By Guest Blogger Brian Heller, MS, LPC
Do you find yourself bombarded with questions from your children about when they will be allowed to watch their next show, play their next video game, or get back on their electronic device? Odds are if you have introduced your children to these forms of entertainment then you are quite familiar with these questions. What was likely introduced innocently as a treat, or a distraction to give you a few minutes to get something done, seems now to have become all your child can think about, and likely has become a source of stress in your home. If this sounds familiar, then your child may be experiencing screen addiction.
You may find my use of the word “addiction” to be troubling because like most people, you probably associate addiction with drugs and alcohol. However, screen stimulation creates a reaction in the brain very similar to that of drugs like cocaine. As children stare at their screens, their brains are overloaded with stimuli that create a rush of Dopamine in his or her brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them. In naturally occurring amounts, Dopamine helps children to enjoy things such as sunshine on a beautiful day, a great meal or time spent playing with family or friends. However, in the doses that result from today’s electronics, your child’s ability to enjoy those simple pleasures quickly becomes diminished.
You most likely have positive memories involving screens from your childhood and want your children have the same kinds of experiences. The problem is that today’s screens, and the entertainment on them, are quite different than what was available even 10 years ago. As graphics have become more realistic and the number of pixels continues to grow, exposure to screens stimulates your child’s mind in ways in which regular, non-electronic life cannot compete. And, you end up with a child who bored with life and disinterested in anything that isn’t digital. A child who is bored is more likely to become irritable, and this can lead to more conflict, and less life satisfaction in all settings. As you can imagine, this can lead to significant challenges in school and at home.
The reality is that some kids can handle more screen stimulation than others and every child does not become addicted. Brain chemistry is a real thing and individual differences do exist. Children with ADHD tendencies, poor social skills, or a history of addictive behaviors within their family are especially vulnerable. Pay attention to your child and the effect that screen stimulation has on him or her. If you notice an unhealthy attachment to screens, do not expect this to go away without intervention. Remember that your child may be experiencing an addiction and may need help to break the spell. The first step is recognizing that there is a problem, and designing a plan to push through the initial resistance toward change.