It is not a surprise that we are living in a world dominated by technology and that parents are frustrated by the overload of technology on their children. However, the idea of having an addiction to technology is new and it is gaining widespread attention. So what is a technology addiction and how is it really defined?
The term addiction is a non-medical term used to describe observable behaviors. We all say it casually, “I am addicted to those chips,” or “He’s so addicted to that game.” But do we really think the person is addicted? The definition of addiction really has two main parts: The first is that the behavior (e.g., playing the game) causes a problem and the second is that the behavior persists despite negative consequences (e.g., playing even though disciplined or failing a class). Therefore, under this definition of “addiction,” it would take more than the persistent begging of a four-year-old asking us to turn on a video or play with the iPad 20 times a day to get a diagnosis.
Formally, a diagnosis of Internet/computer/video game addiction would be an extreme use (e.g., hours per day) of technology with significant negative consequences (e.g., depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, etc). A person obtains this diagnosis when they seek professional therapy and the diagnosis is placed on their permanent medical record, for treatment and billing purposes. This labeling classifies the person on the same level as a gambling addict, alcoholic, or other drug addict. This similarity should not be taken lightly because do we want our children to have this label?
So let’s go to the reference shelf and look at the most influential book on the subject for some answers. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the gold standard of psychology, has released the fifth edition (DSM-5). The DSM-5 now includes, for the first time, the term “addictive disorders,” but in title only as it never fully defines “addiction.” In addition, Internet Gaming Disorder is considered an addiction disorder that is a Condition for Further Study. Over the course of the next several years, this disorder will be studied by academics to establish guidelines for the official diagnosis.
The Technology Wellness Center has worked with children who struggle with what we see as technology “overuse.” We have had parents come in stressed out because their kids were online until the early morning hours and could not go to school or they fell asleep at their school desks. Some families have discovered that their college-aged children were skipping classes to play video games or view pornography, while their parents were financially supporting them. In one extreme case, parents purchased a graduation gown and invitations before the student had no choice but to admit he had dropped out several years prior.
Our position is more broadly focused than the DSM-5, given that the term ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ includes only gaming or Internet based games (such as Candy Crush, Xbox, World of Warcraft, etc.). Our conceptualization of overuse includes texting, Internet use, social media use, in addition to gaming, as these activities can be just as problematic. Furthermore, we believe there are obvious concerns with the idea of labeling a child with a disorder that is considered by the psychological and medical field as similar to a gambling disorder.
For example, let’s compare an “addicted” child to an “addicted” adult diagnosed with an addiction disorder. As an example, adult addicts may be diagnosed with a disorder because they lose their jobs (kids = failing school), get divorced (kids = losing friends) and become physically unhealthy (kids = gaining weight). As adults we have the critical thinking skills to determine how we are going to manage the disorder. Adults can decide if they are going to accept the diagnosis and manage it or treat the diagnosis as a crutch to blame for our behavior.
The Immature Brain
However, our children have less power than adults and do not have these same critical thinking skills due to their immature brain, so labeling them with a disorder can have far more detrimental consequences. For example, research has shown that children who are labeled as intellectually “gifted,” perform better academically, regardless of their true intellectual abilities, than those who are not labeled as such. This could be due to the child’s interpretation of the label, but more likely it is that teachers and parents treat the child differently resulting in improved academic performance.
Therefore, what if the “addict” label attached to a child has the same profound, albeit negative, effect. We are dangerously close, as a society, to applying the same guidelines of addiction to kids as we apply to adults. Generally labeling children who are overusing technology as technology “addicts” in the same way that we define gambling addicts and alcoholics is risky for them and, we feel, irresponsible given our children’s lack of power and immature brain development.
Here is what is clear: Technology overuse is becoming a huge problem. Deciding whether it is an addiction or an overuse in need of diagnosis and professional help rests in answering a few simple questions: Does my child qualify under the definition of “Internet Gaming Disorder” because they constantly want to be on the computer playing games or interacting online? Does giving them this label make a difference? Do I need outside intervention or treatment from professionals in order to make changes in my home?
Even though the jury is out about Internet Gaming Disorder (or any technology addiction) and whether there is a true “addiction” at hand, we feel strongly about unnecessarily putting labels on children that could affect them throughout life. Therefore, we prefer the term “technology overuse” as we feel that this more accurately describes the issue.