Online Addictions in Young People:
How it Starts, and How it Stops
I recently attended a training conference in Arizona which dealt in large measure with online addictions. Anyone who cares enough to learn what causes and cures them needs to know that they typically begin in childhood. I am writing three columns to explain what is happening to more and of our young people, and to help parents do all they can to prevent online addictions from developing in their children.
When they are delivered to children in exciting private sessions with their own computers, video games and pornography can become quite addictive. All of the behavioral symptoms of drug addiction are present with online addictions. All four of the brain’s biochemical systems that get messed up in drug addiction look just the same for chronic gamers and pornography addicts. The spikes in their blood pressure and heart rate look just the same as those of drug abusers.
Compared to drug addictions, Internet addictions tend to develop in children much earlier, and do more damage. Compared to drug addicts, Internet addicts have poorer social skills, empathy, and interest in having relationships with other people. In South Korea, all children are screened for this in public school at age 10, and their treatment centers receive financial support from video game companies. The governments of both South Korea and China have declared Internet addiction to be their number one public health problem. Both nations have many government-sponsored residential treatment programs for this issue, but there are only one or two centers for this now in America. We probably need one or two dozen.
The appetite and vulnerability for Internet addiction start in childhood. For normal development of emotions and relationships, it is important to develop a healthy emotional bond with a significant other person in the home. When there is someone who checks in with you daily on a physical and emotional level, who feels up when you’re up, down when you’re down, has time for you, and someone to whom you give the same, this produces attachment. It forms the basis for all other close relationships you will have. Without this, it is hard for anyone to understand or care about another person enough to find identity, partnership, and intimacy.
Some people have good attachment and bonding in early childhood, and then lose it. This happens when conditions change, when the emotional bond becomes weakened or lost, and when the child reacts in such a way that he takes all the hurt of the loss inside, and tries to make it go away. How does this happen?
Picture a young boy or girl that you have known and loved. Imagine that he has been picked on and made fun of by an older boy. Or imagine the girl has been exposed to some unwanted sexual experience that she doesn’t know how to talk about. They both have tried to go to their parents about such matters before but have been told it’s no big deal, get over it. They basically have three ways they can cope with their pain. They can just play it safe and hope it doesn’t happen again. They can fight it by pitching a fit and hoping some caretaker responds. Or they can ask somebody new for help.
If they think fight, flight, and asking for help won’t solve their problems, they have a fourth option – tuning out, and this can become quite the deeply burned groove in the brain. They learn that by distracting and comforting themselves, they can take away their pain temporarily, make believe it didn’t happen or it didn’t hurt. When they are distracting themselves like this, if they happen to be offered an electronic device like a smartphone or Xbox or an electronic tablet, they will bond with that device, and give it credit for making them feel better.
More and more products are being marketed to younger and younger children to help them self-stimulate, and self-soothe. If you don’t believe me, Google i-potty or aptivity seat. Such devices all produce what is coming to be known as the virtual child, or the digital child. And parents have a part to play in this sad story. These devices allow parents to stay plugged into their electronic worlds as well. The child’s problems seem to get solved without any real human connection. But they just get worse.
Here’s another way to look at how parents give away their bonds with their children. First, they stop disciplining their children, which allows children to start regulating themselves. Then children stop telling their brains what to do, and they begin to be controlled by their brains. Finally their brains stop telling the computer what to do, and the computer starts telling the children what to do. Control has passed from the parents to the child’s heart to the child’s brain to the computer and finally to the people who program and send games and pornography into the child’s computer, the very people who are piping into our electronic devices not just an alternative view of reality, but perhaps also an entire world, a virtual alternative reality. These children are now several steps removed from a healthy bond with their parents, or for that matter, with any other human being.
What can parents do to prevent all this from happening? They can start early on using six basic behaviors that evoke bonding with their child: eye contact, smiles, gentle touches, soft tones of voice, eating together, and doing things together. The six best ways to do things together can be remembered by the letters of the word PLACED: giving them Playfulness, Love, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy, and Discipline. Without these, the child’s heart and mind get displaced.
Parents need to know what are healthy, appropriate limits at each age for children’s exposure to personal electronic devices. Experts advise no screen time for children aged 0-2. At age 2-7, they advise 0-2 hours of non-computer screen time, such as TV. At age 7-12, they advise 1-2 hours of screen time, with no video games. At ages 13 and older, teens get 2-3 hours of screen time, with no more than half an hour of non-violent, non-sexual video game play. And they advise four other important rules for electronics: no screens in the bedroom or private areas of the house; all Internet, texting, and gaming well monitored; no MMO’s (massively multi-player online games where you can play with strangers) at least one day a week of no digital media.
When children protest these limits being set, they are showing that they are more invested in their devices than in their family. And that is the key sign for knowing when children need to be disciplined: when their behavior shows that they are more bonded with their electronics than they are with their family. Parents shouldn’t try to control the child, just the consequences. This way they are just teaching the child what will happen when they behave this way in the future with other people – their friends, roommates, teachers, employers, lovers, and spouse. The harm that is done when children are allowed to set their own limits with electronics is way more damaging than most parents realize, much more than I realized before going to my conference.
