An Insidious Addiction

The issue of widespread opiate addiction is an acknowledged public health issue and has received attention from both politicians and those engaged with programs or grassroots efforts to heal and prevent addiction.  Media attention comes and goes, but the issue is viable and periodically gains media attention so that the general public is made aware of it.  There is another addiction, though, about which the public hears much less.  Nevertheless, the addiction is real and perhaps of even greater influence on humanity in general than that of the opiates.  It is the addiction to technology, in particular, social media and “smart” devices.

I recently read an article posted March 11, written by Richard Freed, child and adolescent psychologist and author of “Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age”.   The article, entitled “The Tech Industry’s War on Kids: How psychology is being used as a weapon against children” describes in detail how children are being addicted to Cyberspace, to their screens and devices, while parents are unaware until the damage is done. This address was connected to the article:    Freed begins with the case of a teen brought by parents for counseling.  The parents reported the crisis to be” the culmination of a yearlong downward spiral spurred by a phone obsession…. When the “latest report card revealed a number of failing grades, the parents felt compelled to act.”  They took the teen’s phone away.   This precipitated an outburst which involved property damage, attacking the mother, and threatening suicide.  Asked during therapy why, the teen responded, “They took my f***ing phone!”, adding about the phone and social media, “They make me happy.”  The article goes on to detail how technology in such programs/apps as smart phones, social media and games have combined sophisticated technology with knowledge of psychology to create user experiences which can addict the user, especially children, to the devices and apps they are using.  The article cites ” persuasive technology, a discipline in which digital machines and apps — including smart phones, social media, and video games — are configured to alter human thoughts and behaviors. The lab’s website boldly proclaims: “Machines designed to change humans.”  The addictions “better demand users’ attention, compel users to return again and again, and grow businesses’ bottom line.”   The addicted children” believe that this makes them happy and successful, and they find it easier than doing the difficult but developmentally important activities of childhood.”   This summary catches the main idea but does not do justice to the article itself.

I was stunned by the information in the article.  I have long observed and commented that our children are being drawn into Cyberspace, much as the children of the village of Hamlin followed the Pied Piper into the mountain, but I had no idea that this was being done, at least in part, by the intent of the makers of the devices.  My first reaction was outrage against those who regard children as fodder for growing their bottom line.  I should not have been overly surprised.  After all, what has the tobacco industry done, the food industry with its genetically modified foods, the oil and gas industry and their pipeline subsidiaries?  Our society in general currently holds human life in lesser esteem than profit and dominance.  We, as a whole, seem to value children much less than the lip service we give to them.  What about funds for good schools and colleges?  for supporting family functioning?  for making sure all our children have houses, enough to eat and adequate medical care? Instead, the funds are given to corporations, CEO salaries, the military and other endeavors to increase the GDP.

Next came a question:  where are the parents??  There are those of us “out there” who are aware and speaking.  When enough of us awaken, perhaps there will be enough impetus to change some of these parameters.  Those who are in the first line of interest are the parents.  Somehow, however, according to the article, the perpetrators have managed to circumvent the protective attention parents usually give their children.  How have they managed to accomplish this?     Something in today’s society seems to have weakened that parental instinct, making parents partly if unconsciously complicit in their children’s addiction.  Perhaps, among other things, it is because children tend to imprint on whom or what they spend more time with, and in many cases, the majority of that time is spent most consistently on screens.

In one sense, children are less free today than ever.  The parent who allows a child to roam, even short distances, risks someone calling child protective services to remove the child from the home, citing neglect.  Children are supervised at school, in transit to and from school, at after school activities, and, presumably, in their homes.  The freedom to bike alone to a friend’s house or wander in the woods or fields behind a house, or even in a neighborhood, is a condition of the past.  Surely, children are protected.  On the other hand, many children see or interact with their devices more than they do with their parents.  The two-income home, with both parents working full time (or more) simply to make ends meet, has become a standard.  In the process, children are interacting in large groups in daycare, at school and with their peers and their devices, with which they seem to be provided at younger and younger ages.  Schools also teach from screens rather than books, paper, chalkboards and interaction, because that saves money.  The excuse is that the children are being trained for a workforce also based on screens, for primarily the same reason. When, in the late afternoon or early evening, parents manage to pick up their children from daycare and return home from work, exhausted by the day’s fast pace, they have little energy to spare.  It seems enough to feed their children dinner, require them to do homework, sometimes drive them to lessons, and send them to bed.  While parents are engaged with finishing the day’s business of home chores, such as cooking and laundry, children are often left to engage with “electronic babysitters”, the games, devices, medias and apps (and even TV) that keep them quiet and content, not bothering their parents with demands for attention. Notice, attention is not services or provision for needs. Many parents struggle with this issue of finding time to completely engage with their children, giving them full attention.   In the process, they remain unaware of the effects the contents of the screens are having on their children until it is too late.  It is time to wake up.

Those of us who want children need to reconnect to the awareness that children take time, money, attention, interaction, guidance and discipline to reach an optimal maturity.  They need this even if parents are exhausted from the demands of modern life or do not have the money they need to provide the best for their children.  For those who can afford the luxury of a nanny/housekeeper, the same is true.  Children still need the time and energy and attention of their parents.  Society needs to find ways to help parents provide that.   Institutional daycare is not an answer, even though there are good daycare “schools” available.  Daycare institutions are businesses; for the most part, their bottom line must take precedence over what is given to the children, or they will not stay in business.  And, they are not parents.   Social programs that provide income for stay-at-home parent time, guaranteed basic income, cooperation within community, and parenting instruction in high schools and colleges are initiatives which might be supported at a grassroots level as efforts to benefit both adults and children.  Awareness among parents, grandparents and prospective parents can drive these changes; without the awareness, it is unlikely change will be made.   We need, parents and non-parents alike, to wake up to what is happening with our children, to reinstate the protection of our interactive attention, to take into account the activities of those who prey on children for profit and realize what the abuse of powerful tools such as technology can do to our children.  If not, we may lose them forever.

Addiction to various forms of technology (aka, screen addiction) inhibits children from the communication in real time necessary to maintain friendships and other social relationships, including those in the workplace.  It inhibits them from learning simple skills, such as how to do simple calculations or make change.  It inhibits them from spending time outdoors playing sports or learning about nature from observation and experience.  It encourages an insensitivity to others and to nature and our planet.  It encourages them to learn only what they need to go more and more deeply into their addiction.    Granted, not everyone is addicted.  However, given what the creators of persuasive technologies are doing, everyone has the potential for addiction, unless we all wake up and notice what is going on.

I wish for all of us that awareness.    Let us reclaim our children and reclaim their childhood for them.

Peace, Diane