Can kids develop internet-use disorder?

SARAH MACDONALD
Last updated 09:58 19/02/2013
internet-use disorder

INTERNET-USE DISORDER: Some psychologists argue video game and internet-dependence share the characteristics of other addictions.

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For those who haven't noticed or are gripped by denial, 2013 is irrevocably underway. By mid-February, there's no more hiding behind the fantasy that it's still summer holiday season. Workplaces are on full throttle and schools are in. For adults and children alike, spare time is again at a premium and homework, sport and after-school activities are conspiring to telescope down time. And just as I am lamenting the loss of my holiday pleasures, such as getting lost in literature, my kids are also mourning their favourite pastime.

Screen time.

All over the country, children are going cold turkey or suffering heavily restricted hours of iPods, iPads, computer games, X-box, Wii and DS. For many, the withdrawal from games such as Minecraft and Super Mario is excruciating; no less than an adult abstaining from their addiction to cigarettes, alcohol or chocolate.

And the battle is unrelenting. Excuse me as I suffer the latest attack ...

My son and his friend are hassling me for my computer. It is Sunday afternoon - they were coaxed away with biscuits when I began ten sentences ago, but are now back. "Please, just a few minutes, I've got to finish something, I didn't get a proper go'. They are on either side of me pleading, begging, cajoling and pestering.  

Ah, my bloke has intervened. They've gone. Where was I?

Most parents let their kids almost self regulate their screen time during the holidays.  I confess it got to the point in my house that boys would arrive at my doorstop with a hand-me-down laptop and a mumble of 'hiwhat'syourwi-fipassword'. There'd be relative peace for hours as they played side by side, as their avatars met in 'Minecraft'.  Yet it was always a borrowed peace, as ordering them off would trigger resistance, pleading, nagging and often compete meltdowns.  And that was just me.  One day I spent an hour with a child on my heels, pulling at my sleeve snuffling as fat tears slipped down his face. "Just one more hit, five more minutes. Pleeeeeaaaaase".

I'm no anti-computer Luddite. It's hypocritical to ban screen time when I spend much of my life online. As for TV, I watched an awful lot of it as a kid and still depend on a drip feed of certain shows (presently 'Madmen', 'Girls', 'Q and A' and even, God help me, 'Survivor').  And despite my early scepticism, I have come to appreciate that games can improve spatial intelligence, design skills, problem solving and hand-eye co-ordination.

I don't even buy the 'gaming is anti-social' line. The interaction may not be eye-to-eye but it can build relationships, bind friendships and is vital social currency. It's a brave parent who banishes their child to social death by denying them knowledge of Skylanders. Besides, many of these games are, simply, a hell of a lot of fun.

So there's no problem, right? Oh, excuse me again, please ...

I have now been hassled another four times for my computer, since I began writing. The plea has changed from 'Minecraft' to 'Club Penguin'. What's worse, every time I get up to get a drink or go to the loo I have had to shoo them off another screen.  Now they can't think of anything to do.

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'Trampoline?' 'Too hot!'

'Skateboard?' 'I've lost my helmet.' 

'Lego?' 'Too boring'. 

They are driving me nuts.

Some psychologists argue video game and internet-dependence share the characteristics of other addictions, including emotional shutdown, lack of concentration and withdrawal symptoms if the gadgets are removed.  The culprit, they argue, is dopamine; a brain chemical we produce when we see something that is new and stimulating or experience pleasure. We produce more when we drink alcohol, listen to music, have sex, or play a video game. We pump it out in a spurt if we have drugs such as cocaine. Research has shown it's related to arousal, addiction and reward. Hence, kids become aggressive, irritable and hostile when screens are turned off.

My son is now screaming - hyped up and aggressive because he has been told he can't get back on the Wii or the computer.  His friend is quietly sobbing 'just one more game, one more game, please'. I can hear my partner starting to crack.

In recognition of threats posed by increasingly prevalent electronic devices, the bible for the psychiatric profession, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), will include internet-use disorder as a condition ''recommended for further study'' in its revised edition, the DSM-V, which will be issued in May.

The inclusion classifies internet-use disorder alongside other mental disorders that need further research before becoming a recognised mental illness. It seems an overreaction until you hear about the Taiwanese teenager who collapsed and died at an Internet café last year after playing the online video game Diablo 3 for 40 hours straight. There are now special clinics in Asia and Sydney for those addicted to video gaming. 

My 8 year old is now weeping as his father has announced he's taking him for a swim. Sometimes the only way to get them away from the screen is to take them out, but the boys don't want to go.  It also pains me to tell you that the girls are playing café and doing cartwheels. Ask many a parent and most will probably agree that boys seem more screen dependent than girls. Certainly use is higher.  

I don't want to spread fear and pathos. I have read lots of studies that make unproven claims about brain chemistry and the like that I have not included in this piece. Pathologising technology use is clearly stupid. We all are reliant upon our technology - parents and children alike.

I am also dubious about notions that 'a proper childhood' must take place outside. We actually have a Billy cart in our garage, a bit of bush close by and kids play cricket in our street for hours. I spent much of my childhood days in front of the idiot box and my kids have probably replaced my own blank-faced TV stare with far more interactive computer use.

I'm also cautious about new psychological disorders and concerned about over medicating our children.   It's clear more research is warranted. 

Yet I know many parents are so worried they are banning TV, computers and gaming on weekdays, in term time, or even in holidays. When they tell me of such rules I look at them with a mixture of incredulity, jealousy, awe and guilt. I know I couldn't manage and frankly I don't want to. 

Yet I must now admit, my son has just come back from the local pool chlorine soaked, goggle marked and joyful.  He's lost the strung out, surly attitude.  He has energy, enthusiasm and a bounce back. 

It is clear parents have to set their own parameters, and it's a personal choice. I wish them well in the battle. The hours allowed on screens shouldn't be judged or used as another form of parental guilt.   I know this is an area of concern, friction, fear and for myself, even some confusion.   I've decided to restrict combined screen time to an hour a day on weekdays and 2 hours on weekends. Well, I'm going to try anyway.  What about you?

I also have to admit that the swim has earned my boy the reward of some technology time. So I've got to go - he wants my computer.

- Daily Life

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