To understand what dangers unsupervised electronics are exposing your children to, you will need to read carefully my next two columns, on how the Internet is offering video games and pornography to your children, and what you can do to protect them.
© Dr. Paul F. Schmidt more info at mynewlife.com (502) 633 2860
How Children Get Addicted to Video Games
The video game industry is growing at four times faster than the US economy. It is becoming like a mainline sport, with surprisingly large TV contracts. Some reputable universities are now offering full scholarships for the winners of gaming tournaments, and I know of adults who believe they can support themselves from prize money they can make on the tournament circuit. Brain scans and studies of heart rate and blood pressure show that during gaming, the mind and body of a frequent gamer will experience something very much like a cocaine rush. So what is the big appeal?
Imagine that your 11-year-old nephew Johnny is not having a very good life so far. He doesn’t feel he fits into his family, and he usually feels mistreated, misunderstood, and powerless at home. He has a poor body image, and he has been rejected by all the girls he has approached. He has not had much success in academics or athletics, so he has come to feel like a failure. He feels overlooked by his friends, and he longs for an identity or an image. He has never yet experienced a passion for life.
Nobody seems to notice when Johnny spends more and more time back in his room. With time, effort, and some natural ability, he gets pretty good at video games. His life catches fire when he discovers League of Legends, or the more addictive upper levels of Mindcraft. He appears on screen with a very athletic body that can do amazing things. Girls who make his eyes bug out, proportioned and dressed more voluptuously than any girl in his school, seem to come after him when he is online. They comfort, help, and even admire him, magically, whenever he seems to want or deserve it. Other players he has never met, of God-knows-what-age-or-gender, are appealing to him for help, and praising him for what he does. He doesn’t know whether these people are real or imaginary, because he doesn’t want to know. He just knows they feel a lot more real than any of the people he knows at home and at school, because when he is gaming, he feels more alive than he has ever felt in his life. He has become a hero, and you didn’t even know about it.
The United States Army tests soldiers before training them to go into combat, to see if they are emotionally prepared to shoot to kill. At the start of World War II, only about 10% of young male recruits were ready to take an enemy life. Today this figure has grown all the way to 90%! Sure, this amazing turnabout is due in part to our society, which no longer values courtesy, civility, or open-mindedness, and saves its heroic and celebrity status for people who are more likely to be bigoted and hateful. But make no mistake, the “ready to kill” mindset is also due to video games, especially MMORPG’s: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games.
Research with children who play games where they routinely pull the trigger and take human lives always shows that they have lost tremendous amounts of empathy. And if they play the games long enough, they also lose much of their social skills, judgment, and even interests. Prolonged exposure to video games increases aggression, isolation, and anxiety. More and more researchers are concluding that the huge rise in popularity of video games, along with the entire society moving away from healthy emotional bonding and toward bonding with their electronic devices, are the primary reasons we are seeing a four-fold increase during a single generation in the number of children diagnosed with either ADD or an autistic spectrum disorder. So what is going to happen to these kids?
More and more young people are somehow becoming conditioned to think of themselves as neither male nor female, neither gay nor straight. Many are coming to feel they are not Red or Blue politically, neither American nor anti-American. But many young people are now friendly to gunfire. And if they have no emotional bonding with anyone, no identity, no purpose, no sense of confidence under marketable abilities, they are therefore susceptible to becoming conscripted to be a terrorist, if only an unintentional terrorist, one who thinks he is making the world a better place, just as he has been doing for years in the only world where he feels alive, the virtual world where he has learned to point and fire on instant instinct.
How can parents raise their children so that they are not susceptible to chemical, behavioral or online addictions? The best prevention is a combination of healthy bonding as we have discussed in the previous article, along with restricting and monitoring the child’s gaming. Games need to be used to reward homework and housework, not to avoid them. With both video games and pornography, restrictions are more effective when they are done at multiple levels – at the DNS, at the router, and with the device itself. If that sounds too difficult for you, what are you going to do about making sure your children have not gone to places on the Internet I won’t mention or explain, places where they can leave no trace, and can get around all filters? If you are confused or uninformed, you need to assume your children know more about technology than you do, so don’t be too proud or scared to get help.
And where can parents or addicted gamers get help? For online gaming addiction, I would recommend video-game-addiction.org, and you can Google for yourself something like “online video game addiction treatment”. I recently met a psychologist at our conference who runs a center just for online addicts aged 18-25: Dr. Hilarie Cash in Washington state, and her website is also excellent, restartlife.com. The important thing for parents is not to try to tackle the problem alone. They are going to need help, and the same is true for dealing with online pornography, the subject of the next article.
