The World Health Organization’s recent decision to recognize video game addiction, or “gaming disorder,” as a mental health problem has proved controversial, with some in the psychology community arguing that the comparison trivializes addictions like substance abuse or alcoholism.
But Kansas City psychiatrist Gary Boxer says there’s a more important question at stake: what’s all that screen time, addiction or not, doing to children’s brains?
“It’s all of the ways all the electronics and screens are affecting development in general,” Boxer said. “I see a large range of problems.”
Boxer, who works at Truman Medical Center’s Lakewood Counseling Clinic, said the rise of smartphones and tablets has coincided with a rise in young patients who can’t concentrate on schoolwork, haven’t developed age-appropriate language and communication skills and exhibit “low frustration tolerance” and other behavioral issues.
Then there are adolescent patients whose inability to disconnect has destroyed their sleep cycle or led them into physical danger from online sexual predators.
“The addictive part I see in some kids,” Boxer said. “But that’s really a small piece of what a much greater problem it is.”
In some hyper-connected societies like South Korea, there are already rehab camps and facilities to treat internet addiction.
But Shawn McDaniel, a psychologist in Kansas City, said there isn’t consensus in the mental health community about the connection between screen time and behavioral development problems and he fears the WHO’s move to recognize “gaming disorder” could “over-pathologize” normal behavior.
“A lot of the studies are just kind of blown out of proportion,” McDaniel said. “It’s kind of the new media concern of the time, I think, just like in the ’80s it was. ‘Rap (music) is going to ruin kids,’ and before that it was ‘Comic books that were going to ruin kids.’”
McDaniel said any activity taken to an extreme can be harmful, but there’s little evidence that spending hours on video games is more harmful than spending an entire weekend watching college and professional football.
Boxer hosts workshops for educators and parents about screen time and child development.
Boxer said some psychiatrists have recommended taking electronics away from kids completely for as much as a month at a time to “reset their brains.” But he said that’s probably not realistic for many parents, nor good preparation for the workplace.
“We live in an electronic world; that’s not going to go away,” Boxer said. “I don’t argue that the kids probably need to have good tech skills to enter into the marketplace. That’s the challenge for all of us to try to figure out: how to help children navigate wisely and not fall into the potential pitfalls.”
Boxer said children’s use of electronics should be well-balanced with imaginary play, schoolwork and physical activity. It shouldn’t be used as reward or withheld as a punishment.
“It’s junk food and we all like a little junk food now and then, but it’s a problem if it becomes the main course,” Boxer said. “Make sure that it never becomes controlling, make sure that it never becomes the primary focus when there’s so many other tasks a young child has.”
McDaniel said he agreed that the use of electronics should be balanced with other activities.
But he said there’s nothing wrong with parents using it as a reward for good behavior; in fact, he frequently recommends it within his own practice.
“When somebody has a really strong interest, it’s not always pathological; it can be a really driving force,” McDaniel said. “Just like adults with money.”