the ability to be connected to the online world 24 hours a day regardless of where we happen to be. Adolescents have especially embraced this technology and it is not uncommon to see a group of teens standing together, yet all looking down at their phones, not each other. For a student organization to bring attention to this issue, I think it is critical that the focus is on the importance of maintaining balance in one's life - that is, a balance between online and off-line interactions. Any group that presents technology, gaming, or online interactions is inherently bad will have a very difficult time achieving 'buy-in' from adolescents."
He says that to bring attention to this issue, especially for adolescents, student leaders need to show how it is directly relevant to students. They are unlikely to be influenced by the results of an obscure (for them) journal article on unhealthy online habits - this is just too easy to dismiss.
So how could a student organization do something with a little more impact?
Good information presented by peers in a nonthreatening way might help. Just getting students to be aware of what they are missing with their abuse of technology would be helpful. A student group could creatively promote a survey in which students could track their use of technology - then see firsthand how much time they're spending.
Another strategy involves incorporating a mini-assessment on Internet and videogame habits into the curriculum in a way that still meets learning objectives, Conrad says. Of course, the student group would have to enlist the cooperation of teachers.
For example, one component of a math class might require students to keep track of their online or videogame habits for one week. The data are then collected and analyzed at a level appropriate for the class (for example, graphs and charts for lower grades, standard deviation and statistical prediction for older students). Doing so would not only engage the students in the learning objectives, but could also provide a wealth of information about use of technology.
For more, see TechAddiction's index of video game and internet addiction articles or download How To Help Children Addicted to Video Games - A Guide For Parents.
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