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Gadget Addiction

What happens when children become addicted to their gadgets?

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It is not strange to see families eating in a restaurant with the child’s eyes glued to a smartphone, completely ignoring everything that’s happening around them. In some ways, sure, parents deserve a break from their child acting up but how will prolonged screen time affect a child’s development?

To answer our queries, 1Twenty80 spoke to counselling psychologist and co-director of Abri Integrated Mental Health, Cathie Wu.

Cathie is a Canadian expat Counselling Psychologist for the past 11 years. Trained in Canada and USA, Cathie served at the United States Veterans Hospital for American military personnel and their families. In Malaysia, she has taught at Monash University, served as the Clinical Psychologist at University of Malaya Medical Centre and then became a private Consultant Counselling psychologist at Rekindle before establishing her own clinic and becoming a co-director of Abri Integrated Mental Health. She sees clients and patients across a wide

spectrum of mental health issues and is trained to employ a variety of psychotherapy modalities to help treat clinical, relational, and personality problems.

1Twenty80: What does it mean when a child is addicted to their gadgets?

Cathie Wu:

This will be indicated by multiple signs that point to how dependent the child is on their device. A loss of control (inability to set and abide by limits to use); loss of interest in other activities  including social activities; signs of deception about screen use; and tolerance (needing increasing time on the device) and withdrawal effects (irritability or anger when being prevented from use) are all important red flags indicating a possible addiction to electronic gadget use.

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1Twenty80: Is this condition a problem that has cropped up recently or has there been similar forms of addiction in the past?

Cathie:

Again, with the increasing development in technology, the ubiquity and convenience have led to “tech addiction” in a way that we have not seen before. Other chemical (substance based) or non-chemical addictions (gambling, pornography, and more) are more clear-cut to abstain from. Children now watch videos, play games, listen to music, and do homework on their devices. Tech addiction is about an unhealthy relationship with something that we often encounter daily, hence the lines are also easily blurred or signs ignored.

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1Twenty80: What makes children so easily addicted to gadgets?

Cathie:

Both children and adults are susceptible to modern technology, though children more so because they have not yet developed other ways of self-entertainment. Modern gadgets provide constant sensorial stimulation that surge dopamine (“feel good hormone”) levels in the brain, creating the neurochemical pathway that lead to addictive behaviour.

1Twenty80: What are the consequences of this addiction in children?

Cathie:

Studies have shown impairments in language development, socialisation skills and identity development in children who have been fed a “high tech diet”. Research in this area also suggests that they are more likely to be at risk of developing other psychological illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

Quote: Time of exposure to gadget use is the essential factor in developing this addiction, therefore parents need to understand that it is their right and responsibility in setting limits to this use.

1Twenty80: How and why should parents limit screen time for their children?

Cathie:

Time of exposure to gadget use is the essential factor in developing this addiction, therefore parents need to understand that it is their right and responsibility in setting limits to this use. This is best done early before warning signs are detected as it will be increasingly difficult to both set and abide by a time limit later on. It is recommended if parents can open up a conversation with their children about the reasons behind this rule, and how it is to be carried out.

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1Twenty80: How can parents safely intervene when it comes to children who are already addicted to their gadgets?

Cathie:

Start a conversation with their children about the reasons behind having to limit gadget use and how it is to be carried out so that children have an understanding of what to expect. If a child is already addicted, initial withdrawal effects are unpreventable and parents need to understand these withdrawal behaviours such as tantrums may get worse before getting better (psychologists call this the “extinction burst”).

This is not the time to give in or the child will easily learn to exhibit the same behaviour again to get the “reward”. Instead, focus on dialogue, clear boundary setting and most importantly consistency in practising the new rule. Depending on how heavily the child is addicted to their device, it may be helpful to cut down time limits on a gradual scale. When good behaviour is observed along the way like adherence to the limit, give a reinforcement (such as praise or motivational statement).

More severely addicted children will require professional help from a counsellor or a psychologist.

1Twenty80: What would you like our readers to know about screen addiction?

Cathie:

If you suspect your child may be addicted to their screen use, chances are that he or she is displaying obvious signs of it that causes you to be concerned. Educate yourself on the issue and resist putting off seeking help. The longer time an addiction sets in, the harder it will be to seek an effective solution. Tech addiction is a common complaint of modern day parents and mental health professionals are equipped to help you deal with this concern before it negatively impacts the lives of your children and the family.

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