How to Help Your Anxious Child with Digital Addiction

tantrumDigital addiction is not a joke. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. While the condition has yet to make it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, aka the “psychiatric bible,” LiveScience reports it is being considered for entry. Our previous post asking Is Your Anxious Child Addicted to His iPad? outlined the detrimental side effects and signs of digital addiction. Now it’s time dig deeper and tackle the solution.

Normal or Heading to Addiction? 

Children who aren’t constantly furiously texting or surfing the Internet may seem like an unusual occurrence these days, and scary stats from two articles in UK’s MailOnline tells us why.

  • 33 percent of children are using smartphones or tablets before they can even talk
  • More than 50 percent of parents let babies use tablets or smartphones, with about 14 percent allowing their use for four or more hours per day
  • Britian’s youngest iPad addict, a 4-year-old girl, is currently undergoing psychiatric treatment, having been addicted to technology since age 3

The more devices there are, the higher the chances of digital addiction, and devices keep hitting the market in droves. Any new toy, or digital device, typically has the power to amuse, entertain and capture a child’s attention for hours. Children are usually gung-ho and even somewhat obsessive about any new-found amusement or activity, but that obsession should wane as they master the new activity.

If it doesn’t, the road to addiction may be beckoning.

The trick to putting up a roadblock in that addiction road is to set limits from an early stage – and actually enforce consequences of ignoring those limits and engaging in excessive and unacceptable use.

The Digital Addiction Checklist

While you may not be able to sit your toddler down and have him or her complete a handy test offered by Capio Nightengale Hospital, you can review the 10 questions to see if any hit close to home for your anxious child – or even yourself.

10 Signs of a Potential Digital Dependence Problem

  1. Increasing frequency of staying online longer than intended or expected
  2. Avoiding or ignoring other activities, tasks or work in favor of spending more time on-screen
  3. Delaying activities, including mealtimes, to first check emails or messages
  4. Consistently becoming irritated or annoyed if someone interrupts your online or smartphone activities
  5. Preferring to spend time communicating with people online instead of face-to-face
  6. Constantly thinking about the next time you can get online when you’re off-line
  7. Feeling criticized by family or friends when they mention how much time you spend online
  8. Excitement when thinking about when you can next go online and what you’ll do once there
  9. Preferring on-screen activities to real-life activities
  10. Being defensive about or hiding your online activities

The ’72-Hour Digital Detox’

Parents concerned about their anxious children’s digital use, abuse or possible addiction may do well to go for on a “digital detox” for a 72-hour period. The suggestion comes from Capio Nightengale Hospital psychiatrist Dr. Richard Graham.

Three days may seem like a reasonable amount of time to go without the Internet, smartphones, iPads and the like, but it can feel like a lifetime to children, or anyone, suffering from a digital dependency.

A 2011 study mentioned by Live Science looked at what happened to college students when they went without their digital fix for a mere 24 hours. Participants consisted of 1,000 students across the world who willingly engaging in a daylong abstinence from the Internet and their smartphone and mobile device use. Anxiety and depression were high on the list of outcomes. One student admitted to such a strong desire to use a phone that the student was “itching like a crackhead.”

The Withdrawal Phase

The early stages of digital detox can mimic those experienced by addicts detoxing from alcohol or drugs, complete with a lineup of similar withdrawal symptoms.

Signs of Digital Withdrawal

  • Becoming tense and upset
  • Distress and anger
  • Being greatly affected by the smallest things
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Irritability, agitation and sadness

How you handle the withdrawal symptoms largely depends on your child’s personality and your own instincts. If things get too terrible to bear, outside help may be a feasible option. The general rule is to not give in, and perhaps set up a schedule of alternate activities to distract your child from his or her desire for technology.

If you do happen to cave from incessant pleas, a surefire signal that something is amiss is the instant calmness and apparent happiness that disappears the moment your child’s fingers hit the keypad or screen.

The Resolve

Keeping your child away from digital devices for 72 hours may be tough, but you have to be tougher. Setting limits on digital use is a must to keep the habit from blossoming into an addiction. This counts for children of all ages, with no special treatment given to the youngest set. In fact, they may be easiest to handle, despite their potential for Oscar-winning temper tantrums. And, as Toronto psychologist Oren Amitay tells LiveScience:

“If parents can’t intervene with a 3-year-old,” he said, “good luck with a teen.”

The Re-Introduction of Digital Devices

Once digital devices are out of the system, it’s essential you re-introduce them carefully and in a controlled manner. A balance of activities is the key, including a mix of physical activity in there.

Setting up time frames and activities where children are focused on the real-world and interacting face-to-face with other children is a wise idea. Since that idea may be tougher to set up with the always-online teens and their peers, setting aside family time when devices are off-limits can help.

Perhaps dinner time is a time for everyone to shut down their devices. Maybe half a day on Saturday can be designated a no-digital zone for family activities and endeavors. And children of any age do best by avoiding digital devices right before bedtime, as studies suggest the backlit screen can suppress the body’s melatonin production and interfere with sleep.

Another reason to keep devices out of the bedroom is to help children avoid the temptation they can pose in the middle of the night or as the first thing children reach for when they wake up in the morning.

Children are also big on mimicking what they see, so your own digital use should also be curtailed when appropriate. While the techniques may stir up some groans from your children, or even make you groan, they can help keep the balance between real-life and cyberlife and ensure proper development in the former while avoiding addiction in the latter.


Photo Credit: rafa2010 via Compfight cc