He's eleven years old, goes to a Catholic school in the centre of a large city and is the youngest child of a well-to-do middle class family. Formerly a football player, he now won't attend his extracurricular classes or go to catechism. He plays on his Playstation day and night. He didn't even leave the house during the Easter holidays. This is just one case of an addiction which is increasingly common among young children.
“When speaking about addiction among adolescents, we often refer to guidelines from the World Health Organisation, though in the case of technology the debate is more open”, explains José Antonio Molina, psychologist and professor at the Complutense University of Madrid. However, it does adhere to much of the same criteria. “Technology addiction has lasting effects on different areas of an individual's life; they can lose control over their usage; other experiences start to seem insignificant or insufficient”.
Young girls tend to favour social networking over video games. “This generation's use of Instagram, Whatsapp and other networks is highly excessive,” warns Macarena López, a social worker for the Home Project Association, which works with girls who are deemed to be in vulnerable situations. “They are subjected constantly to all this information from “influencers”, which is often focused on the female body. These influencers are figureheads of beauty and popularity: to be very young, thin and bikini-clad is presented as something normal and attainable.”
Bullying and blackmail
The door is also open to the risks of cyber bullying, sexting, blackmail, childhood obesity and gambling. Lots of screen-time “promotes a sedentary lifestyle which can cause obesity and, in turn, diabetes,” says psychologist Jorge Barraca, professor of the Camilo José Cela University.
A pattern exists for this type of problem: worsening academic performance, isolation, poor eating habits and an insufficient amount of sleep. “The symptoms start with a lack of interest in everything outside of the screen,” explains Barraca. “They will show anxiety and withdrawal symptoms if they're not connected. As with drug use, the addiction to online gambling brings with it an economic risk.
Lucía Galán Bertrand, paediatrician at the Vithas Medimar International Hospital in Alicante elaborates, “screens are highly addictive. Within a few years we'll suffer the consequences.” The doctor is no stranger to this issue: she has had to restrict her own son's screen time. “Children become rebellious, violent or aggressive and experience disruption to their sleeping patterns,” she adds. The first stage of treatment for the abuse of digital technology is parenting. “We must make parents aware,” explains José Antonio Molina. “They should limit the time their child spends with screens and establish other leisure activities.”
Video games and social networks can warp your perception of reality in a way that books, for example, do not. “Applications like Facebook and Instagram are designed to be addictive, in the same way slot machines were, with bright colours, sounds and the chance to win something,” suggests Barraca. Molina agrees: “There exists a sort of reward system for the use of these technologies, meaning that, when you stop using, you experience withdrawal symptoms.”
Children, regardless of gender, are all vulnerable to this addictive digital content. It is especially common if the child is shy or finds it difficult to connect with people; if their adult role models spend lots of time looking at their phones, or if their parents are permissive with regards to screen time. For every eleven year old child you walk past playing 'Zelda' on a console, there is an adult who cannot lift their eyes from the screen of their mobile phone.