© Dr. Paul F. Schmidt more info at mynewlife.com (502) 633 2860
How Children Get Addicted to
Online Pornography, and Get Rid of It
Parents need to carefully monitor what children are contacting through their electronic devices. This cannot be done when children are allowed to use internet-connected devices in private, behind closed doors, and in their bedrooms. Parents who neglect to do this are in effect turning their children over to the culture, and make no mistake, we are experiencing a profound pornification of our culture.
The Internet is such an attractive place for children to learn about sex. It seems to be so available, affordable, and anonymous, but it is not as private as it seems. Children are often told certain websites are private, but they will find out soon enough that parents will discover what goes on there, or worse still, that peers or complete strangers have shared their pictures and information where they don’t want them to be shared. No website is private forever – there is too much money to be made from hacking into them.
Parents need to learn certain truths and make sure that their children understand these things well enough to explain them in their own words back to the parents. All parents need to make their own list of important truths, but here are some of my favorites:
Images portraying nudity plus novelty plus super-sized body parts are very addictive, because of the brain chemicals they kick off in the viewer. Addicts don’t know when they are addicted until their lives are ruined. Sexual pleasure is like super glue: it is very painful and time-consuming to disconnect it from whatever you let yourself experience alongside it. Therefore avoid pairing sexual pleasure with shame, pain, loneliness, or another person who is not bound to you and your family, as in marriage. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, you can get your brain trained without even knowing it, so that you become turned on to things you used to ignore. Then bad things come to feel good, and you become unable to get turned on without these things. Shame doesn’t prevent unhealthy sex, it just provokes it. Porn isn’t real: no woman will want to marry or have or raise children with men who want them to act like the women portrayed in pornography. Porn stars are just actors who are bribed, drugged, or abusively coerced into acting as if they come into love-making already preheated for sex. Healthy people don’t make love without the protection of the lover’s emotions or commitment, or without both parties being protected from detection, infection, or conception. If you don’t know how to teach these concepts and lessons to your children, find a friend, relative, or counselor like me who can.
Parents need to teach children how to handle an unhealthy stimulation before it has a chance to handle them. Around age 5 (or earlier if they go spend the day or night in a home you can’t fully trust), teach them the difference between healthy and unhealthy touch (seeing or touching any part of the body covered by a bathing suit is unhealthy). Around age 8 it is good to make sure they understand not to trust new information they don’t get from you or someone you trust. Around age 11 (or earlier if signs of puberty come sooner), children need to be taught the basics of how, when and why babies are made. They need to learn where to safely satisfy their curiosity when it arises about what adult and opposite-sexed bodies look like without their clothes. They need to know what is wrong with pornography, how it separates touching from love, bodies from emotions, pleasure from responsibility — these separations cannot be sustained in the real world of relationships. And somewhere around 14 or 15 (when they begin to fall in love, to date, or to be around peers who are dating), they need to be taught about love and courtship, about power and freedom, dependency and honesty, compassion and respect, about healthy and unhealthy relationships.
For children who do not have healthy emotional bonds with their parents and their peers, pornography can be every bit as addictive as video games. So what can parents do to correct a problem their child may have?
- Find out how your child is accessing pornography. It could be books or magazines like the old days, or it could be from the home of a child he or she plays with. But more likely it is through cable TV, or through the internet delivering video games, pornographic websites, or the personal exchanges of explicit literature, pictures, chat, or webcam videos (often they are live, and rather irresistible to a curious child or teen, just as the sight of your child undressing might be irresistible to someone else).
- Get the material and internet access away from your child.
- With pointed questions, draw out your children on how they would build and maintain a healthy body image; on how they would heal from unhealthy exposure to sexual contact or material (how they’d seek to recover from the shame, desire, bonding, and misinformation); on how they would seek, attract, and pursue a healthy love relationship with someone they were interested in romantically; how they would decide what kinds of affectionate and sexual touching were appropriate/healthy at each stage in their relationship; how they would manage a love relationship to go where they wanted it to go; how they would identify an addiction in themselves or their friends or loved one, and what kind of help they would advise for breaking the bonds of an addictive habit. Don’t start lecturing or correcting your child just yet, just write down what they are saying without any emotion other than interest.
- Point out that there is a lot they don’t know, and a lot of what they do know they might choose to believe is false if they learned better answers to your questions. See if they are interested in learning more from you, and/or someone else who either of you thinks might know more than you do about these things.
Where can parents or addicts receive help in getting off of pornography? Residential settings have not been proven yet to be very effective. No single book is widely considered authoritative. You can look at the work of Dr. Kimberly Young, at netaddiction.com. For online pornography addiction I recommend sexhelp.com. This last website gives a free online test to show if the person can bread their own bad habit, or whether they may have a sexual addiction and therefore need counseling to develop a program of recovery.
You might also want to have more insights and ideas about how to protect your children from sexual abuse. If so, contact me at [email protected] and I will send you another article on how to provide protection and healing for your children from the dangers of sexual abuse. Finally, remember technology is only as good or evil as the purpose for which it is used, so use it to get yourself some help.
© Dr. Paul F. Schmidt more info at mynewlife.com (502) 633 2860