US pediatrician warns parents and educators about digital addiction at QF talk
Nomophobia is a condition that affects more people than you might think. It’s the stress or anxiety that they experience when they don’t have their phones with them.
And digital addiction, together with its effects – such as nomophobia – formed part of a lecture at Qatar Foundation (QF) by a US pediatrician and researcher whose career has been devoted to investigating how early life experiences make an impact on children, and to helping parents improve their children’s learning environments from a very young age.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis held his talk, titled Parenting in the Age of Digital Addiction: Children and Media, at a session organized by Doha International Family Institute in partnership with the Doha Learning Days experiential learning festival, organized by QF initiative WISE. He is a pediatrician and researcher at Seattle Children's Hospital and a professor in the School of Medicine at University of Washington, and he and his colleagues have made a number of landmark findings – including discovering that young children who watch TV are more likely to develop attention problems and other health and behavioral issues.
Speaking at the Minaretein building (Education City Mosque), Dr. Christakis explained how digital addiction is similar to other addictions, such as to alcohol or nicotine, in that they all share the same dopamine reward pathway. All these types of addictions are based on pleasure-inducing activities that, when left unchecked, often lead to mental or physical health concerns.
“In extreme conditions of digital addiction, a person can start to get the pleasure simply by knowing that an electronic device is nearby,” he said. “For instance, many studies have shown that having a cell phone in a child’s bedroom – even when it’s turned off – almost doubles the chances that they’ll have sleep problems.”
“This is because children – and adults, for that matter – come to associate a phone with something pleasurable. Just having it in the room makes them want to go and get it and look at it, and prevents them from falling asleep.”
Dr. Christakis pointed to data that revealed how exposure to digital media is not entirely detrimental, but the key is to find the optimum amount of screen time that stimulates positive development in children.
“If you look at studies that focus on the relationship between screen hours per day and depression in children, children spending one hour a day on a screen-based media have decreased depression compared to kids who have no screen time at all,” he explained.
“But the scenario changes when screen time goes beyond that one hour – the chances of depression increase.”
Self-monitoring, or teaching a child to be aware of the time he or she spends in front of the screen, should be made a habit
The pediatrician offered practical tips to help parents and educators tackle the increasingly prevalent issue of digital addiction. “The very first step is to start early – to begin controlling screen time when a child is an infant,” he advised.
“Ensure that games or apps are appropriate for your child – and this requires an adult to know exactly what the game or app is about. Additionally, self-monitoring, or teaching a child to be aware of the time he or she spends in front of the screen, should be made a habit.
Dr. Christakis also said that children should have at least three hours of “unplug time”, when they are completely away from their devices. Ideally, this should be an hour during mealtimes, before bedtime, and an additional hour during the day.
Taking a digital holiday – where the entire family goes offline – is an effective and fun way to de-digitize for a short period of time. It also teaches children to be comfortable with being by themselves; with their own thoughts.
The researcher – who has written numerous research articles, a textbook of pediatrics, and co-authored a book called The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids – emphasized his point by revealing that the world’s most famous creators of digital technology had concerns about their own inventions.
“Steve Jobs himself often remarked that he limited how much technology his family used at home,” he said. “And Tony Fadell, the inventor of the iPad, said that he often woke up at night in cold sweats, worried about what he brought into this world.”