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Device distraction


Parents frequently lament how difficult it is to pull their children away from their phones. In fact, many adults also have trouble being separated from their devices. Between apps, texts, TV, social media and online gaming, we are flooded with technology nearly every moment of our lives. But as the World Health Organization (WHO) moves forward with including gaming disorder in their classification of diseases, it calls into question just how addictive screens truly are. John Sargent, MD, Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center, weighed in about these recent trends.

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“Ultimately, it depends on how strict you are with your definition,” said Dr. Sargent. While the WHO considers it a disorder, other researchers disagree or insist that it should be an area of further study. After all, phones or video games lack the physical component associated with addictions such as drug or alcohol abuse.

Dr. Sargent, however, said that it was still an issue regardless of its categorization. “For some children, being separated from their game is highly distressing. Whether you call it addiction or not, it remains a problem that should be addressed.”

Alarming attachment

Of course, everyone knows that they check their phones a little more often than they should. The key difference lies in what kind of role screens play in a person’s life. Excessive usage can be destructive and can quickly spiral out of control. Some may feel that they can’t step away and lack the ability to put their screens down.

In that case, Dr. Sargent explained that there are often psychological symptoms that existed beforehand such as depression, isolation or loneliness. In many cases, engaging with social media or games becomes a crutch to take away that experience of discomfort.

“It’s engaging in something that’s pleasurable when nothing else is,” said Dr. Sargent.

Creating the compulsion to check

Just like gambling, social media and video games are built around inconsistent rewards. It isn’t the act of putting coins in a slot that makes people want to gamble — it’s the potential to get a reward that draws them in. You may get something, and you may not. Gaming works in the same way. Players keep going in the hope of achieving a better score, defeating an enemy or receiving a special item. Social media is similar, too: teens frequently check their notifications because they want to see if they were mentioned in a post. These rewards become internally satisfying and cause a fixation with technology.

Impact on daily life

If you find yourself repeatedly checking Instagram at work or playing video games all weekend, you may be too attached to your screen. It’s a cause of concern for many, but Dr. Sargent stressed that children in crucial developmental stages can suffer from this the most. A child’s excessive usage may:

  • Interfere with their sleep
  • Limit their interactions with peers
  • Make them less likely to go outside
  • Preoccupy free time that could be spent reading or learning

Taking control

Dr. Sargent emphasized that parents should try to avoid being too upset by the fact that their child wants to spend time online. Phones are designed to be rewarding and addictive, so misuse does not mean that they are a bad kid.

“Kids have always been interested in something that parents don’t like,” said Dr. Sargent. “Social media usage has increased, but it’s not because of a specific generational problem.”

At the same time, it is important to address the issue in a patient, dispassionate manner, even if it is frustrating. He suggested making specific rules such as no phones at the dinner table, during homework time, or in bedrooms.

When to talk to a doctor

Sticking to designated phone-free time should cause an improvement, but some kids may still struggle with control. If the compulsion feels unmanageable, then it is a good idea to have a conversation with a pediatrician or a primary care provider. Don’t just focus on their screen time – make sure to mention any changes in behavior such as being withdrawn or anxious. There is likely an emotional or behavioral root to the attachment, so doctors can work with you to develop a treatment plan.

After all, phones can be wonderful tools when used in moderation. Too much screen time, however, may seriously harm a child’s well-being. Kids should always feel like they are able to put down the controller and enjoy more of what the world has to offer.