Unplugging Day

Establishing healthy technology habits by Dr Richard Graham

Dr Richard Graham is a leading Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Clinical Director of the Adolescent Department at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust and the Technology Addiction Service at Capio Nightingale Hospital.

How do you know if use of technology is an addiction or has reached unhealthy levels?
When people feel an uncomfortable sense of withdrawal when not online, we know that the relationship with technology is not being managed properly. The Nightingale Hospital has an online test that assesses the extent of one’s relationship with technology addiction – taking this test is an important first step in ascertaining whether technology use is abnormal or problematic.  http://www.nightingalehospital.co.uk/test/technology-addiction-test/

Of course we need technology in our lives and it brings many benefits to our lives and can be a useful educational tool for children.  Indeed, parents often use technology as a means for teaching their children or keeping them occupied on journeys or whilst doing chores.  Children also imitate their parents’ behaviour and this includes parents who constantly use their phones and iPads. It can however, begin to take over children and adolescent’s lives as they spend more and more time on-line, plugged in and checking Facebook and other forms of on-line social engagement.  This can become a compulsion to constantly be plugged in so that we don’t ever risk feeling that we are missing out, or stepping off a ladder.  The by-product of this is that we are seeing more and more young people addicted to technology.

What signs should you look out for if you are a parent?
For people who are addicted or overly dependent on to technology, it is the primacy about the way they feel when using technology and they find that the buzz they experience when using technology is not achievable in another way.  If a child, for example, is displaying signs of severe distress and agitation when separated from technology, then we know that there is an unhealthy dependence. When electronic devices start to have more influence over behaviour than anyone else or anything else, that is the moment when really you need to start changing things.

It is important that we can find the right balance between maximising the benefits of new technologies without forming an unhealthy dependence. Parents should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Does your child ignore and avoid other activities to spend more time using devices?
  • Does your child talk a lot about when they will be allowed to be back to being online when they are offline?
  • Does your child argue with or feel criticised by parents about the amount of time they spend online?
  • Does your child feel tense or bad if they can’t get online (a feeling which noticeably goes away when they are allowed to get back online)?
  • Does your child hide or become defensive about what they do on-line?

How is technology addiction treated?
Technology and its use in the modern world is unavoidable and extremely helpful.  Therefore treatment programmes centre upon controlled withdrawal, which may start with a few days of complete abstinence followed by a controlled reintroduction.  After the initial 72 hour detox, the treatment varies according to the severity of the case and the level of adaption. Initially they will show distress and signs of withdrawal, much like any addict would feel. The challenge starts when we reintroduce technology back into their lives in a controlled manner, as technology is an integral part of our everyday lives it is important that a good relationship habit is established. Re-forming habits by breaking down old ones and establishing new ones can take many weeks.

Establishing healthy technology habits
It is important to set some firm ground rules to establish a productive and healthy relationship with technology and for children, establish a healthy foundation that they can take into adulthood. Techniques include:

  • Ensuring prolonged periods where people are focused on the ‘real world’, such as social engagements, sporting activities, family outing and, for children, this is play time with other children.
  • Establishing a maximum daily time of phone/technology use
  • Establishing sacred times and places where there is no technology, for example making sure adults leave their phones off during meal times and when with friends and family
  • No technology should be used an hour before bedtime
  • Phones and iPads should not be kept in the bedroom overnight
  • Limit ‘double screening’, so that you are focused on one particular task at a time as children learn behaviour from their parents. Real play is a first step in reducing technology addiction and will have huge benefits for the physical, mental and developmental health of children.

Technology addiction can be particularly complex to treat because (unlike with alcohol or drugs) a patient cannot simply decide never to use a technology again. Instead, they must learn to establish a healthy relationship

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