Digital Cocaine?

June 29, 2018

Image: MeMyself&Jen

Whether your kids still delight in Peppa Pig, have moved on to Minecraft, or graduated to Fortnite, chances are they spend a lot more time watching pixels dance on a screen than playing in the park. Since the iPad was released eight years ago, hammering the final nail in the coffin of a traditional chasing-the-dog-round-the-clothesline childhood, screentime has been blamed for everything from an increase in mental illness to school shootings.

But they’re just games, aren’t they? We all grew up watching cartoons. Are screens really that bad?

I’ll admit, my view on how much exposure to screens I allow my kids is easily corrupted by my own interests – happy to fling them a device to keep them quiet when it suits me, but the first to yank it away, cursing the evil inventions, making them responsible for every ounce of aggression or defiance my kids might lash out when I need something to blame (other than my parenting).

So, what’s so bad about online games?

Online games offer a fully immersive experience with immediate rewards, instant escape from reality and a safe place to fail.  There is always something else, always a new update, a new experience welcoming you.

While I’d love to bring my kids up in the simple days of wallpapered kitchens from the 70’s, we ‘grown-ups’, as a collective, have created a different world in 2018. A world where a family game of scrabble, or a two-dimensional book just can’t compare to the sizable hit of dopamine computer games dish up.

In short, real life can’t compete.

I see the impact in the way my kids are not only reluctant to get off their devices, but their lack of enthusiasm for things that should make them excited. Parks. Fairs. Dinners-out. Footy. Nothing offers the instant rewards; the bells and whistles games provide.  While some kids dabble in gaming and still manage a healthy balanced life, many are struggling – mine included.

My son was in tears because I asked him to get ready for the park. Why do we have to go? This was the sign, for me, that he had been lost to gaming, and I had to find him again.

What are the signs that screen time may be causing harm?

Preoccupation –  lack of interest in anything else, reduction in extra-curricular activities, thinking about gaming even when not playing, obsessively watching people play games on Youtube.

Deception – overriding any control mechanism you put in place to limit screentime, using credit cards to enhance gaming experience without your knowledge…

Withdrawal –  when screen time is reduced or banned they become restless, irritable, angry, bored (there is NOTHING to do), needing to play for longer, with more gems/skins/enhancements to get the same buzz. Do they still play despite recognising the negative aspects (mood, tiredness, loss of social contact, falling grades)?

Are we still talking about a kid’s game, here, or a drug addiction?

From what I’ve seen, many games are intentionally designed to keep you hooked, using state of the art behavioural psychology – Minecraft, for example, never ends.  

Overexposure causes structural changes to your child’s growing brain: numbed pleasure response, hyper-reactivity and willpower erosion (source: Gamequitter.com). Put simply, they become accustomed to instant gratification and constant reinforcement and reward.

Gaming provides many of our kids with a sense of achievement and belonging they may not have found before, and their online conquests can even numb the drive to achieve goals in real life. But what constitutes ‘overexposure’? And is that the same for every kid?

Mine have never had free play till all hours, have limited sessions, yet they still seem to live for gaming.

Sounds scary. Can we just opt out?

The world has changed. These kids have never lived in a pre-internet age where climbing trees and backyard cricket were first-line entertainment options. It’s a brave new world that demands fluency in technology to be employable.  Indeed, my son tells me if you’re not up on the latest game (Fortnite, this week…) you’ll be left out of half the conversations at lunch (not unlike not having the best marbles, collector cards, or handballs, in our day). With schools requiring devices to learn, opting out of screentime is not practical.

So, the middle ground is to ensure screen time remains one small part of a balanced, healthy life of socialisation, physical activity, and education. Sounds simple? From my experience, managing three boys who’d do anything to sit on their Xbox all day, it’s not!  In fact, device time management is the biggest cause of conflict in our family.

How can we limit gaming without wrecking our relationship with our children?

A plethora of aps and software have met the growing need of parents to feel like they are in control of their children’s screentime. I use Microsoft Family (free, for Xbox and laptops) and Screentime Labs (for android tablets) as they allow me to be one step removed from getting them to ‘step away from the device’. But while they reduce some arguments (with the ‘time-used’ being indisputable, leaving the age-old arguments of ‘I just got on’ redundant) they can cause further conflict (It took me ages to log in, it was laggy, I had to go to the toilet, you logged me off in the middle of a good game and now my friends will hate me!) and make parents a constant slave to managing the parent part of the ap.

Days that have no devices at all, are usually the most enjoyable – for the kids, too, if only they’d care to admit it.

I’ve evicted computers from bedrooms, banned gaming consoles on school days, require exercise and homework to be done first on weekends, and try to fill the voids they feel they’re lacking with new hobbies and ways to socialise. But it’s still a battle.

Are you feeling brave enough to detox your kids? Go unplugged, even a few days a week?   

It won’t be pretty.

Be prepared for tantrums. Be prepared to be told you are the meanest mum/dad in the world. Be prepare to be told ‘this is why no one likes you’ when you cut off their wifi. But stick to your guns, remain firm on the guidelines, and know that, in standing your ground you are doing the best thing for your child in the long run, despite what they might scream at you.

(Another thing our parents never had to deal with – articles telling us how to raise our kids and social media who shame us when we do it differently to them.)

The real consequences of the digital age are not yet known. Research takes years to be published, and already results frighten me.

Every child is drawn to gaming differently. Mine are mesmerized. So, despite the argy bargy it creates, I’m erring on the side of common sense and spending a fair whack of energy monitoring their time in the hope that I can provide my kids with a balance of the technology they crave, and the skills and life experiences they need.

And, like many ugly parts of parenting, I just have to put up with them hating me for it.

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Kylie Kaden
Wrangler of her sticky brood of boys, internationally published author of women’s fiction, and self-confessed chocoholic, Brisbane writer Kylie Kaden’s debut Losing Kate was plucked from the Random House slush-pile and later translated in Europe. Her second novel, Missing You, was published a year later.

Kylie penned her first book while on maternity leave with a kid on her knee, ABC kids chirping in the background, and can often be caught purging out the day’s fermented thoughts at home, sometimes in the laundry so she can’t be found.