From gaming addiction to simply spending too much time viewing screens, it is becoming clear that all of us, especially teens, are becoming overly immersed in technology. Research shows that the consequences of tech overload can include deficits in the development of fine motor skills, significant sleep disturbance, delayed social skill development, and exposure to highly toxic online “relationships” (think cyberbullying and premature sexualization).
All too often, people turn to technology in an attempt to soothe symptoms of depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other internal struggles. In such cases, the individual may experience immediate temporary relief – but the underlying problem may only become worse.
At its worst, the overuse of technology can become an addiction. The World Health Organization (WHO) now has a classification for “gaming disorder.” As we develop a better understanding of how tech use can be a process addiction, a similar diagnosis may someday be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
It is difficult to imagine our world without computers and other forms of interactive technology. But the ways that we use these devices may be putting our children’s health at risk. For example:
- With best intentions, we put devices in the hands of infants and toddlers to keep them occupied, believing that we are giving them a head start in a world where tech is ubiquitous. Unfortunately, researchers have discovered that when children are focused on a screen instead of attempting to interact with the solid world around them, they may lose the opportunity to develop fine motor skills.
- We encourage children and teens to get a head start in a competitive world by learning as much as possible, as early as possible, about computers. Yet, studies show overwhelmingly that this does not actually result in later-life advantages.
- We believe that it is safer for a teen to be sitting on the couch playing video games than to be out of the house, outside our supervision, in an increasingly dangerous world. But teens may be at greater risk in the virtual world than they are when they’re out exploring the real one.
Once the “screen beast” is out of its cage, what are we to do?
It is nearly impossible to completely eliminate technology from our lives. But we are seeing great benefits from “tech fasting” (taking periods of time away from tech) as a way to reset the nervous system. Tech fasting can also help us become aware of how dependent we have become on staring at screens, getting updated on social media, and relying on devices to cope with stress and loneliness.
We are also making strides in treating tech overuse in ways that bring about a new and healthier relationship with this “beast” so that it can be tamed into a useful tool.
Some good news from our experience at SUWS: While the vast majority of our students describe significant overuse of technology, most of them don’t struggle much with its absence in the woods. We do occasionally see students who experience withdrawal symptoms such as cravings and urges, mood swings, irritability, feelings of apathy, headaches, and lethargy. But most of our students don’t have these problems.
Of course, the not-so-great news is that a return to overuse is almost guaranteed without a plan to curb it. That is where awareness and a solid home agreement can help continue the momentum toward a healthier relationship with tech. We are talking about this with students while they’re in our care. It is important for that conversation to continue when they leave.
If you are a parent whose child rages at the interruption of a Fortnite session, stares at a screen rather than noticing the face in front of them, has few in-person friends but hundreds of virtual friends, or cannot fathom a dead cellphone battery, a wilderness experience may be the best opportunity for your child to reset and re-engage.
And while they reconnect, we – parents and SUWS staff members – can examine our own relationship with tech.
Perhaps we could all benefit from more walks in the woods.
Kardaras, N. (2016). Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids – and How to Break the Trance.