I was watching “Dr. Phil” the other day when he was trying to help the family of an out-of-control 8-year-old.
This kid kicked, bit, swore at his mother and basically had to be held down at the pediatrician’s office. He gave one teacher a black eye and bashed another’s nose. The boy frequently threatened to blow up things, including Dr. Phil’s studio.
Yet there he was, on the recordings made of him at home, playing a video game. I was horrified, and not only because a child so badly behaved shouldn’t be allowed such a treat until he starts taking some responsibility for his actions. Video games affect the brain, and this boy’s wiring was clearly off somewhere. At the very least, the game would hype him even more.
Why are so many parents reluctant to limit their children’s use of technology? I understand that a DVD or video game can provide a harried mom or dad with a break so they can cook supper. The parents of Wild Boy probably found their only peace when he was grasping a game controller.
But other forces are at work as well. Victoria L. Dunckley, a child psychiatrist, describes the phenomenon on the “Psychology Today” website. She finds that parents question the validity of evidence demonstrating the problems associated with excessive “screen time.” They think their children will feel out of place or be ostracized because they aren’t involved with something that is “part of our kids’ culture.” Or that restrictions might not be worthwhile, because a spouse or others will “undermine” efforts to bring a child’s technology use under control.
What are these problems? Fortunately — because the concept of disorders such as “internet addiction” is so fuzzy — brain scans provide solid information about the effects of excessive screen time. Internet or gaming addiction can shrink tissue in the frontal lobe, which is the “executive branch” of the brain. The insula, which helps us develop empathy, may be damaged. Dopamine is released during gaming, resulting in cravings similar to those of drug abusers.
I think Dunckley’s anecdotal evidence is just as compelling. She sees children who “suffer from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep and a hyperaroused nervous system.” The doctor calls it “electronic screen syndrome.”
American children spend upward of seven hours per day in front of screens. I can believe it; I work in a high school. Everywhere I look, students are staring into computer screens. In the food court, where cell-phone usage is allowed, they’re talking, texting or sharing a video with a friend. I know, from what some students tell me, that they are never far away from their phones, even in bed. If they get a text at 2 a.m., they will answer it.
In what universe is this healthy?
I’m also concerned about some of the stories I hear about adults who are game addicts. One former student told me his parents woke him up in the middle of the night (a school night) because they were stuck on a level and needed his help. How about the unemployed father who forgot to make supper because he was embroiled in some virtual battle on World of Warcraft? Or the one who was a half-hour late to pick up his 6-year-old because he, too, lost track of time in his computer cocoon.
Here’s another reason parents don’t want to limit screen time for their kids — they can’t do it for themselves.
I understand how easy it is to overdo technology, and to become dependent upon it. I often start and end my days with a quick check of the news and weather online. As a librarian, my day is filled with technology — the library catalog and circulation system are computerized, I help kids do research, I email a lot â€¦ the list goes on. Then I go home and write and, sometimes, read on my iPad. And I do enjoy watching reruns of the “Big Bang Theory” several times a week.
I saw how dependent I am when I went to a medical appointment without my phone. It needed to be recharged, so I took my husband’s instead. He is not as enamored of technology as I am, so the only way I could get him to even have a mobile was to buy him a TracFone, without a contract, for his birthday. He doesn’t use it much, so I wasn’t surprised to see his minutes had run out. I sat in the waiting room, feeling fearful at being cut off, when I remembered I had bought him an extra card. I quickly tapped in the code, and the phone sprang to life.
I am prone to sensory overload, though, and I often will take breaks from technology on the weekends. I wish I could encourage others to do the same. It distresses me to see a parent holding a toddler like a sack of potatoes while he or she yammers on the phone.
Every veteran educator laments that students’ ability and willingness to concentrate is decreasing steadily each year. I strongly suspect the achievement gap between young men and young women correlates with video-game use. Girls may be constantly tapping into social media, but it’s the boys who become addicted and antisocial. Consider Newtown, Conn., shooter Adam Lanza, who created a bunker-like environment to play video games to his heart’s content.
Dr. Phil, in fact, believed Wild Boy was a victim of sensory overload, and used violence to obscure his fears. It turned out his parents didn’t allow him to play violent video games. Still, Super Mario or not, this kid, like so many of us, didn’t need any more screen time. I think he needed to take a good long walk in the woods.
Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].