May 1, 2013 4:02 pm
Updated: May 1, 2013 4:03 pm

Reality check: Can children become addicted to technology?

Michael Hitoshi/Getty Images

TORONTO – Some tech-savvy parents thank their lucky stars for the creation of smartphones and tablets for providing endless entertainment for their young ones.

Yet, while potentially useful for parents, and fun for kids, some experts are concerned that prolonged daily usage of tech gadgets could be creating pint-sized addicts.

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Global News

A four-year-old girl from the U.K. made headlines last week after being labeled as “Britain’s youngest iPad addict.” According to reports, the girl became inseparable from the device – using it up to four hours per day – over the span of a year.

The pre-schooler would become agitated and inconsolable if the device was taken away – emotions often documented in drug or alcohol addicts. She is now undergoing psychiatric treatment for compulsive behavior at Capio Nightingale Hospital in London, by a psychiatrist who developed the U.K.’s first technology addiction service.

But can a child develop an addiction to technology at such a young age?

“It is part of a developmental process to become ‘addicted’ or ‘obsessed’ with trying to master things,” said Dr. Oren Amitay, a Toronto-based registered psychologist.

“If a child spends four to six hours a day playing with Lego, no one would call her a Lego addict – they would say this is what a child does.”

At the age of three or four children are trying to understand what is going on in their environment, in order to control it – which is why many children will do the same thing over and over again, such as watching a favourite TV show or movie, according to Amitay.

“It’s not just that they enjoy using technology, but they can predict what is going to happen and it provides a sense of mastery. That’s a normal healthy part of development – to become ‘obsessed’ with things,” Amitay told Global News.

But Amitay said he is seeing more and more people suffering the impact of addiction to video and computers, including some of his patients. He believes that developing an addiction over time is the real risk for children.

“Video addiction – while some people scoff at it – is going to become more and more prevalent,” said Amitay.

“Those people go through the exact same psychological, physiological, emotional and social behaviors as a drug or alcohol addict. Unlike a hobby that children spend hours and hours trying to perfect, this could hypothetically develop into a full-fledged addiction.”

Technology addiction in young adults has been documented in numerous studies.

In 2011, researchers studied university students who admitted to a reliance on technological devices to see how they reacted when their devices were taken away.

The study reported that many of the students documented cravings, anxiety attacks and depression after hours without their devices – one student even describing the feelings as “itching like a crackhead.”

Most students failed to go a full 24 hours without their devices, according to the findings.

A similar study, also conducted in 2011, found that volunteers who were asked to abstain from using email, texting and social media for 24 hours experienced symptoms similar to a smoker trying to quit.

“More and more teens are exhibiting that technology is no longer just a fun activity, but that they truly are addicted and going through all the stages, symptoms and physiological issues that they would be facing if they were dealing with other addictions,” said Amitay.

“A lot of parents are going to scoff and say, ‘come on that’s just every teen, every parent is going to have to deal with it.’ But, most teens experiment with drinking and drugs and don’t become addicts. The vulnerable part of society does.”

Technology’s effect on the brain remains unknown

Amitay cautions that parents should be concerned about what long term effects prolonged exposure to technology may have on the brain.

However, he notes that because the technology hasn’t been around long enough for us to study the effect it may have on a developing brain, the risks remain unknown.

“At a young age, the brain is the most malleable – or changeable – and physiologically the brain is changing with exposure to technology. I would be concerned.”

But not all doctors agree with Amitay.

While Dr. Marshall Korenblum, chief psychiatrist at the Hicks-Dellcrest Centre for Children in Toronto, agrees that it is possible for children to theoretically become addicts, he suggests that anxiety may be linked to the case of the four-year-old U.K. girl.

“It may be more like the child is using the device as a teddy bear – it’s soothing. Some of those behaviors may not be related to the technology,” said Dr. Korenblum, who referred to the device as a transitional object – something that children become attached to emotionally.

This, he said, may explain why the child became inconsolable when the device was taken away.

Dr. Korenblum noted he would be interested in knowing if the child showed signs of being anxious before starting to use the device, because children who are more anxious are more likely to attach themselves to a transitional object.

Social implications

A main cause for concern surrounding a reliance on technology lies in social skills.

According to Amitay, a young child who is becoming hooked on technology would likely withdraw from other kids and show fewer social queues, such as eye contact, or picking up on emotional queues from other people.

“Technology, like the iPad, is your slave. You make it do what you want. You are not learning the more subtle emotional queues in other people, so you are going to be socially incompetent,” said Amitay.

Dr. Korenblum noted that lower social activity can also affect the child once they enter the education system, as their attention span may interfere with their learning.

© Shaw Media, 2013

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