Techno-fear is hurting kids, not their use of digital devices.

Home 9 Digital Nutrition 9 Techno-fear is hurting kids, not their use of digital devices.

Today another tired piece about kids, technology and the impending fear of a digital apocalypse appeared in the NY Times. Hundreds of doomsayers gleefully retweeted it with comments on how ‘kids these days’ were so terribly removed from the ‘real world’.

Laden with generational bias and a lack of understanding of digital media and online cultures, the author touted techno-fear via comparisons between an impending epidemic of gaming ‘addicts’ in American teens with those who appear in the documentary Web Junkie (which conveniently will be available for your viewing pleasure on PBS this week).

I’ve seen Web Junkie. Three times. I spoke about the issues it raised this year to 400 people at the Human Rights and Arts Film Festival in Melbourne.

I don’t view Web Junkie the way many might, I see the kids who have been tricked and deceived  into being locked up and drugged at the Daxing Internet Addiction Treatment Centre as good humoured survivors of a misguided attempts to restore family connection.

China’s internet gaming issues arose out of a confluence of factors, the SARS epidemic (which forced many kids indoors) coinciding with a rapid improvement in video game design and hardware, coupled with a one child policy where no kids had siblings to keep them company in their teens when parents stayed late at work. The young men featured in the documentary show the ability to socialise, share and connect while being put through physically rigorous, military style activities, verbally abused into submission without anyone asking them how exactly games manage to gives them such joy, comfort or engagement.

When emotionally awkward push comes to shove in the family therapy room, we discover not some robotic teenager hell bent on decimating all and sunder in mind-numbing shooting games, but a young man admitting to feeling alone, disconnected and forgotten by his own parents. It’s these feelings that games help medicate. Games have been shown to have incredible powers in engaging humans in way which play directly into the dopamine reward pathways that trigger feelings of success. And once bitten with success, humans crave sources and opportunities to feel this, again and again.

The Chinese doctors who have set up these ‘rehabilitation’ programs have set their own rules in terms of what constitutes an addiction. In years to come we will come to see programs to rehabilitate and ‘reprogram’ gamers as abhorrent as those which attempted to ‘cure’ people in the GLBTIQ community and force them into hetero-normative thinking. You will see the head of this program cite Internet Addiction as the biggest public health concern facing Chinese youth and call online games ‘Electronic Heroin’. Right before he smokes a cigarette. The irony is not lost on the inmates, who know the power he has over their freedom and futures.

No, Internet Addiction doesn’t appear in the DSM-5. In fact, no ‘addiction’ does. That’s because the word ‘addiction’ is too sloppy, stigmatising and colloquial to be used scientifically. Sure there is a bunch of psychiatrists investigating Internet Gaming Disorder as an area deemed to be showing enough pathology to warrant further research, but you wont find many people on that committee getting a guild together for a raid in League of Legends or exploring the motivation for griefing in a Minecraft mod.

I’m not saying that for some people their use of the Internet is not problematic. Or that there are not a range of social, emotional, psychological and academic issues which arise when technology use occurs in a way that is developmentally inappropriate, isolated or excessive. There are and I work with people experiencing these.

I am simply saying that the Internet (an interconnected bunch of wires that transmits information) is not addictive. Technology is not a drug.

If you want to use a drug analogy, if you really must use it because you have no other reference, no other way to consider people who are highly engaged, passionate, enchanted and connected with their online worlds – then please think of digital devices like a syringe.

A syringe is the method of delivery. The substance you put in the syringe is the difference between a junkie and a diabetic. The syringe can be used to deliver a range of substances, some of which are life saving and all of which should be considered in a mediated way. You can chose your substance in the apps store where over 1.2 million choices are there ready to be loaded, along with the 4.68 billion pages on the Internet and thousands of games.

While op-ed after ridiculous and polemic op-ed flap about over screen-time guidelines and prehistoric studies done with kids who didn’t even use touch-screens at the time, few people are talking about the content, context and function of screen activities. We continue to be blissfully content with ranting about how kids don’t even know how to speak anymore, while we miss opportunities to connect with them about the online worlds which manage to capture their attention in ways that teachers with Cuisenaire rods only ever dreamed of.

Again, I am not promoting babies using iPads and have gone on record to say why I think that is unnecessary. I am not suggesting that boundaries, rules and consequences be abandoned. I am simply asking for a more realistic and responsible commentary on the issues relating to kids and technology.

Rather than trotting out interminable lists of the negative consequences of our adoption of technology lets raise awareness of how to avoid the pitfalls of not approaching this new era with solutions and proactive thinking.

This is why I created Digital Nutrition – thinking positively about how to shape our relationship to technology by considering the benefits and harnessing these. Digital Nutrition is about taking the ‘digital lifestyle’ conversation back from reactive, misinformed and shortsighted headlines and developing a deeper richer conversations on the opportunities and possibilities mindful and considered applications of technology affords us.

For every grandmother bemoaning the loss of kidz who can haz a real convo, I’ll totes giv u a resource that will help. Here’s a selection that focus on balanced, considered perspectives that empower young people and parents:

  • Worried about issues with posture and RSI? Use Priscilla Rinetsky’s Ergo Break 4 Kids program.
  • Not sure about the impacts of media on young people’s body image? Discover resources at Amy Jussell’s Shaping Youth.
  • Want your kids to be upstanding Digital Citizens with skills in problem solving and critical thinking? Start with Devorah Heitner’s Raising Digital Natives or Diana Graber’s jam-packed CyberWise.
  • Not sure about the ways that technology can actually help kids learn? Read the wonderfully researched The Game Believes In You by Greg Toppo.
  • Concerned that there are no ‘good’ games for kids to play? Explore the hundreds of games in the Games for Change Play page or look at the wonderful creations coming out of IndieCade events and indie game labs like Robin Hunicke’s Funomena.
  • Have a child with ADHD and wondering how to use games to develop their executive function skills? Start using Professor Bruce Wexler’s ACTIVATE program from Yale University.

Technology might be a poor substitute for personal interaction, but don’t forget who gave the kids the technology in the first place. And perhaps stop to question why on earth schools are scrambling to hand out iPads to 6 year olds instead of actual apples (and well before half of the staff know how to use them effectively). Oh wait, too much fructose in apples is no good for them, right?

It’s not the kids playing Candy Crush that we need to worry immediately about – it’s the adults. The adults that are not only modelling their tech habits and pre-occupation with their phones to children but they’re the ones who should know the impacts of consuming mental junk food like these Candy and Soda games – most importantly that they model gambling type behaviours and poker machine interfaces.

But we’re not allowed to techno-shame parents. Parents have it tough these days apparently.

Want to know why your 10 year old prefers their device to you? Ask her. Get off Instagram, stop looking at green smoothie recipes and using emoji’s to LOL at your yoga teacher’s daily #inspoquote and talk to kids about their tech lives. They’ll talk to you. With real words and eye contact. Even better. Get online and play with them. Allow yourself to be hopeless at it, feel out of your comfort zone and learn something new. Join them in your world, the way that you wished your parents could have understood why New Kids on The Block blew your mind or how missing an episode of 90210 was really distressing (especially when your VCR couldn’t be set to record).

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Jocelyn Brewer is a registered psychologist with over 12 years experience in public education as both a teacher and school counsellor. She is the creator of Digital Nutrition and the recipient of the 2014 NSW Premier’s Teaching Scholarship for Health Education. She is passionate promoting digital wellbeing. Sometimes she gets ranty when she’s excited, and tweets, probably too regularly, at @jocelynbrewer