By ELLY VARRENTI
Those mental health experts are at it again and considering adding “video game addiction and internet addiction” to the next edition of the globally recognized and ever-expanding Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Last week my 10-and-a-half-year-old son went on a detox camp. Except the camp was inside our house and he wasn’t detoxing from substance abuse; my boy was ‘coming down off computer’. Cold Turkey.
There was to be no computer access for a week and it would be the same deal at his father’s next week, and maybe the week after that depending on how it all went.
Things had just got so out of control for us. I was at my wit’s end and so was my son, he just didn’t know it. Screen time had become scream time.
He’d hang out for his next ‘fix’ while I’d be madly improvising strategies to keep him off the screen. And if he was temporarily distracted from his primary passion and hanging out with a friend – one who wasn’t on line, that is- or swimming, or biking, or reading or Lego, then the cycle of nagging and begging – Mum? Just 20 minutes? I promise I’ll get off when you tell me to. Pleeeeease - would ease off for a bit.
Then once back on the computer he’d be immediately in ‘the zone’ and ‘uncontactable’ again, his dopamine-infused cheeks reddening with pleasure, his body tensing as the game’s stakes soared while his little fingers tapped away with the speed and accuracy of an A+ secretarial graduate.
The lure of a fantasy world made him instantly happy. Did his virtual life make him feel better than his real one?
Was he sad and angry about other stuff in his life and finding refuge the best way he knew how? As social studies professor Sherry Turkle suggests ‘modern technology has become like a phantom limb.’
There are 6 other kids in class at his new school – 5 boys and a girl – who are all on this one server. They get on-line together. It’s a virtual club, a stationary bike-meet; hide and seek without the huffing and puffing.
Is this his generation’s version of hanging out on the phone to the best friend every night, having just spent the whole day at school together? The script is similar.
- Get off that phone and go and do your homework!
- No! Just 10 more minutes?
- Get off now! I’ve already asked you 20 times.
- Just 5 more minutes, okay. It’s really important. I’m in the middle of something.
- Go outside and get some fresh air for God’s sake or I’ll throw the bloody thing out the window!
When I’d eventually manage to get my son off the computer after repeated warnings, countdowns and alarm bells, he’d invariably get angry, distressed, disorientated and aggressive. And then the begging and bargaining would start up all over again.
Have our children forgotten how to play? Do our children not get that it’s okay to be bored or idle? Or have we all lost our capacity for ‘solitude that energizes and restores’ to invoke Turkle again? Surely downtime, unstructured-time, technology-absent time is good? And what’s wrong with being bored anyway? Have I let this happen to him? Am I a bad mother? Do we both need help?
There will be those parents out there who know all too well what it looks like when you remove your child’s screen. But there will also be those of you who have never succumbed to the lure of technology and to you I say, Congratulations. How do you do it? To those of you who have embraced our brave new world but have found a way not to have it ambush your home life, to you I say, Good on you. How do you do it?
In the overall scheme of things, technology-addictive-behavior is a fairly recent parenting issue. I’ve read the studies about what computers may or may not be doing to our children’s executive functioning, their social development and real-world perception.
But I too am a fast-moving object in our increasingly complex culture of distraction. I too love my phone and my computer. God knows I have just started a blog!
But these are our kids and we need to model reasonable and contained behavior around technology for their sakes and for the sake of something like a cohesive home life.
The computer-thing had got so bad that I had begun to feel ambivalent about my son’s returning after time at his dad’s. I was more than ambivalent I dreaded it. I mean, I’d miss him like a severed arm but it was a relief too. Respite from the insanity, from the on-going stress. The computer was ruining our lives.
So last week’s detox was bad. There were tantrums and breakages, tears and arguments, recriminations and accusations. I felt hopeless, ashamed, angry but stony-determined. I felt sorry for my boy, too but I did not surrender.
There is much contention around the notion of computer gaming as a form of addiction because addiction suggests that only if the substance is removed altogether the addict may begin to recover. Not so. Compulsive over-eating is a form of addictive behavior and you’re not expected to give up food altogether in order to get abstinent. So too with technology, it’s all about balance isn’t it? Isn’t it?
At the end of that first technology-free week and on the cusp of calling his father to come over and get him – forever! – I suggested we go play pool at our local pub. We used to do this once a week when we first moved to the country three years ago.
Initially my suggestion rendered him mute with rage and misery but eventually we went. We played pool for 2 hours together. We ate chicken curry together. We shared a massive piece of apple pie and ice cream together. We laughed. He had a go at the way I held the cue. We danced to dumb music. We both pretended we had not just been to hell and back.
Later that night, we chatted about all kinds of stuff and he finally went to sleep at a respectable time for a boy his age. He was back. My boy was back.
Click here to listen to Elly speak about her sons technology addiction on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters.
Elly Varrenti is a writer, broadcaster and teacher. She is a regular columnist for ABC Radio National’s Life Matters program, is a former Age Theatre Critic and teaches writing at Box Hill Institute. Her book ‘This is Not my Beautiful Life’ is published by Penguin and she is currently writing one about shared-parenting due for release late 2013.
How do you manage your children’s screen time? Is technology taking over your home life?