Access to technology has become nearly universal for young children.
Casual observation suggests that children love their screens. It is common to watch infants as young as 6-9 months swiping their devices intently.
A recent 60 minutes episode investigated whether ‘screen addiction’ might be affecting our children. As is often the case, the ideas shared on the television made for compelling viewing, but they failed to tell the whole story.
There is evidence that some, from toddlers through to teens (and yes, even grown-ups), are interacting with screens at unhealthy levels. Excessive devotion to screens has been shown to affect physical health, impact on relationships, and even cost jobs.
In the case of children, challenging behaviour and relationship conflict are regular occurrences when screen time is over. Removing a smartphone or tablet from a child regularly results in tantrums, begging, pleading, and a stream of tears. But challenging behaviour does not offer sufficient evidence of an addiction. Removing a child from a swing in the park can result in similar outbursts. Are our children addicted to swings?
While children’s (and adult’s) use of technology may be both excessive and problematic in some cases, experts shy away from calling this over-the-top Internet use an addiction. This is because addiction is much more than doing something a lot.
Addiction means our compulsive behaviours persist despite negative personal and social consequences. Addiction causes distress and interferes with typical daily function.
Those with addictions typically also suffer the twin experiences of tolerance and withdrawal. Tolerance occurs when someone requires more of something (like alcohol or other drugs) to achieve the same high that a smaller amount provided previously. Withdrawal refers to the physical and emotional effects of coming off an addiction. These include elevated heart rate and blood pressure, perspiration, nausea, vomiting, shakiness, and anger.
While some children (and adults) use technology to the extent that it negatively impacts their daily lives, there is little evidence that problematic Internet use leads to tolerance issues. There are some documented cases of withdrawal. For example, in South Korea, as many as 24% of children receiving an Internet addiction ‘diagnosis’ require hospitalisation with many of the signs of genuine addiction. But the overall numbers are still extremely low, and we have limited research and evidence for addiction in an Australian context.
Despite this, problematic and excessive Internet use should be a concern for parents. Sensible limits are needed.
Wise parents understand that too much screen time is bad for children, impacting on intellectual, psychological, social, emotional, and health outcomes. These parents set sensible limits around their children’s device and screen usage. Ideally, children under two will have no screen access (including tv), children three to twelve will have no more than an hour per day, and those over 12 will have fewer than two hours per day. Current research shows most children exceed these ‘healthy’ limits comfortably.
Our children don’t need smart devices. They need smart parents. And smart parents recognise that while technology does play an important part in healthy development, a balanced childhood is best achieved through hands-on, active play and exploration with the real world, and making strong social connections with people that children can see and touch without needing a screen.