Navigating Addiction to the Internet and Devices in Children
These days, it is difficult to live a totally device-free life.
You need them for work, for school, for daily activities like buying groceries and making sure you get the table booked for that family dinner you were looking forward to. And when the Covid-19 pandemic struck the world, devices and the Internet became even more important as we logged in each day for work, for school and for basic survival such as ordering food and buying daily necessities.
As of April 2020, almost 4.57 billion people were active Internet users, which makes up 59 per cent of the global population. In 2019, about 4.92 million Singaporeans (84% of the population) are active internet users. 4.6 million of active users are active social media users.
Not only are we wired and connected 24/7, but Singapore also ranks number one globally when it comes to fixed Internet speed (190.94 Mbps) and 2nd for mobile Internet connection speeds (60.95Mbps). That means we are getting information and are exposed to different forms of digital media at an incredible speed.
In such environment, it becomes difficult to determine if one is facing an addiction problem or simply living life as it has become. The digitisation of the world is also changing the way people communicate and how the brain functions. The impact is even more profound on children, many who were already swiping a mobile phone or tablet before they learn how to hold a pencil properly.
The Start of an Addiction
Addiction is a word that evolved from the Latin term, “addictus”, and it means, “excessively devoted to something with loss of ability to choose freely or slave.”[i]
Internet addiction, mobile phone usage addiction or computer gaming addiction are all similar in that they are a type of behavioural or process addiction. Individuals manipulate their devices, instead of drugs or food, to achieve pleasure by which they eventually become dependent.
In today’s context, experts, parents, politicians and researchers are still debating about the characterisation of device/internet/gaming addiction and what constitutes effective intervention strategies. Internet Gaming Disorder was finally included in the 2020 version of the International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision (ICD-11).
How Does It Affect Our Children?
Children and youths, and especially individuals with special needs, are at higher risk of developing problematic uses of digital devices and the Internet. This is not only because they are digital natives who are more adept than adults with the use of digital media but, more importantly, their brains are still developing.
Children and adolescents are still developing important executive brain functions like impulse control, self-regulation, organisation and planning. As a result, they are more likely to be drawn into the exciting world of digital media where their senses are heightened, resulting in increased dopamine release which makes them feel great pleasure.
Having said that, it also does not mean that we should stop our children from playing any forms of games online or remove the use of devices from them totally. It is impossible not to expose them in a bid to prevent addiction. Instead of removing them from the source completely, we should be educating them on proper and responsible use of devices.
Signs That Indicate Internet Addiction in Children
A common question that parents always ask me is, “how do we know if my child is addicted?”
If one refers to common websites or even the ICD-11 classification[ii], I would summarise the symptoms as the following observed behaviour:
1. Preoccupation and Withdrawal
This is not simply about the child frequently talking about the game or the social media site because being focused on your interest and having undivided attention is normal. Take for example an avid stamp collector would spend thousands and millions on some rare stamp.
However, this becomes an obsession when the child would withdraw from social contact, preferring the virtual world over the real world. There is excessive use with a loss of sense of time, to the point of becoming functionally impaired. This means not wanting to have meals, not wanting to engage in family or social activities or even not willing to resume some other activities that he/she used to enjoy.
2. Mood Changes
This occurs when the child is told to stop his/her usage of devices to access the online world. It could be anything from feelings of rage, anger and anxiety to just simply getting fidgety or worried if he/she is not online.
I have encountered cases where the youth gets fearful and anxious that his online friends would abandon him or judge him as irresponsible if he does not turn up during the time period when he was supposed to be having lessons in school.
He took to going to the toilet frequently to be online, logging in in between periods and even during lessons by hiding the phone under the desk and out of the teacher’s sight.
3. The Need To Be Online All the Time
Just like substance addiction, the need increases because the satisfaction derived from previous usage is insufficient. The child develops tolerance—winning one level is not enough to make me happy, I have to keep going.
4. Behavioural Changes
This happens when the child starts to lie about Internet usage just to get more time to be online. The child will continue to use the Internet or device or to play the game despite knowing the consequences – even if it means jeopardising opportunities or relationships.
Taking the Next Steps
Despite the worries over the addiction to the Internet and devices in children, it is important to take the time to understand their behaviour.
Every behaviour has a function and we need to explore the cause of the child’s behaviour with regards to device usage, be it gaming or interacting with others on social media. The child could be using them as an escape from problems he/she is facing or as coping mechanisms to relieve them of their moods or worries they might have.
The child might really be struggling with other emotional problems that we are not aware, and it is important to be able to provide the proper help needed instead of simply concluding that he/she is addicted.
We must then educate them on how the child might solve the problems they are having – and how they could regulate their emotions and perhaps even communicate with their parents and siblings more effectively.
It takes time, effort and practice to teach the child discipline and self-awareness. But before we can start teaching, we need to find out the missing piece of information that the child needs in order to help him/her move on.
[i] (Poli, 2017)
[ii] (Poli, 2017)
Dr. Pamela Lim, MindChamps Allied Care