Josh is only nine years old, yet he’s an addict. How is that possible? You’re wondering where he gets his drugs from, how does his addiction manifest itself and if there are treatment plans.
I’ll answer all of those questions, but first let me explain that Josh is not addicted to drugs, but rather to technology – an addiction that is becoming more common as our technological advancements improve.
Today, children of all ages have easy access to smartphones and tablets – and most libraries have free WiFi.
Technology addiction is still an addiction, but not the kind most of us think of. There is a fine, though discernible, line between an addiction and a passion. In fact, any passion can become an addiction. In a recent conversation with a colleague, it became clear that there is a lot of denial when to comes to this type of addiction, but we are seeing more children missing school, disassociating from their peers and displaying aggressive behavior. When children begin to play violent games at a young age, the violence they are exposed to becomes the norm.
Let me tell you about Josh. His behavioral issues extend beyond addictions, as is so often the case. In fact, we often have to ask if the addiction is causing the behaviors or do the behaviors lead to an addictive personality. Josh is nine years old and the younger son of a single mother. Josh’s mother is limited in her ability to mother her children and they take advantage of her weaknesses. Josh disappears for hours at a time; he spends his time using a computer in the library or at friends’ homes. He is usually alone and vulnerable when he roams the neighborhood to and from his destination. Nevertheless, Josh doesn’t think about that, his only focus is getting back to a computer. Working with these types of children is difficult, but we can use the years of research and experience with drug addictions to help families.
The first thing we have to understand is that parents are enablers: We begin with the premise that we love our children. Therefore, we will do anything to protect them when we see danger in their paths. Over the past 38 years of working with parents and children, I have learned that we are not good at teaching them how to make good decisions – probably because no one ever taught us. We just assume it comes naturally. The focus here is not on teenagers, but on children as young as those in pre-school. While for the most part children at this age need to have decisions made for them, they need to be taught how the decision-making process works. Otherwise, we raise dependent children who do not know the intricacies of problem solving.
The second thing is knowing that we cannot fix everything. We love our children and so we want to make everything better for them. However, the stronger the addiction, the more the addict closes his mind to outside help. When that happens we get angry and frustrated. It’s important to remember that only the addict can take the necessary steps to fix what is wrong. And professional help is a must; objective outsiders have a much easier time getting the addict child to cooperate. Nevertheless, there are things parents can do – before the problem gets out of control.
First, whatever technological devices the child is using cannot be used in his or her room, only in the public areas. Two, show an interest in what he or she is doing; ask him or her to show you how it works, what he or she is doing and why it’s so interesting. The benefits are twofold: You get to see what he or she is doing and get to spend time with a child who may need extra attention. Three, be sure the device is age appropriate.
The third thing we have to remember is that an addict is a liar. Addicts will say anything to hide their addiction and take any action to mask the problem. In my opinion, most of the time they don’t even realize they are lying, they just say whatever they think we want to hear. The problem is we are wired to hate lying and liars, which causes us to react as soon as we realize we are being lied to. We get angry, disappointed, frustrated, etc. We have to learn to look behind the lying. In most cases the child is suffering from low self-esteem, feels guilty and doesn’t know how to handle being caught in a lie. When confronting the child, it’s best to not get into a debate, but simply say, “My eyes see what I see and my ears hear much better than my eyes.” Arguments of right and wrong, using or not using never go anywhere productive. Confrontations in the midst of strong emotions are also doomed to failure.
The fourth thing is scary: Is my child a criminal? Of course, the answer is dependent on what the child is doing. Is he doing something illegal? Is he making purchases online without your consent and maybe even using your credit card without permission? Is cyber bulling involved in his activities? Like Josh, is the child missing for long periods of time and putting himself in compromising safety situations?
The fifth thing is asking whether your child is losing friends: Addiction to technology, whether the child is using a computer, tablet or cell phone, often results in him or her becoming more isolated and spending less time socializing with others. This is a problem at any age, as children learn by socializing and spending time with adults and their peers.
The sixth is noticing that the child is getting very little physical activity. Lack of outdoor activities and play with other children prevents necessary social skills from being learned. In addition, childhood obesity is an increasing problem. That being said, video games can occasionally be educational, fun and exciting. In fact, gaming can improve eye-hand coordination and may foster positive social interactions when played with other children. It also allows children with little athletic interest or ability to compete and form friendships with like-minded gamers. Once again, technology isn’t innately bad, but the amount of time spent using it needs to be controlled.
Research has shown that children spend, on average, close to an hour a day playing games. This number increases drastically if a child’s video-game console is in his or her bedroom. As we said, parents need to do what’s appropriate for the child’s age and ask themselves if they are relying too much on handheld games to keep their children quiet during long car trips or on long, unstructured days.
Another factor is that children with certain disorders, like those with ADHD, are attracted to video games. A child who’s bothered by distractibility in the real world may be capable of intense focus, or hyper-focus, while playing. And hyperactivity is not a problem: a child can hold the controllers and stand or pace back and forth in front of the TV as he plays.
Obviously we have only just begun a discussion. There are many factors at play when a child uses technology as either an escape or a means to gain some sense of expertise to build self-esteem.
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