How Do You Know If Your Child Is Addicted To Social Media And Gaming, And What Can You Do?
Designed to take over
Both social media, and its gaming subset play into two feelings which can lead to distraction or addiction. Delivered in bite-sizes, social media and gaming speak to the low attention span of our generation as well as the need for instant gratification.
“Gaming companies hire psychologists for their expertise in human behaviour and to use persuasive design to keep brains engaged and motivated to continue,” says Dr. Vivien Yang, Educational & Child Psychologist at Bloom Child Psychology. She believes the way they work delivers a dopamine-hit in the brain.
The instantly gratifying nature of social media has been well-documented, in addition to that, gaming uses “reinforcement techniques such as trophies, treasure boxes or achievement levels that trigger reward centres in the brain”, all of which make it harder for a child to break away. “Experts believe that social media and gaming are designed to be addictive,” says Zhang Zheying, Co-Founder, Good School Learning Hub.
Distraction versus addiction – the obvious signs
Zhang goes on to explain that distraction is temporary (such as responding to a message and then going back to the task at hand) whereas an addiction is a distraction that takes on a life of its own.
“Younger kids tend to have less developed executive functions, which means it is often harder for them to resist urges and exercise self-control,” says Dr. Yang. This makes them more prone to developing addictive behaviours and a harder time breaking out of them. She cites a decline in areas such as studies, sleep, friendship, personal self-care or hygiene as potential signs that these activities might have gotten out of hand.
“Parents should also pay attention to how their child reacts when limits are set or when they do not get access to social media or gaming. Intense irritability or emotional outbursts when access is restricted is a sign of addiction,” she says. She says that when gaming or social media also develops into a maladaptive coping mechanism – a form of escape from stressors or negative emotions such as loneliness – the risk of it developing into an addiction is high.
She adds that while boys are more prone to become addicted to caming, girls are more likely to be drawn into mainstream social media.
But…let’s not forget the benefits
It’s not all doom and gloom, gaming can be beneficial socially and help children develop problem solving and visual-spatial skills. It can encourage teamwork and also enhance a child’s memory. Games can also be a good opportunity for introverted children to make friends, as they learn to socialise.
“These are things that can stimulate the brain to function, which could be important for other aspects of learning,” says Zhang, who uses games in his school to enhance these elements in a child’s experience.
Social media can be a great interactive tool for children to share common interests, exchange ideas and develop relationships. These are skills that most preteens and teens can carry with them through to their professional lives. But Zhang says that the benefits are directly related to the content the child is consuming.
“The key here is to be aware and be able to control to a large extent what kind of apps your children are into. Anything in excess can be detrimental to a child’s physiological and physical health,” adds Dr Yang.
The way forward
There have been many studies about the detrimental effects of too much screen time. Where possible, it’s always best to delay a child’s exposure to the screen as long as possible. Outdoor activities, sports and games are recommended by most experts.
When a child starts using a smartphone for games, whether that’s on a parent or caregiver’s phone, that’s when it’s important to lay down boundaries. This needs to be a clear and agreed plan from the get-go – remember it’s a lot hard to “take back” freedom that has already been given.
Next, have an open discussion about the risks involved and teach them to navigate the online world with caution, dignity and compassion. This could range from being clear about how they wanted to be treated online – which will reflect on how they treat others and the comments they make. Parents should also teach them the difference between private and public information and how to safeguard their personal information. Needless to say, parents should always lead by example.
Finally, talk to your kids about boundaries and set them together. “When setting limits, try to respect the natural rhythm of a game. For example, some kids tell us that if they stop in the middle of a battle, they risk losing t heir trophies and online friends.” This is key, says Dr Yang. Avoid banning gaming or social media altogether. “Because it’s so prevalent these days, banning a child from gaming or being on social media can make it harder for them to connect with peers. So, we need to strike a balance,” says Dr Yang.