Good technology gone bad

November 4, 2010

By Tim Pfarr

Learn the signs of when your kids have been plugged in too long

Did you have a grandmother who told you technological advances were sinister? Did you just discount her as merely being set in her ways and stuck in the 1950s? She may have been overlooking the obvious benefits of technology, but perhaps she had a point.

While moderate usage of video games, the Internet and cell phones can be harmless, excessive use can have adverse effects, especially on children.

Marianne Goble, counselor at the Wise Heart Center for Psychotherapy in Issaquah, said one of the most important things for a parent to remember is that video games should not take the place of playtime, which is absolutely paramount for children ages 4-12.

She said the playtime should be away from electronics and in the physical presence of friends and parents. This playtime helps a child develop social skills, explore his or her own creativity, and develop an understanding of how others think and feel.

Nonetheless, even electronic communication is preferable to no communication, such as when a child plays a solitary video game, she said. Cutting communication altogether isolates the child and stunts social skills, and the effect can extend into adulthood.

“The impact is huge. It’s very, very huge,” Goble said. “A lot of people don’t get that.”

She said children most often begin isolating themselves from ages 7-9, and it often comes as a result of something troubling in the child’s environment, such as bullying at school or arguments between parents at home.

Dealing with dependency

By using electronics enough — socially or in isolation — a dependency can develop, said Dr. Hilarie Cash, co-author of the book “Video Games & Your Kids: How Parents Stay in Control,” and co-founder of the Internet addiction recovery program Restart in Fall City.

She said using electronics can release dopamine in the brain, which induces a feeling of pleasure.

Excessive use builds up a tolerance in the brain, and when the chemical is taken away, one goes through withdrawal. For the developing brain of a child, such a chemical dependency can affect thought processes, perception of how the world works and resourcefulness, Cash said.

In 2007, the American Medical Association discussed designating video game and Internet addiction as an official diagnosis, although it ultimately decided against doing so. The AMA Council on Science and Public Health wrote in a report that what could be considered video game addiction bears the most resemblance to a gambling addiction.

A child is often in a sedentary state while using video games and computers, which can lead to health problems such as obesity, upper-body muscular-skeletal disorders and increased metabolic rate, according to the report. Some studies also suggested a correlation of video games to attention deficit hyperactive disorder.

Debbie Steinberg Kuntz, a counselor at Issaquah Family Counseling, said a child’s dependency on electronics can strain the parent-child relationship, resulting in arguments.

“It becomes a big power struggle,” she said.

Kuntz said parents should use family meetings to discuss the problem, and provide incentives for straying from electronics. Incentives could be an extra play date or a later bedtime on a given night of the week, she said.

Goble said parents should be sure to replace electronics with relationships when usage is a problem.

“It needs to be relationship with parents, relationship with friends,” she said.

If a child is having difficulty balancing such relationships, counselors can help.

If you see your child beginning to fall into heavy video gaming or use of electronics, try inviting him or her outside to throw a ball and show him or her that such activities can be more fun, Goble said.

Healthy alternatives

Once a child reaches 9 or 10 years old, encourage him or her to find a sport to play, or encourage him or her to learn an instrument. Sports increase physical activity and instruments make strong neural connections in the brain that increase dexterity and coordination, she said.

Maya Andreics is one parent who has taken advantage of these tactics. Her son, Kai, is in first grade, and her daughter, Seana, is in third grade at Challenger Elementary School.

“The rule is they have to play piano first, and then they have an hour to do whatever they want,” Andreics said.

After finishing playing piano, Kai takes to “Super Mario World” on the Wii, and Seana plays “Webkinz,” in which players care for virtual animals.

If a child isn’t interested in music, offer to let him or her choose the instrument, and he or she will likely be more excited about the new venture, Goble said. When a child reaches 11 or 12 years old, he or she may develop an interest in writing, another healthy activity.

To avoid bad habits with electronics, set rules and stick to them, Cash said. Being inconsistent will beget whining, which the child will continue to do until getting what he or she wants. Also, set time limits on usage, monitor what websites he or she visits and consider requiring homework to be finished before allowing any usage.

The AMA, in accordance with the American Council of Pediatrics, recommends limiting electronics use to one to two hours per day and prohibiting violent games, which increase aggressive behavior.

Kuntz said another option is to allow a child to play a video game for a fixed amount of time, then require any further video game time to be educational.

The opposite problem

While limiting time using electronics may be something many parents need to do, some parents may find themselves with the opposite problem, such as Chris Hensen.

Hensen said he gave his third-grade daughter Elliott, who attends Challenger, a Nintendo DSi for her birthday, but she never showed much interest in it. He said it was disappointing, given the hand-held console costs about $150.

“She played it like two days,” he said.

Still, he said he uses bookmarks on his computer to give Elliott and his two younger children access to games on websites such as Nickelodeon when they want to play. He said this method also allows him to monitor what sites Elliott and his two younger children visit.

Regardless, he said the electronic draw hasn’t been particularly strong.

“They’re not too interested in the games,” he said.

Even if your children do not take much interest in video games or other electronics, be sure to maintain open communication to keep your bond strong, which will help you address any problems that could arise.

“That relationship is everything,” Goble said about the parent-child relationship. “It really, truly is.”

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