Parenting Technology

Giving Your Child a Smartphone is Like Giving Them Cocaine, Says Top Addiction Expert

You wouldn’t let your child disappear to their room with high-grade narcotics would you? 

Yet somehow, we are comfortable to hand them a smartphone (or tablet) and allow free reign.

The two things aren’t all that different. Well, that’s according to Addiction Expert and Director of the UK’s Harley Street Rehabilitation Clinic, Mandy Saligari.

Saligari recently addressed an education conference in London. She shared the confronting message that screen time, in particular social media, can be just as addictive to the teenage brain as drugs and alcohol.

Her advice? It should be treated with the same caution.

Speaking alongside experts in technology addiction and adolescent development, Saligari said screen time wasoften overlooked as a potential vehicle for addiction in young people.

“I always say to people, when you’re giving your kid a tablet or a phone, you’re really giving them a bottle of wine or a gram of coke,” she said.

“Are you really going to leave them to knock the whole thing out on their own behind closed doors? Why do we pay so much less attention (to screens) when they work on the same brain impulses?”

“When people tend to look at addiction, their eyes tend to be on the substance or thing – but really it’s a pattern of behaviour that can manifest itself in a number of different ways,” Saligari said, naming food fixation, self-harm, sexting and social media as examples.

So, why are we so connected to our devices?

Yikes! Of course, this concept is quite the bombshell to wrap your head around if you’ve a tween or teen who’s surgically attached to their device. Once we understand the design philosophies, it’s easy to see why all of us, from babes to parents, are so enamoured with our electronics. Quite simply, we can’t help it. It’s a fact that the latest and greatest in tech and apps are specifically designed to entice us, maximising the time we spend scrolling, scanning and clicking. The allure is becoming so strong it’s a definable behavioural addiction, explains Saligari.

Behavioural addiction and the importance of impulse control

The American Addiction Centres defines behavioural addiction as; “the compulsion to continually engage in an activity or behaviour despite the negative impact on the person’s ability to remain mentally and/or physically healthy and functional“.

An example? Constantly refreshing your Facebook. Or scrolling Instagram whenever you’ve got a few spare minutes. Sound familiar? Yikes!

Psychologist and Professor at New York University, Adam Alt, in an interview with The Australian, believes that almost half of all Aussies now suffer from some form of behavioural addiction. Interestingly, this figure doesn’t include children and teens, whose poor impulse control leads to them being even more vulnerable.

The online habits of tweens and teens

The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children tracked the screen habits of 4,000 pre-schoolers through to their early teens. The findings? A steady increase in time spent watching television, on computers and playing electronic games. Results revealed the average 12-13 old spent almost 20% of their waking time on weekdays in front of a screen. (And over 30% on weekends!)

Just how many kids have a troubling attachment to being online?

It’s hard to tell and the figures in Australia aren’t clear for all age groups. A Flinders University study found that 1/3 of Aussie teens were “in the process of becoming psychologically addicted.”  This fits with Mandy Saligari’s experience seeing children as young as 13 being treated for dependence on digital technology and a spike in 16-20 year olds seeking treatment for digital addiction.

What can we do to ‘digitally detox’?

Unfortunately, there is no single, simple answer. ‘Moderation’ is what is urged by experts. The Department of Health recommends that electronic media use for kids aged between 2-5 be limited to a maximum of one hour per day with kids 5-12 limited to 2 hours per day.

What seems to be key is ensuring a balance of ‘sedentary’ and ‘non-sedentary’ activities for kids of all ages. Getting kids up, out and moving is one of the best ways to detach them from the online world. Just make sure they leave their phones/tablets/screens at home!

Avatar of Naomi Foxall

Naomi is 3/4 latte drinking, peanut butter obsessed former magazine girl who now does stuff with words for a living while juggling 2.5 kids, 2 cats, 1 rabbit, husband and an unhealthy obsession with slow cooking.

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