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What Is Digital Addiction?

Digital Addict is used to refer to a person who compulsively uses digital technology, which would manifest as another form of addiction if that technology was not as easily accessible to them. Colloquially, it can be used to describe a person whose interaction with technology is verging on excessive, threatening to absorb their attention above all else and consequently having a negative impact on the well-being of the user.
The primary theory is digital technology users develop digital addiction by their habitual use and reward from computer applications. This reward triggers the reward center in the brain that releases more dopamine, opiates, and neurochemicals, which overtime can produce a stimulation tolerance or need to increase stimulation to achieve a “high” and prevent withdrawal.[1]
Used as a conversational phrase, digital addict describes an increasingly common dependence on devices in the digital age. The phrase is used to highlight the possible danger in being over exposed to technology in an age where the scope for using digital technologies in everyday life is ever-increasing and the danger of becoming dependent upon them is a distinct possibility.

Founded in current research on the adverse consequences of overusing technology,[2][3] digital addict is used as an overarching phrase to suggest an increasing trend of compulsive behaviour amongst users of technological devices, recognising that over-exposure to and over-use of technology can result in a dependence on digital devices, leading to behavioural symptoms similar to any addictive disorder, as the user neglects to maintain a healthy balance between using technology and socialising outside of it.

The negative side-effects of overusing technology have in recent decades attracted increasing attention as a legitimate psychological disorder. Unrestrained use of technological devices may impact upon developmental, social, mental and physical well-being and result in symptoms akin to other behavioural addiction. Several clinics worldwide now offer treatment for internet addiction disorder,[4][5] and several studies have sought to establish a connection between the use of the internet and patterns of behaviour[6][7] Whilst not yet listed as a legitimate mental health disorder within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, in the 2013 edition (DSM-V) internet addiction disorder was recommended for further study within an appendix of the manual,[8][9] demonstrating the addictive qualities of technology as warranting further medical and academic research.

It is clear that, whilst still debated, the potential for internet or digital devices to have addictive qualities is an emerging concern. In recent years particular attention has been paid to how the over-use of technology may be affecting the younger generation. With an influx of technology designed for day-to-day use, many children are becoming increasingly reliant upon digital devices for education, social networking and entertainment. With young people spending less time interacting with their peers face to face and more time indoors than previous generations, the direct impact of digital devices on both physical and mental well-being is becoming of concern.[10] The potential developmental side-effects of internet use are also recognised by the American Academy of Paediatrics in children under two years of age.[11] Furthermore, South Korea’s concern for the attachment its younger generation has to technology is even greater, with their parliament considering passing a law to curb obsessive game use within the country by classifying online gaming as a potentially anti-social addiction.[12]

Whether by academics, medics, journalists or users themselves, concerns are voiced worldwide about the potentially addictive qualities of technology, building a legitimate case for considering digital addict a valid social descriptor, aptly describing a collective trend in media habits. Although the extent to which digital addiction can be considered of medical interest continues to be discussed, the recognition of technology overuse as a developing cultural and social issue remains important.

Children Using Digital Devices

Studies have shown that children’s technology use has greatly increased over the past two decades.[16][17] As of 2015, children as young as one year of age are using technology, such as tablets, iPhones, and computers. Although these devices can be a good learning tool as it teaches children how to use these technologies, it can also harm them in various ways. Researchers have found that the use of these devices can cause or contribute to child obesity because children spend so much time on their devices. It is also common for these children suffer pain because they are looking at their screens for long period of time. Moreover, children in the future may experience having poorer muscle tone because of being hunched over while using the devices.[18] With increased time spent in front of the screen, children spend less time playing sports, exercising or participating in other activities, such as reading or engaging with other children. This is not only having a physical effect, but it also is affecting the children’s social development. Face-to-face interactions are highly crucial in a child’s development so that they can learn social and communication skills but increased technology time limits this and can impede learning. The time spent on screen can make young children suffer by affecting their learning abilities in a detrimental way. Children can learn and retain information better in person than from a screen between the ages of 12–18 months. A specific term called “video deficit” occurs when an infant learns better from a live presentation than from a video presentation. There has been multiple studies that showed children between the ages of 12–36 months who learn how to imitate and solve problems more adequately when they observe an in person demonstration versus when watching it from a video screen.[19] Because of the technological age that children are growing up in, this is becoming an increasing problem due to its accessibility to children but taking away digital devices would also have a detrimental effect.[17][20][21] Although there are many significant sources claiming that the negatives outweigh the positives in children’s technology use, it should also be noted that effects of prosocial video game play have been correlated with a child’s ability to feel empathy making them more inclined to help others according to Greitmeyer & Osswald in a 2010 study.[22] The use of technology by children can also contribute to the overall improvements of motor skills. By playing interactive games and knowing how to navigate through a screen using buttons, children are able to learn how to coordinate their brains with their fingers.[23]

Digital addiction is not a joke. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. While the condition has yet to make it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, aka the “psychiatric bible,” LiveScience reports it is being considered for entry. Our previous post asking Is Your Anxious Child Addicted to His iPad? outlined the detrimental side effects and signs of digital addiction. Now it’s time dig deeper and tackle the solution.

