Screen Media Immersion—Part 1 of 2

At what point is our increasing involvement a manifestation of addiction?

Posted Feb 27, 2018

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

Portable computer technology facilitates remarkable access to information and has become an essential 21st century learning resource for children. On the flip side of that coin, however, is that excessive screen media involvement can hinder or even precipitate a regression in children’s social and emotional development.

Screen media refers to visual electronic content created to educate, entertain, or promote and sell goods and services to users and includes social media—computer-based platforms that allow users to create, share, or exchange information, career interests, ideas, pictures, and videos in virtual communities and networks.

Involvement with screen media can escalate to the point where it becomes obsessive-compulsive. But while it’s increasingly apparent that screen media absorption has addictive qualities, and despite the emergence of treatment programs for Internet addiction and parents’ growing parental fears of how it’s dominating their kids’ lives, researchers, behavioral health professionals, and child development experts continue to debate whether or not it should be formally classified as a form of addiction.

Addiction evolves from an unhealthy and mood-altering relationship between a person and a substance or an activity (gambling, eating, sex, etc.) that progresses to the point where using the substance or engaging in the activity interferes with daily life, becomes beyond voluntary control, and continues in spite of increasing negative consequences. Addiction is characterized by the presence of obsession, compulsion, progression, and withdrawal, all four of which are apparent with excessive screen media involvement.

Obsession involves persistent preoccupation with, thoughts about, and desire for a specific substance or activity. Compulsion is an irresistible impulse to act on the obsession for that substance or activity. Progression refers to an escalation of involvement with the substance or activity in terms of intensity, frequency, and severity. Over time, that involvement consumes a greater percentage of time, attention, and energy and leads to more serious problems in different areas of life. Withdrawal occurs when a person experiences mental, emotional, or physical distress or discomfort when they discontinue the substance or activity—activating the drive to resume use in order to avoid that discomfort.

Neuroscience helps us understand how substances and activities affect the brain similarly. Alcohol and other drug use activates neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, which releases the neurotransmitter dopamine (the feel-good chemical messenger associated with attention, mood, motivation, and pleasure) into the brain’s reward system, creating the experience of pleasure. Research on the brain’s reward system indicates that, while substances such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and opioids deliver much larger doses of dopamine than activities such as gambling, sex, or food, a reward is a reward, regardless of whether it comes from a substance or an activity.

The anticipation and receipt of new screen media content or the completion of a video game task activates the same reward pathways and releases dopamine in the brain. The BlackBerry (the dominant smartphone before the iPhone wrested away that designation) didn’t become known as the “CrackBerry” for nothing. Similarly, occasionally I hear Facebook referred to as “Facecrack.”

As of yet, there is no research on the long-term effects of excessive screen media use. However, if addiction manifests as a pathological relationship with a mood altering experience that has life damaging consequences, the implications are evident. This is an area of particular concern for children and adolescents whose brains are still very much under construction.

It is striking that computer technology designers and engineers, who know better than anyone how screen media and the technology that delivers it affect human behavior, tend to be tech-cautious as parents. (Steve Jobs was a famously low-tech parent.)

Pathological gambling, compulsive sexual activity, and eating disorders were considered for inclusion as forms of addiction in the most recent iteration of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, when DSM-5 was released in 2013, only gambling addiction made the cut. Internet gaming disorder was listed among problems deserving of additional research and potential inclusion in a future edition of the DSM.

The World Health Organization (WHO) includes “gaming disorder” in the beta draft of the 11th edition of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), scheduled for release in 2018. The ICD is the international counterpart to the DSM and serves as a global standard for defining health conditions and diseases.

According to WHO, gaming disorder is characterized by a persistent or recurrent pattern of behavior that includes:

  1. Impaired control over the frequency, intensity, and duration of online or offline video gaming;
  2. Gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities and results in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning;
  3. Continuation or escalation of gaming despite negative consequences.

As proposed, although a formal diagnosis of gaming disorder generally requires this behavior pattern to be present for at least one year, in severe cases the amount of time can be shortened.[1]

Meanwhile, China and some other Asian countries already consider Internet addiction a formal disorder. According to the China Youth Internet Association, as much as 14 percent of urban youth in China—some 24 million kids—are considered Internet addicts.[2]

Appropriately, many parents worry about their kids’ attachment to screen media and have observed withdrawal reactions in their children, including anxiety, anger—even temper tantrums—when access to screen devices is curtailed.

Recommendations

Make certain times and activities screen-free.

No digital devices at the table during family meals. Limit your children’s screen access when visiting relatives and family friends and going to the movies, restaurants, museums, exhibits, and sporting events. This gets them out into the world in ways that encourage in-person—rather than virtual—connection, and interaction. Take your kids walking in nature and hiking in wilderness areas where the Wi-Fi signals are limited or nonexistent. This serves the healthy purposes of bringing their attention to the natural world, with its present-centering beauty and wonders, and facilitating physical activity and exercise.

Limit access to screens in your kids’ bedrooms.

This includes smartphones, computers, TVs, and video games. In-bedroom screen access is a contributing factor in sleep deprivation for many kids. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to reduced capacity in concentration, attention, and memory; has negative impacts on mood; and often leads to behavior problems.

Put screens in common areas.

Since 2010, many kids live a fair amount of their lives virtually. Having screens in your home’s more public spaces will make it easier for you to monitor your kids’ screen media use and mentor them with regard to it.

Role model and practice what you preach.

Screen media use is often different for parents, and you may have work-related or other legitimate reasons for using screen media. Nonetheless, what your kids observe you doing has much more influence on them than what you say to them. They pay infinitely more attention to your actions than your words. And words without works will fall flat.

Part 2 will focus on the proliferating screen media involvement of adults.

Copyright 2018 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain and Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery (coming July, 2018)

References

[1] https://icd.who.int/dev11/l-m/en#/http%3a%2f%2fid.who.int%2ficd%2fentity%2f1448597234 (Accessed February 20, 2017)

[1] David Mosher, “High Wired: Does Addictive Internet Use Restructure the Brain?” Scientific American (June 17, 2011), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-addictive-internet-use-restructure-brain/.