Kids don’t suffer from addictions do they? Surely not. Surely as parents we can lead our children down the safest paths in life to avoid the pitfalls of an addiction? Not always of course. Whether it be alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and the like, people around us are struggling with addiction every day. Sometimes in the public eye, often in private.
But I’m a paediatrician. I shouldn’t have to help families manage addictions should I? In the traditional sense, thankfully not. I can leave that to my colleagues in the Drug & Alcohol support networks for that.
But I do deal with addiction, a number of times a week. Right under parents’ noses. Encouraged by parents in fact. Facilitated by parents. Probably as young as 3 year olds, and definitely in older children and teenagers. How can this possibly be? Three words to answer that question…
TVs, iPads, iPods, DS, video games, the list goes on, in ever-increasing numbers. Children who wake up at 5.30am and immediately start their day with a screen. Children who can’t sleep because they’re so wired from all-night screens. Behavioural difficulties, inattention, academic decline, social decline (and that means real life person-to person interaction, not online “friendships”), depression, anxiety, loss of appetite, family withdrawal, aggression. I could go on and on with the ways in which children can present with screen addiction and its consequences.
But the most worrying feature comes with every other addiction out there. If you remove the addiction from the addict, withdrawal results. If your child can’t easily separate from their device, or needs to manouevre to get to a device, or who out and out refuses to let it leave their side, alarm bells should be ringing.
In the latest edition of the “big book of disorders” known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (version 5), or DMS-5, “Internet Gaming Disorder” is recognised in the appendix as a disorder that warrants diagnostic consideration and further research. It will likely make it into the next version. Many have argued that a broader diagnosis – “Internet Addiction Disorder” – should be considered. Either way, many recognise a problem, and I certainly am witness to it in my practice.
So what do we do as parents? Vigilance is critical. Screen limits are vital. Screens are not a god-given right. They are not the default position. Yep, it’s fantastic to occupy the kids with a few hours of screens to get things done, or simply have some time to ourselves. But don’t be complacent. Screens should be earned. The obstructive, oppositional child should not have access to a screen unless they have earned it. Just like any other “treat”. Take the time as parents to sit down and actively manage screens. Don’t let them get out of hand. Trouble will then start.
When kids come to see me with behavioural difficulties, and screens are an issue, which is often, I regularly limit screen time significantly. Parents turn to their child and often say “I told you so!”, or “Did you hear that?”. When the kids realise that changes are about to occur, they often cry. Not a defiant cry. But a slow, intense, crushing upset that is difficult to watch.
That’s withdrawal right there in front of you.