For the past several years, technology has started to play a larger and larger role in all aspects of our personal and professional lives. Initially, technology applications were used to develop increased efficiencies within professional settings - think robotic welders in automotive factories or word processing software in corporations. For the last several decades, we have seen generations of kids that have had only part of their lives impacted by technology. In recent times, we are witnessing the first generations of digital natives or those who grow up with very sophisticated technology devices around them from a very young age. While these devices still have dual purposes, the user interface and experience has evolved in such a way that even very young kids can quickly figure out how to access content on an iPad. Within this technology first environment, it is important to be sensitive to the emerging research that says that overuse of these devices may be harmful to the long-term health of heavy users of technology. While we can’t eliminate technology from the lives of our kids, there are steps that we can take to provide better balance in how they use these hardware devices and software applications during their formative years. In this guide, we will provide information on the emerging research related to technology addiction, the causes of technology addiction and strategies that parent can take to prevent technology addiction amongst their kids so that they can ultimately develop a healthy relationship with technology that will be beneficial throughout their lives.
What is technology addiction?
Similar to other types of addiction, technology addiction is defined as frequent and obsessive technology-related behavior increasingly practiced despite negative consequences to the user of the technology
. Negative user consequences can be categorized as mild annoyance, feelings of isolation, extreme anxiety and depression. In addiction to the direct consequences, indirect consequences that may result from technology addiction may be obesity and inability to sleep. The reason technology devices generate addictive characteristics is because they fulfill our human need for stimulation, interaction and changes in environment with great efficiency
. Due to this increased efficiency which relates to improvements in computer processing, graphics rendering and improved user interface and experience design makes the current state of technology advancement create potential issues for human users. Not only can these consequences happen when devices are not being used, but depending on the person, they can seek out devices when things may not be going well in other parts of their life - whether it is a personal relationship issue with a parent, significant other, teacher at school or sports coach. Given the number of triggers, it is important that kids learn to develop healthy relationships with devices. In addition because of the ever improving nature of technology, we can expect to see continued advancements in the ability of these devices to engage our kids. Especially when we think about emerging technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality.
Key strategies to prevent technology addiction
1. Limit time spent on devices
Technology devices are all around us and they have a tremendous amount of utility. Whether it is GPS technology application on our smart phone that helps us find the most efficient route to our destination. Or FaceTime video chats that enable us to connect with family and friends around the world. Technology underpins nearly all of our modern life. The advances in mobile technology are playing an outsized role in the potential overconsumption of technology. Information that used to have be accessed via desktop is now quickly accessible in powerful computer that we can store in our pocket. Advances in flash memory means that these devices are ready to provide whatever we need within milliseconds of pressing the home button. However, to prevent ourselves from fully powering The Matrix, it is important to limit the time our kids spend on these devices
. In our home, we don’t allow any time on devices for leisure during the school week and when screen time is allowed for entertainment, it can be no longer than an hour for a given day. In addition, we also make sure that we watch at least one piece of content collectively. This teaches the dual skill of compromise and negotiation versus the individual satisfaction that comes along with personal device ownership.
2. Understand gamification techniques
One of the best things about playing video games is the gamification elements that are designed into the game. These elements can activate pleasure centers within the brain that keeps kids wanting to play for hours
. From variable rewards (gaining coins in Mario Kart at infrequent intervals to ultimately winning a race) to increasing challenges within various levels. In addition, as one becomes more expert, they begin to get recognition from the online community. This has been magnified by the emerging live streaming on sites like Twitch which can enable top gamers to build an audience of thousands or millions. In addition, emerging technology advancement in areas like artificial intelligence will further improve the capability for developers to make their platforms even more sticky for their users. By first understanding that it can be extremely pleasurable to use technology, we can be aware that our attraction to these devices is by design. And thus, we can learn to either limit or engagement, utilize these devices more sparingly or find opportunities to activate these pleasure centers in other ways.
3. Turn off real-time auditory & haptic notifications
Our mobile devices and computers have the tremendous ability to deliver real-time notifications from text messages, emails, phone calls and installed applications. While it is helpful to know when their parent is texting about an upcoming pick up from school or an extracurricular activity, kids can get addicted to constantly receiving notifications or likes on their social media posts. In addition, if your child uses a computer to do their school work, research shows that for every interruption in a professional/work setting, it can take up to 30 minutes to refocus back on the task that you were working on. While there are certain inherent characteristics of these emerging platforms, one easy way to get ahead of these distractions is to disable notifications for your applications. This way, you will only go into the application during an allotted time versus seeing an on-screen or feeling a haptic notification that might be just an email that you could easily view and respond to later.
4. Disable auto-play on video streaming sites (Netflix, YouTube)
When I was growing up, you typically watched a show that you enjoyed on TV during a pre-determined time. And then depending on the scheduling for that network, you may or may not have liked the next show that was coming on which forced you to find something else to do. Modern day technology with infinite storage capacity and thematic on-demand programming can play several episodes of your favorite show and also has developed enough relational data about similar shows that it can use very sophisticated algorithms to serve up additional episodes that are structurally similar consecutively. As a result, this has even introduced entirely new terminology into our modern day lexicon - ‘binge watching’. This can keep both children and adults watching video streaming sites for long periods of time. In addition, if you didn’t like the 1st few minutes of a show, you had to decide to either deal with it or turn it off. Video streaming sites are often displaying similar options right beneath the existing show you are watching. Instead of allowing a bottomless bowl of video content, simple disable auto-play on video streaming sites so that your child can pick one thing to watch and at the conclusion they can go and do something else. And, don’t allow your child to constantly switch shows if they don’t like the 1st 5 minutes. In essence, that can extend the media viewing window by 15-20 minutes without you even realizing it because they switched shows 5 times until they found one they could tolerate.
5. Re-direct screen to time to productive building activities
When you think about technology, there can be both pros and cons to many of the devices and applications we use. One of the biggest pros with technology is that instead of consumption, kids can learn how to create with technology. Whether it is developing a mobile application using MIT App inventor
or designing a 3D model using Tinkercad
or building a robot using Lego EV3
; there is an abundant opportunity to replicate what Steve Jobs described as a ‘bicycle for the mind
’. The challenging process of learning technology development and building projects to bring their ideas to life along with the associated troubleshooting and debugging are a great way to push kids to develop a healthy engagement behaviors with technology.
While the research on technology addiction is just beginning, it is important to acknowledge that these devices may have characteristics that can be harmful to our kids. Although there is still more studying and analysis to be completed, parents should be aware and sensitive if they see certain behaviors begin to emerge in their kids. In addition, you should get ahead of potential issues early by following the strategies outlined above. By having a balanced approach, we can create an environment where our kids can engage with technology in a healthy way that recognizes and enables them to take. Advantage of the immense benefits while also practicing behaviors that minimize the potential for negative or harmful consequences due to poor engagement.