Ask Amanda: Technology Addiction

Question:

“I’m working with parents that are struggling with their kids’ behavioral outbursts when they take away their device. It’s almost like they have an addiction to their phone or tablet. I’ve heard of internet addiction, but is there device addiction?”
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This is a very good question and one that comes up often in discussions with parents and professionals.  For the most part, the object of dependence tends to be the cell phone. If you need a demonstration, all you need to do is go to the mall and try to walk without colliding with a teen whose eyes are turned downward to a device.

First, let’s start with the definition of addiction.  According to Merriam-Webster, addiction is defined as:

  • A strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble).
  • An unusually great interest in something or a need to do or have something.

If we use the first definition, I think we need to focus of the word “harmful.”  What would be harmful for a child with a device?  Clearly using a smart phone while driving is potentially harmful, but is all usage harmful?  As adults, we use smart phones and devices as tools in our work.  They help to organize our schedules, set reminders for appointments, check bank balances, take photos…there are dozens of positive usages for devices.

For many teens, they also use their devices for good.  I know in my daughter’s high school, many teachers encourage the usage of their devices for sending reminder texts about tests and homework, cancelling after school activities and even to do research in class when the teacher could not secure the cart of laptops.  In her personal life, there is the app that helped her to study for her drivers permit exam, records her practice lessons for her instrument and allows her to connect with colleges via her email.

In my world, I think of addiction as something that interferes and impacts one’s ability to carry on the activities of daily life.  So, having a glass of wine, not addiction.  Drinking every night and being unable to go to work or care for children, becomes harmful and thus, an addiction.

In the world of devices, I encourage parents to think about which patterns get in the way of positive usage.  For example, no one in my family has their smart phone in their bedroom.  Sleep is crucial for success so removing them to charge downstairs is a way to put a routine in place that encourages healthy device usage.  Parents have many controls that they can add to a child’s device, depending of age, to help guide positive usage.  Parents can control what time of day texts are permitted and phone calls.  For example, you can allow only messages from designated people during the school day and after 10:00 PM.

During meals, everyone puts their cell phone on the table and no one touches it until the end of the meal.  I can clearly see if I have an emergency call on the screen, but usually they stay quiet and we enjoy a family meal.  For other ideas, here is a link.

The best way to help address device overuse is to develop a contract with your child BEFORE they are given a device.  In the contract, you can outline time limits, time lengths, restrictions, in app purchases etc.  Then the standard is set and rewards for positive use as well as consequences for inappropriate use are already on the table

Is there the potential for a teen to become addicted to a device? YES!  If you are worried if your child is addicted to a device, it is important to seek professional help. Some behaviors that could be of concern: not sleeping due to being on the device, change or decrease in friends, decrease in other age appropriate activities (sports, clubs, job), lower grades, etc. Shape the Sky has begun training agencies and therapists who we recommend and we know have the knowledge to help.

Ultimately, it is our responsibility as adults to teach our children good habits so that their devices are tools to assist them (and us) in this busy world.  We need to create and continue a dialogue with them and help them to develop other interpersonal skills so that they grow to be successful young adults.

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Amanda Cooper, LCSW