Parenting in the Digital Age: Strategies and Prevention

Parenting in the Digital Age By Dr. Kimberly S. Young at

Our Youth Worldwide is Spending Too Much Time Online

In America, children ages 8 to 18 spending on average 44.5 hours per week in front of screens, parents are increasingly concerned that screen time is robbing them of real world experiences. Nearly 23% of youth report that they feel “addicted to video games” (31% of males, 13% of females) based on a study of 1,178 U.S. children and teens (ages 8 to 18) conducted by Harris Interactive (2007) that documents a national prevalence rate of pathological video game use.

Last month, the Japanese health ministry released a report that, based on questionnaires sent to 264 schools nationwide, estimates 6% of junior high school student and 9% of senior high schoolers are in a state of “Internet dependency.” That’s roughly 518,000 teenagers, nationwide. Factor in the number of “borderline dependents” and the number rises to perhaps 800,000. Too much screen time has been linked to obesity, sleep problems, depression and more. To combat the problem, Japan has introduced Internet fasting camps where children who are deemed Internet-addicts will participate in outdoor activities and get appropriate counseling in an unplugged environment.

In South Korea, the National Information Society Agency, or NIA, estimates 160,000 South Korean children between age 5 and 9 are addicted to the Internet either through smartphones, tablet computers or personal computers. Such children appear animated when using gadgets but distracted and nervous when they are cut off from the devices and will forgo eating or going to the toilet so they can continue playing online, according to the agency.

Across the entire population, South Korea’s government estimated 2.55 million people are addicted to smartphones, using the devices for 8 hours a day or more, in its first survey of smartphone addiction released earlier this year. Smartphone addicts find it difficult to live without their handsets and their constant use disrupts work and social life, according to NIA.

South Korea already provides taxpayer-funded counselors for those who cannot control their online gaming or other Internet use. But the emergence of the smartphone as a mainstream, must-have device even for children is changing the government’s focus to proactive measures from reactive.

South Korea’s government is widening efforts to prevent Web and digital addiction in school-age children and preschoolers. Starting next year, South Korean children from the age 3 to 5 will be taught to protect themselves from overusing digital gadgets and the Internet.

Nearly 90 percent children from that age group will learn at kindergartens how to control their exposure to digital devices and the danger of staying online for long hours. The Ministry of Public Administration and Security is revising laws so that teaching the danger of Internet addiction becomes mandatory from pre-school institutions to high schools.

Prevention Programs

Korea is leading the way in implementing prevention programs at early development stages of children. This is the time to act swiftly in helping young children form good Internet use behaviors. Prevention is key in other addictions so why not for Internet addiction?

A closer look at the prevention camps in Korea shows that the children at the camp who show warning signs of becoming raging “internetaholics” spend their time playing reality-based games, taking hikes, reading books and going to counseling sessions. Doctors at the camp find that there are two distinct kinds of potential addicts, those who are in love with the anonymity of the Internet and those that enjoy the power and the vicariously violent behavior games provide. Both of these categories, fit the super category escapists who, for one reason or another, prefer the virtual fantasy world to escape some other aspect of their lives.

Beyond returning to nature, the focus of many Internet fasting camps and digital detox retreats, the American Academy of Pediatrics says two hours tops of screen time should be the limit, but I think that’s even too much and I suggest just one hour of entertainment media.

At the preschool or Kindergarten level, we need to take Korea’s lead and focus on prevention and responsible use of technology to instill those values in children. As we start children on technology through tablets, laptops, and mobile devices, this begs the question “How young is too young?” Should we even consider waiting until children develop solid social skills and establish healthy nutritional and exercise habits before they are introduced to computers?

The Emotional Costs

Online access is a vital part of the modern world and an important tool in the education of our children. In addition, it is a highly entertaining and informative medium. However, these very qualities also make it an enticing escape for many children. They can be anyone in an online chat room, or play thrilling and challenging games against other players from all corners of the globe. With the click of a mouse, they can enter a different world where the problems of their real life are no longer present, and all the things one wishes he or she could be or experience are possible.

