Doctor Reveals The Real Reason Kids Are Addicted To Screens

(~ 2,000 words, 10 minute read)

If you knew your kids were the targets of a predatory industry, what would you do to protect them? Anything, right?

What if it’s the technology industry?

I can hear the protests. “It’s not just my kids — all kids are on screens all the time! Don’t make me feel bad about mine!”

I never write to shame anyone. God knows I’m broken, and have made plenty of parenting mistakes. I’m just sharing what I’ve learned, writing to shine a bright light on an otherwise dark world. I’m writing to help people learn the truth where they are deceived.

And so is Dr. Richard Freed, author of the vitally important book: Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age. I had the honor of hearing Dr. Freed speak three times over a two-day conference hosted by Families Managing Media in Charlotte recently. I was further blessed by multiple opportunities to eat with him and get to know him personally.

And I couldn’t be more impressed with him and his book. It is one of the most important books a parent or grandparent could read in our screen-saturated age.

Dr. Freed is a child and adolescent psychologist. He told me that he didn’t intend to specialize in kids who are suffering the effects of technology addictions, including suicidal ideation, violence, self-harm, depression, anxiety, and failing out of school. It’s just that these are the main reasons families seek his help nowadays. When parents reach their limits, they come to Dr. Freed. Thankfully, he has taken the time to share his expertise with the rest of us so we can understand what’s going on.

Dr. Freed opens his book with a heartbreaking story of a teen girl who was cutting herself. He identified a source of her sadness when she described her day. “I come home from school, grab a snack, and then I’m upstairs in my room on my phone for most of the night.” The influence of phone addiction, with her constant connection to peers, negative online influences, and the resulting disconnect from her family led to psychological problems that she expressed in self-harm. In a tragic irony, the whole family is so addicted to their screens that they don’t even talk as they leave appointments with Dr. Freed. Instead, they all immediately focus on their phones.

You can hear the deep concern in Dr. Freed’s heart as he laments cases like this. The problems that are destroying his young clients aren’t going to be “fixed” by his advice unless the parents take action against the screens that are destroying their kids (and themselves).

I especially appreciate Dr. Freed’s indictment of the tech industry. In his book, Dr. Freed shows many examples of big tech’s deceitful practices and the intentional exploitation of our kids’ behavioral psychology, from toddlers to teens. In fact, Dr. Freed shared many of these practices in a wildly popular Medium article, “The Tech Industry’s War on Kids: How Psychology is being used as a weapon against children.” If you’re a parent or grandparent, it’s well worth the 24 minutes or so to read it.

There are so many good quotes in the book that I marked something on nearly every page. Because I want you to read the book, here’s just a taste of what you need to know — whether your child is already addicted to screens, or more importantly, if you want to prevent your kids from becoming addicted in the first place.

First, are you skeptical that people can be truly addicted to screens? The clinical studies vindicate that view. Dr. Freed says,

Video game and Internet addiction has been extensively researched, and there are now hundreds of high-quality published studies that collectively support the addictive potential of certain technologies. Video games (especially those played online) appear to have the greatest potential for addiction, followed by social networks. In turn, an increasing number of kids show unhealthy attachment to the devices that deliver this content, such as video game players, computers, phones, tablets, and handheld gaming devices.

(Wired Child, Kindle edition, p. 76, emphasis mine)

Some people push back and say that kids who are addicted to screens had other psychological problems already. Dr. Freed anticipates that objection, saying,

However, a study of 3rd, 4th, 7th, and 8th graders published in the journal Pediatrics found that symptoms of obsessive gaming often came before signs of anxiety or depression. This evidence, along with other research, suggests that tech addiction is its own disorder and that other psychiatric problems are often the result of the addiction. This is what I see frequently in my practice: previously high-functioning kids who first become addicted to technology and then develop anger, defiance, and/or depression.

(p. 76, emphasis mine)

And did you know that kids are being misdiagnosed with ADHD? Instead, many may be afflicted with tech addiction.

I’ve tested a number of children for ADHD, only to find that their symptoms, falling grades and lack of homework completion, were caused by overuse of video games and TV. Once parents got control of these children’s tech habits and provided structure around homework, the symptoms went away. Would these kids have been diagnosed with ADHD if no one asked questions about their screen habits? Probably.

(p. 35, emphasis mine)

Like I do in my book, Dr. Freed shows the intentionally addictive practices of today’s biggest companies. These mega-giant handheld names apply the latest research in behavioral psychology and neuroscience to manipulate us, especially kids. He tells the story of John Hopson, Ph.D. in behavioral and brain sciences, who wrote a seminal paper in 2001 called “Behavioral Game Design.”

Hopson answered questions such as “How to make players play forever” and “How do we make players maintain a high, consistent rate of activity?” He says, “This is not to say that players are the same as rats, but that there are general rules of learning which apply equally to both.”