Normal or Heading to Addiction?

Children who aren’t constantly furiously texting or surfing the Internet may seem like an unusual occurrence these days, and scary stats from two articles in UK’s MailOnline tells us why.

  • 33 percent of children are using smartphones or tablets before they can even talk
  • More than 50 percent of parents let babies use tablets or smartphones, with about 14 percent allowing their use for four or more hours per day
  • Britian’s youngest iPad addict, a 4-year-old girl, is currently undergoing psychiatric treatment, having been addicted to technology since age 3

The more devices there are, the higher the chances of digital addiction, and devices keep hitting the market in droves. Any new toy, or digital device, typically has the power to amuse, entertain and capture a child’s attention for hours. Children are usually gung-ho and even somewhat obsessive about any new-found amusement or activity, but that obsession should wane as they master the new activity.

If it doesn’t, the road to addiction may be beckoning.

The trick to putting up a roadblock in that addiction road is to set limits from an early stage – and actually enforce consequences of ignoring those limits and engaging in excessive and unacceptable use.

The Digital Addiction Checklist

While you may not be able to sit your toddler down and have him or her complete a handy test offered by Capio Nightengale Hospital, you can review the 10 questions to see if any hit close to home for your anxious child – or even yourself.

10 Signs of a Potential Digital Dependence Problem

  1. Increasing frequency of staying online longer than intended or expected
  2. Avoiding or ignoring other activities, tasks or work in favor of spending more time on-screen
  3. Delaying activities, including mealtimes, to first check emails or messages
  4. Consistently becoming irritated or annoyed if someone interrupts your online or smartphone activities
  5. Preferring to spend time communicating with people online instead of face-to-face
  6. Constantly thinking about the next time you can get online when you’re off-line
  7. Feeling criticized by family or friends when they mention how much time you spend online
  8. Excitement when thinking about when you can next go online and what you’ll do once there
  9. Preferring on-screen activities to real-life activities
  10. Being defensive about or hiding your online activities

The ’72-Hour Digital Detox’

Parents concerned about their anxious children’s digital use, abuse or possible addiction may do well to go for on a “digital detox” for a 72-hour period. The suggestion comes from Capio Nightengale Hospital psychiatrist Dr. Richard Graham.

Three days may seem like a reasonable amount of time to go without the Internet, smartphones, iPads and the like, but it can feel like a lifetime to children, or anyone, suffering from a digital dependency.

A 2011 study mentioned by Live Science looked at what happened to college students when they went without their digital fix for a mere 24 hours. Participants consisted of 1,000 students across the world who willingly engaging in a daylong abstinence from the Internet and their smartphone and mobile device use. Anxiety and depression were high on the list of outcomes. One student admitted to such a strong desire to use a phone that the student was “itching like a crackhead.”

The Withdrawal Phase

The early stages of digital detox can mimic those experienced by addicts detoxing from alcohol or drugs, complete with a lineup of similar withdrawal symptoms.

Signs of Digital Withdrawal

  • Becoming tense and upset
  • Distress and anger
  • Being greatly affected by the smallest things
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Irritability, agitation and sadness

How you handle the withdrawal symptoms largely depends on your child’s personality and your own instincts. If things get too terrible to bear, outside help may be a feasible option. The general rule is to not give in, and perhaps set up a schedule of alternate activities to distract your child from his or her desire for technology.

If you do happen to cave from incessant pleas, a surefire signal that something is amiss is the instant calmness and apparent happiness that disappears the moment your child’s fingers hit the keypad or screen.

The Resolve

Keeping your child away from digital devices for 72 hours may be tough, but you have to be tougher. Setting limits on digital use is a must to keep the habit from blossoming into an addiction. This counts for children of all ages, with no special treatment given to the youngest set. In fact, they may be easiest to handle, despite their potential for Oscar-winning temper tantrums. And, as Toronto psychologist Oren Amitay tells LiveScience:

“If parents can’t intervene with a 3-year-old,” he said, “good luck with a teen.”

The Re-Introduction of Digital Devices

Once digital devices are out of the system, it’s essential you re-introduce them carefully and in a controlled manner. A balance of activities is the key, including a mix of physical activity in there.

Setting up time frames and activities where children are focused on the real-world and interacting face-to-face with other children is a wise idea. Since that idea may be tougher to set up with the always-online teens and their peers, setting aside family time when devices are off-limits can help.

Perhaps dinner time is a time for everyone to shut down their devices. Maybe half a day on Saturday can be designated a no-digital zone for family activities and endeavors. And children of any age do best by avoiding digital devices right before bedtime, as studies suggest the backlit screen can suppress the body’s melatonin production and interfere with sleep.

Another reason to keep devices out of the bedroom is to help children avoid the temptation they can pose in the middle of the night or as the first thing children reach for when they wake up in the morning.

Children are also big on mimicking what they see, so your own digital use should also be curtailed when appropriate. While the techniques may stir up some groans from your children, or even make you groan, they can help keep the balance between real-life and cyberlife and ensure proper development in the former while avoiding addiction in the latter.

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