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?