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Oregon Family Magazine

Electronic Addiction, Part II - A Family Dependency

11/01/2013 ● By Sandy Kauten

This is what "playing" looks like these days....

How much time do you spend unplugged from all electronic devices? Hint: The time spent sleeping does not count! How about time spent interacting one-on-one and face-to-face each day? Skype and FaceTime will not fit the bill, either.  Is your answer: minimal?  If so, unfortunately, you’re the majority.

The Next Epidemic – Electronic Cocaine

Technology can be found everywhere in today’s society. The lives of adults and children alike are impacted by television, computer games, cell phones and portable devices across the globe.  However, these same useful devices are being called “electronic cocaine”, a term coined by psychologist Dr. Peter Whybrow, the head of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

Why has technology received such a bad rap? In Damian Thompson’s article in The Telegraph, Dr. Whybrow is quoted from a previous interview with Mary Fischer of Pacific Standard explaining how this new “drug” claims unsuspecting users.

“The computer is electronic cocaine for many people,” says Whybrow. “Our brains are wired for finding immediate reward. With technology, novelty is the reward. You essentially become addicted to novelty.”

We can’t stop because the brain has no built-in braking system. With most natural constraints gone, all we’ve got left is our own intelligence and the internal regulatory system in the frontal cortex, the most recent evolutionary addition to the brain. This “executive brain” regulates impulse control and reasoning. But, Whybrow notes, “despite our superior intelligence, we remain driven by our ancient desires.”

The most primitive part of our brain – the medulla and cerebellum – developed millennia ago when dinner tended to run or fly away. It cradles the roots of the ancient dopamine reward pathways. When an action has a good result, like snatching food before it escapes, or finding something new, dopamine neurotransmitters release chemicals that make us feel pleasure. And the more we get, the more we want...”

The Results of Electronic Dependency

Given the gravity of the statements made by Dr. Whybrow, it’s clear the potential exists for a large segment of the world population to fall prey to the lure of technology, at some point.  We are seeing the results of this each day. It’s this “need” that compels drivers to text while behind the wheel, or to interrupt family time with one more email, text, or level on Candy Crush Saga.  

What is happening to communication? How many restaurants have silent diners who are eating while texting with others instead of enjoying the company of their fellow diner? How many people are being turned into attention deficit victims because we can search for a variety of topics in seconds, download and upload a boggling amount of data in nanoseconds, or simply click a remote to eliminate commercials, change a program or switch to something more appealing.

Where does honor and integrity come into play? If adults can be swayed into improper behavior online, like viewing inappropriate content, flaming, or availing themselves of bootleg songs or movies, what chance do the children have of learning to respect electronics? Not to mention behaving in a responsible, mature and ethical manner.  The reality is that children are more easily addicted due to the developmental stages of their brains, and they rely on the adults in the lives for protection until they can make their own choices and decisions.     

In a single day nearly any adult can encounter an instance in which a child under the age of 5 is being soothed or entertained by an electronic gadget.  Most often with an iPad, Nook, or tablet. Young children are particularly adept at mastering technology usage, but are clueless about monitoring their own exposure for signs of overexposure. In England one of the youngest documented cases of computer addiction is a four year old. But with a little sleuthing, evidence can be found much closer, perhaps in one’s backyard – so to speak.

Some Signs and Symptoms of Electronic Compulsion, Addiction or Dependency

Below are just a few of the indicators that may be used to determine if excessive electronic usage tendencies exist, and should be treated by a professional, or in a clinical setting:

  •   A gradual or dramatic increase in the amount of time spent using technological devices
  • Hiding the amount of time spent online
  • Withdrawing from social situations
  • Experiencing depression, fear, or anxiety about the amount of time spent online
  • Lack of control to end electronic sessions
  • Electronic dependence is jeopardizing your family life, livelihood, or relationships
  • Feeling anxious and/or physically compelled until you check your email, texts, or turn on a game
  • Losing sleep to play another game or visit another website

The Adult Solution

 What can adults do when they are expected to be instantaneously available to their bosses, children, spouses and friends? When finding a pay phone is a rarity and not having a cell phone, email address, or texting ability is met with disbelieving stares?

As adults, it’s their role to model acceptable behavior to the younger generation, be it to their own kids, or someone else’s.  Adults should complete necessary tasks before gaming, watching television, or texting.  Set limits for electronic usage and be prepared to turn off or unplug, when at home or in the company of others.  Being able to hold a conversation, read facial expressions, compose a letter, and be comfortable in the physical company of others are important life-skills.

What Steps can Parents take to help Safeguard their Children from Electronic Overload?

Parents need to become familiar with the environment they want to safeguard their children from. While the knee-jerk reaction might be to ban electronics, it’s rather unrealistic in this day and age. Being aware of where the dangers exist, and the types of pitfalls available, can help parents steer children away from them.

  1.   The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that no child under the age of 2 “should be allowed television and other entertainment media.”  Their standing is that children learn best through human interaction. 
  2. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that children and teens limit their television and entertainment media to no more than two hours per day.
  3. Discussing concerns with children can help them be aware of the potential dangers, parental fears and open dialogue about what is being done, viewed or shared through technology.
  4. Parents can help children learn to strike a healthy balance between electronics and other interests. It will be different for every household/family, but can be based on the age or interests of the child, and the amount of time the child is allowed to spend on electronics. 
  5. Making the time spent online obvious can help children become cognizant of their electronic habits. It’s easy to get lost in a game, conversation, or when searching for an item online.  Keeping a clock near where electronics are used, or moving a computer/gaming console to a heavily trafficked area within the home may help parents better track usage.  
  6. Have children make time for personal face-to-face interactions with a variety of people, not just family members. Children can disassociate feelings from people when communicating virtually. They need to remember that there’s a person attached to the other end of those thumbs, with feelings and emotions. 
  7. If the addiction cannot be solved by familial intervention, parents should consider professional help. Psychologists or psychiatrists can use in or outpatient treatment to rectify the problem. 

In Japan, with more than 500,000 estimated cases of electronic addiction, “fasting camps” are currently in the development phase. These “camps” will be used to detox 12-18 year olds from Internet access. Educational counselors, along with teams of medical and mental health professionals, will lead children in outdoor activities, team sports and games.

The Japanese are blaming internet addiction for sleep disorders, eating problems, depression and poor educational performance.  The goal is to get children reinvested in spending time with others and interacting face-to-face. 

Turn Off and Tune Out

Technology changes so rapidly that science, simply, cannot keep up.  Thus, the true, long-term effects of electronic addiction cannot be documented and proven until masses of victims are caught in its web.

Many addictions can be traced to personality and predisposition, but exposure, or in this case chronic exposure, can make a potential situation a sure thing. Adults and children can benefit from a little time off from electronic bombardment.  Allow young minds to develop free from overstimulation and slightly older minds, the opportunity to unplug and recover from an environment that can be relentless and undiscerning.  Like most things in life - moderation is the key.