(p. 83, emphasis mine)

Hopson was so good at exploiting game players that Microsoft hired him to help further their conquest through their Xbox gaming empire. But it’s not just Microsoft. It’s all of them.

As tech industry executive Bill Davidow says in his Atlantic article “Exploiting the Neuroscience of Internet Addiction”: “The leaders of Internet companies face an interesting, if also morally questionable, imperative: either they hijack neuroscience to gain market share and make large profits, or they let competitors do that and run away with the market.

(p. 81, emphasis mine)

And why don’t you hear that screens are harming your kids? And that they’re not only harmful, but intentionally designed to be harmful? Because the vast majority of our news media outlets are owned by the same companies who make the video games, social media apps, and streaming platforms. They also pay billions of dollars to lobbying organizations like the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) to publish constant propaganda encouraging our kids to overuse their products.

In fact, at the Charlotte conference, Dr. Freed described his effort to hold his psychologist peers accountable to their own standards, calling them to stop using their skills to make tech products addictive. He’s gathering signatures of fellow practitioners to that end.

So what is the doctor’s recommendation? He says there are “two basic options for protecting children from technology addiction: prevention or treatment” (p. 90, emphasis mine). Because the industry is doing such a good job of normalizing screen use throughout childhood, most parents are opting for treatment when they’re overwhelmed. Unfortunately, treatment is very difficult, and not at all guaranteed to help. The brain damage caused by years of screen addiction is incredibly hard to overcome. In fact, addicted teens can be truly dangerous. Dr. Freed warns,

Those who are unfamiliar with child tech addiction sometimes suggest to parents, “Just take it away.” Parents of addicted kids know that their problems are much more serious than that. Trying to limit an addicted kid’s access to video games or the Internet frequently results in threats of, or actual, violence. Doors are broken down, parents are bullied, moms and dads are pushed or hit, and the police may need to be called. Kids faced with the loss of their beloved devices also can experience depression or thoughts of suicide. There are no easy, sometimes not even good, solutions to these problems once they’re well established.

(p. 91)

Because treatment may or may not work, the best thing a parent can do is to prevent addiction in the first place by being completely counter-cultural: limit your kids’ access to addictive technologies. And we’re not talking about “balance” or “moderation”. In fact, the industry entices parents to think in terms of “moderation” — because we’ll buy more of their devices. But no child or teen can stand alone against the billions of dollars and millions of hours the industry invests into manipulating them.

Why? Because the addictive draw of today’s gadgets overrides parents’ ability to have kids use technology in a limited fashion. Six-year-old Jonathan’s example, shared by his mother, is common in my practice: “He got a tablet for his birthday and we didn’t think much of it. But it became increasingly difficult to pry from his hands. Now even though we try to limit its use, he only wants to game. … I can’t get him to do anything else. And when we won’t let him play his games he clenches his fists and scowls at us. Recently, he’s hit me when upset.”

(p. 94, emphasis mine)

So yes. Don’t give your child a tablet. Don’t give your teen a phone. Don’t let them play Fortnite or other video games. They don’t need them. And worse, your child is being harmed by them. Dr. Freed’s prescription:

Given the failings of both moderation and treatment, we need to focus our attention on preventing kids from ever developing a tech addiction. How can this be achieved? We need to greatly limit kids’ access to tech gadgets and the entertainment they offer. We especially must (1) reverse the move to provide younger and younger kids with amusement-based technologies, and (2) as kids grow older, curb their access to these technologies.

(p. 95-96, emphasis mine)

Is that tremendously hard in today’s culture? Absolutely. Is it vital for our kids’ long-term health and future? No doubt. I knew it after researching for my book, and now, I’m triply confirmed after reading Wired Child.

Because here’s the key truth Dr. Freed wants us to know. Before anything else, kids and teens need strong, real-life connections with their parents and families. And after that? They need trusted teachers, mentors, and other positive role models pouring into them. If your kids have these inspiring relationships and no access to screens, they’re most likely to become happy, productive adults.

Mom and Dad, your kids need you more than any technology, especially today.

And here’s the other thing — the reason I targeted my book to adults more than kids. Many adults are just as addicted, and more in denial, than their kids are. And, we may give screens to our kids to make parenting easier, at least in the short term. There’s no doubt: kids are quieter when they’re using screens. But the addictions that develop in childhood are the hardest to shake later in life. Ask any smoker or alcoholic who started as a teen. Cal Newport thinks we may look at kids and screens the same way someday soon.

If you’ve already let your kids use too much technology, again, please don’t feel shamed by any of this. You were deceived by our culture and the tech industry. Everyone else is doing it. It’s not your fault. But now that you know, you can take the counter-cultural steps your kids need you, and only you, can take.

So please, read Dr. Freed’s book. And if you’re looking for some quick, practical solutions complete with community support, checkout the new ScreenStrong solution from Families Managing Media.

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