Is the Internet making my child crazy?

by Thomas Ellis, PsyD, ABPP on July 13, 2012 · 1 comment

in addictions,mental illness,parenting

What’s a parent to do?

The recent Newsweek cover story on psychological hazards of Internet use and other “screen time” activities (such as texting and playing videogames) leaves one wondering whether to cut all electric power to one’s home or just wait till the next study comes out contradicting what we think we now know.

I can only imagine how most parents feel. I’m confused, and I’m a psychologist. And a researcher! 

The Newsweek article is definitely worth a read. To summarize: Various forms of screen time have been linked to depression, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder and diaper rash (OK, that last one’s not true, but the rest are).

More alarming to me, as a father of two boys born with silver joysticks in their hands (sorry, another slight exaggeration), there is also brain imaging research showing changes in the brains of heavy Internet users that resemble those of drug addicts. A separate study showed that the brains of non-users began to resemble those of heavy users after only five hours of Internet use (this I am not making up). 

On the other hand…

We see a story in TechNewsDaily about a new study from the University of Wisconsin showing that prior research findings of a “Facebook depression” effect may not be as dire as previously thought. They monitored 190 undergraduates over the course of a week; after dividing the sample into groups of low (less than 30 minutes per day), medium and high Facebook users (more than 2 hours per day), they found no differences in depressed mood. 

What’s a parent to do? Here’s where the media often overreact, suggesting, for example, that if eating eggs is shown to be not quite as deadly as previous studies indicated, then perhaps all health-related research is a bogus game of flip-flopping in response to the fad of the day. But we can do better than that.

So, short of throwing out both baby and bathwater, here are some thoughts, admittedly delivered with only a modicum of confidence (probably more in role of father than psychologist):

  1. Most studies of effects of electronic activities, from violent videogames to Facebook activity, show increased risk of harmful effects, not one-to-one correspondence. One implication is that it is the at-risk kids, those already on the margins due to adverse histories and challenging living conditions, that we should be most worried about. As one of the researchers in the Facebook study commented, “Parents don’t have to be overly concerned [as long as] their child’s behavior and mood haven’t changed, they have friends and their school work is consistent.”
  2. If your child is at-risk – struggling socially or academically – particular attention needs to be paid to addressing that child’s needs, including significant monitoring of screen time. Studies show, for example, that economically disadvantaged children tend to spend more time engaged in electronic activities than their more affluent counterparts.
  3. Even if your child has all the advantages of economic security, stable home life and good adjustment at school, you’re still not off the hook as a parent. It is impossible to read the Newsweek article (not to mention actually watching a young person at a computer) without becoming convinced that various forms of electronic entertainment, from videogames to online pornography, have significant addictive properties. Excellent resources are available from such sources as the American Academy of Pediatrics or, providing guidance for parents. Foremost among safe practices is parent involvement, including having the computer and other electronic gear in a public area such as your den, where you can easily monitor what your child is up to (this is sometimes quite interesting, by the way).
  4. Insist that your children spend at least as much time in the real world (face-to-face conversation, shooting an actual basketball through an actual hoop, etc.) as in the virtual world (expect mainly contempt in reply, at least until the first swish of the basketball net).
  5. This last point brings up an important issue (caution: psychologist hat now firmly in place). Children’s electronic activities are highly rewarding (behaviorally reinforcing), not just for children, but also for parents. Child activities that are otherwise annoying, intrusive and inconvenient (such as actually wanting to talk to you) drop to negligible levels when the child’s mind is absorbed in a virtual environment (often interacting with someone across town or even on the other side of the globe). This peace and quiet can, in itself, become quite addictive to parents; but, in large quantities, it is a definite no-no to anyone interested in the child’s mental health, not to mention a reasonable relationship with said child.

I will be interested to see comments in response to this post. If someone has better answers than these (a fairly likely scenario), then my time engaged in this particular session of screen time will have been well worth it.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ryan Smith July 23, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Thank you for writing this blog. I have long been interested in the roll technology plays on the human psyche, and have felt it has been a mostly ignored facet of psychological research. Sometimes it seems there is only interest in the face of a tragedy, where you have a flurry of research looking to explain/place the blame on videogames, social networking or smartphones. The article itself was filled with some rather alarming findings, but seemed lacking in any positive aspects. During my own look at similar research a few years ago, I came across an article describing how people who play videogames had increased visual attention over non-players and further that the researchers were able to increase the visual attention of non-gamers by having them play games for a set amount of time each day. So it can’t be said the impact overall is negative.

In my opinion we’re currently in the midst of a relatively rapid change in human behavior due to technology, behaviors that may seem dysfunctional now, may very well be considered normal in the future. When I think about the great technological inventions that have had a large impact on the world, television, telegraph/phones, printing press, etc., it’s hard not to wonder to what degree they’ve changed not just behavior but how humanity as a whole thinks. So I guess what I’m trying to get at is instead of trying to figure out what is ‘bad’ and what is ‘good’, we should instead be concentrating on what is changing, and what it means for now and the future.

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