"Technology addiction"* is a new and rapidly growing problem among today’s population, but most susceptible are children and teens. Their brains are not fully developed, and without careful family rules and regulations, it may be difficult to tear them away from the seductive embrace of a tablet, phone, or video game system. Teens who struggle with issues like depression or anxiety may have even more problems with screen addiction, as they can withdraw from the stressful outside world and retreat into the “seemingly safer” world inside their phone or tablet.
Over time, adolescents can begin to experience symptoms of withdrawal when they are removed from their technological devices if they use them to excess. They may behave similarly to other addicts, becoming angry, anxious, and even somewhat aggressive if they are asked to take time away and do alternative activities.
Avoiding technology addiction is very difficult, as the society, peer pressure, and a desire for convenience make allowing children and teens access to electronic devices more and more necessary. The devices aren’t simply used for entertainment any longer, instead, they’re used to keep track of family calendars, communicate with loved ones, send and receive important messages in emergencies, and share pictures quickly and easily. While technology allows us to stay more connected with our friends and families than ever before, it can also have a darker side. Many applications that are used by and marketed to teens are designed with one thing in mind -- continued daily use.
An Environment Designed to Create Addictive Tendencies
Many technologies, particularly social media and games, are specifically designed to deeply engage users to keep them playing or scrolling through their feed. This is an explicit design choice and is supported by psychologists and design specialists whose goal is to increase ‘stickiness.’ The goal is to ensure that users log in on a regular basis, stay attached to the application, and engage with it as frequently as possible. In exchange, the individual using it gets the reward of a notification, a “like”, and response to a message. This doesn’t occur on any type of regular schedule, but it occurs just frequently enough to keep the teen brains engaged and interested. The very design of the app is stacked against the parent, and it’s nearly impossible to win. The programs themselves are designed to be addictive, to keep kids logging in and responding. And that’s just social networking applications -- gaming applications are far more overt and addictive.
Children Obtain Phones at Young Ages
Children are getting cell phones at younger and younger ages, with a large percentage obtaining their first smartphone around the age of ten. This is almost always done for good intentions, to allow connectivity between child and parent and to help keep the child safe, but can easily lead to negative consequences. Parents who want to keep their children in contact, but who don’t want them to have access to all of the elements of a smartphone, may want to opt for more than one device in the home, a flip phone for texting and calls and a tablet or computer for gaming and other communication.
Teenage and Adolescent Brains
The human brain isn’t fully developed for rational decision making until around the age of 25. This means that when you hand a teenager a smartphone with no parental controls on it, you’re providing them with free access to the internet, in the privacy of their bedroom, bathroom, and friends’ homes, without them having adult decision-making skills. It’s important to ask yourself if this is the decision that you want to make. Essentially, you’re setting the child up for failure, as their impulse control skills are far less than those of an adult, and while they may try to do the morally right thing, it can be extraordinarily difficult for them to always make the best decision. In some cases, they will be experiencing peer pressure to do the wrong thing. In others, they will be exposed to media that grown adults have issues staying away from. In still others, they may just make incorrect decisions. Their brains simply aren’t developed enough to fully process all of the risks at hand.
What Can Parents Do?
For this reason, it’s extremely important for you to take advantage of parental control options. While you can start with the built-in options that the phone comes with, and they will provide you quite a bit of control, you may also find that you want to install a specific software package to monitor what they are doing online. Some parents prefer to take a tiered approach, beginning with the controls that come with the device and then moving up to a more advanced program with additional features as it becomes necessary.
There are many options for parental control software available for nearly every platform. These programs and apps allow you to monitor your child’s website and app usage, when and for how long these are used and put software enforced rules around that usage. If the child’s bedtime is 9, you can disable their ability to get online or even send text messages after that time. These limits can help keep the child from making poor decisions about device use, as they will actually help the device assist you in maintaining the house rules.
Another option is to have a place in your home that is a dedicated charging station for all devices. Devices go into the docking station and are charged, then not accessed after bedtime. This can help ensure that everyone in the family gets good sleep and that no one is using a device when they should be spending time with their loved ones.
As much as we need to trust and honor our children’s privacy, the unfortunate truth is that it helps to trust them to make good decisions but to also reinforce our rules. This allows them to learn limits with regard to technology so that they can, in turn, set limits for themselves.
*Tech "addiction" is not a clinical diagnosis.
Sandi Lilly, a Mobicip blogger who writes about health and technology, while homeschooling her two children full time.