Devices and technology: Digital addiction in Children and Adolescents

Published on 14th July, 2021

Devices and technology: Digital addiction in Children and Adolescents

Addiction is a mental illness characterised by a person’s continual engagement with a substance or behaviour despite the consequences. This compulsive need to engage in the behaviour or use of substance results in changes in a person’s brain reward circuitry. Over time, the intensity and frequency of the behaviour increases to achieve the same amount of stimulation and pleasure it provided initially. When attempts to stop behaviour is made, person starts to experience unpleasant feelings or sensations that hinder their attempts.

A compulsive need to use your digital devices that interferes with your life and prevents you from completing your daily tasks is a sign of digital addiction. Phone addiction, social media addiction and internet addiction are three types of digital addiction.

A study led by the National Institute of Education and the Media Development Authority in 2010 found that, Singaporean youth spend about 20 hours a week on video gaming. In addition, about 9% of Singaporean youth were found to be “pathological gamers”.

How do I know if my child/teenager has digital addiction?

  • Having a preoccupation with social media, video games, phone or other digital activities/devices
  • Inability to spend lesser time using technology, despite being aware of issues caused by it
  • Lack of interest or inability to feel pleasure in offline activities that brought pleasure
  • Prioritising use of devices over personal hygiene or self-care
  • Using devices or technology to relieve or escape negative emotions
  • Lying to family or loved ones regarding time spent on device use
  • Difficulties with interpersonal relationships or in academics due to engagement with devices/technology
  • Feeling unpleasant emotions such as sadness, anxiety, irritability and/or restlessness when deprived of access to device/technology
  • Physical ailments such as migraines, sleep disturbances

How does a child/teenager get addicted?

Youth who are isolated and in pain are prone to digital addiction. Engaging in online activities provides them a place to escape and sense of connection that they may not feel in their real life.

As with any addiction, using devices and technology (especially social media and games) increases the release of endorphins and dopamine. Endorphins and dopamine are neurotransmitters involved in our brain’s pleasure circuitry. Their release relieves pain and stress and helps us feel pleasure respectively. These neurotransmitters are the reason for us feeling good after using technology or devices. It is also why we crave for more time with our devices. However the more time spent with technology, the more stimulation is required to achieve the same amount of pleasure as in initial stages. The constant chase after this pleasure results in addiction towards technology or device.

When anyone caves into the craving and spends an increasing amount of time with technology, it results in a constant overstimulation that shifts their nervous system into fight or flight mode. This disturbance to their body’s biological and hormonal systems could result in mood and mental health disorders. Depression, eating disorders and anxiety disorders commonly co-occur with digital addiction. Though it is still debated if the disorders stem from the digital addiction or a cause that pushes a person towards digital addiction, it is accepted that it feeds into a vicious cycle of overuse of technology to chase feelings of anxiety, sadness and loneliness.

What can I do to help my child?

1) Be a role model

The younger they are, the more likely they are to mimic their parents. Be aware of your usage of technology. If parents are glued to their phones or gaming devices, children are less likely to engage in offline activities. Plan activities that allows you to disconnect from technology and reconnect with your children.

2) Be vigilant

The younger your child is, setting up parental control in their devices and manage access to internet and software would allow you to monitor their usage. It also allows you to be aware of the websites they surf or apps that they download. Regardless of their age, be honest and upfront about your actions and the reasons you do so.

3) Be understanding and realistic

Keeping an eye on online activity can be easier for younger children. As they move into pre-adolescence and adolescence, their use of technology and devices would inadvertently increase. Their want to belong and be on par with their friends would result in them having an online presence and demanding privacy from parents. Negotiate appropriate time for using devices and be firm in implementing these rules.

4) Seek professional help

If your child has difficulties that interfere with their academics and interpersonal relationships, it is advisable to seek professional help.