Like addiction to drugs and alcohol, the Internet offers children and adolescents a way to escape painful feelings or troubling situations. They sacrifice needed hours of sleep to spend time online and withdraw from family and friends to escape into a comfortable online world that they have created and shaped.

Children who lack rewarding or nurturing relationships or who suffer from poor social and coping skills are at greater risk to developing inappropriate or excessive online habits. Because they feel alone, alienated, and have problems making new friends, they turn to invisible strangers in online chat rooms looking for the attention and companionship missing in their real lives. They may come from families with significant problems, and they cope with their problems by spending time online.

Socially, they learn to instant message friends rather than develop face-to-face relationships, which can impact their way of relating to peers. As one principal explained:

The Internet is hurting their ability to work in groups. Our teachers struggle to get them to participate in any kind of team assignments; instead they would all rather stare at the computer. When I observe them talking to one another in the hallway, I see young girls who are socially aggressive or inappropriate, and I can’t help but think that the Internet is socializing them in ways that emotionally stunts them and makes it difficult for them to deal with others in the real world.

Establishing new prevention programs for children would also help teachers and administration, as they feel pulled by the need to use technology in the classroom and realizing the potential side effects of it.

Parenting in the Digital Age

Obviously, much of what children learn about computers starts at home. Parents innocently hand over an iPad to a child without thinking of the consequences. What happens when a parent quickly learns that a child prefers to spend all of his time online and doesn’t learn to read or play with other children? Parents are essential in helping children form healthy Internet behaviors.

Parents need to look at their own Internet use and model healthy appropriate behavior. If you are always online and using your mobile devices, a child will think this is normal. A parent can also look for these signs of a serious addiction (it could be he or she):

1. Internet usage interferes with your child’s normal everyday activities such as getting ready for school, coming to family dinner or attending sports practices.

2. He doesn’t go to bed when he normally would and appears exhausted in the morning.

3. He sneaks online or lies about the extent of Internet use.

3. He can’t focus on homework long enough to finish an assignment without logging on to the computer or tablet for recreational use (e.g., social media, gaming).

4. If you try to cut down his Internet time, he becomes belligerent and abnormally irritated or violent.

5. He’s lost any interest in things that used to excite him, such as hanging out with friends or playing in sports. To figure out if your teen’s Internet usage is a problem or not, take the Parent-Child Internet Addiction Test.

Many parents get angry when they see the signs of Internet addiction in their child and take the computer away as a form of punishment. Others become frightened and force their child to quit cold turkey, believing that is the only way to get rid of the problem. Both approaches invite trouble– your child will internalize the message that they are bad; they will look at you as the enemy instead of an ally; and they will suffer real withdrawal symptoms of nervousness, anger, and irritability. Instead, work with your child to establish clear boundaries for limited Internet usage. Allow perhaps an hour per night after homework, with a few extra weekend hours. Stick to your rules and remember that you’re not simply trying to control him or her - you are working to free them of a psychological dependence.

It will help to begin your discussion by reminding your child that you love him or her and that you care about his or her happiness and well-being. Children often interpret questions about their behavior as blame and criticism. You need to reassure your child that you are not condemning him or her. Rather, tell your child you are concerned about some of the changes you have seen in his or her behavior and refer to those changes in specific terms: fatigue, declining grades, giving up hobbies, social withdrawal, etc. Assign an Internet time log and set up monitoring software on all home devices. Tell your child that you would like to see an accounting of just how much time he or she spends online each day and which internet activities they engage in.

Seek out professional help! This is the most important step if talking with you child and setting boundaries around computer use are not working. Internet addiction is a serious condition. Children often suffer from attention deficit disorders, oppositional deviance, depression, social anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorders as well as being addicted to the Internet.