During the long holiday break, we reconnected as a family. We baked cookies, ice skated, watched silly movies, ate lots of chili and learned a lot about our children’s attachment to the Internet and the devices that are its time-sucking portals into the virtual world.
I had suspected it before, but I got confirmation that our first-born, teenage Primo not only sleeps with his iPhone connected to his ears but feels physical pain when he has to take his hands off the device. I also learned that our lovely Secunda, only 10, started her own Instagram account a while ago and already has 225 followers—more than I do—mysteriously including an editor I haven’t spoken to for several years and who cannot possibly know he’s following my daughter because she’s using a nom de plume.
When they were babies, I imagined my kids would grow up and read books, play the piano and soccer, maybe learn to cook and grow stuff in a garden. They do some of that. But not when left to their own devices.
When Primo was a toddler, he got his hands on the channel changer and navigated instantly to the cartoons. He sat there transfixed until we canceled cable. By 6, his little pals all had their own small handheld games. He begged incessantly for one of his own. We held out for two years, until he had read all the Harry Potter books. Then he finagled an Xbox out of his grandmother one Christmas.
Soon, the kids were collecting Apple products we tossed aside as newer versions beckoned. We also gave them our passwords to watch a movie or play a game once in a while, and like mice that find a hole in the wall, they returned for more and more.
We lost another measure of control when our son hit middle school and his homework went online. Now he has an excuse every night not to open any books.
I worry that his brain is turning to jelly, and I have backup. Neurologists and radiologists in China ran a study in 2011 using MRIs and reported that the gray matter in the brains of students who spent more than eight hours per day playing video games was visibly deteriorated compared with a control group of young people whose video game time was under two hours.
On the other hand, some researchers have reported that social media is good for teens and that by interacting on the Internet they are learning things that will be crucial for them in their lives.
When I started writing this, I asked parents (on Facebook, naturally) how they deal with glassy-eyed kids and their gadgets. Every parent I know is uncertain and looking for guidance. Some have a no-smartphones-in-the-bedroom rule. Some limit access to online games to one night or two nights per week.
A father we know took the computer away for a summer and watched his son morph into what we used to consider a normal kid because he played outside. Now the kid’s back on deck in front of the screen, and my friend wants to break the machine. But he can’t. The homework is on it.
My husband actually did break a laptop once by slamming the lid shut too hard after he discovered Primo in the middle of a particularly egregious faux homework/gaming interlude. Another friend threw her daughter’s phone into the toilet. “She fished it out, and it never stopped working,” my friend said. “I guess the smart phone companies are onto us parents and make them flush-proof.”
Parental ignorance about the devices is another problem. One mother wandered into her son’s empty room in a towel to fetch something. As she turned around, she heard a voice say “Hi Mrs. ____!” and thereby learned that her son had left his video chat connection open while he stepped away, with a buddy virtually present, in the dark.
Another friend clocked her college freshman sending and receiving 16,000 texts over two months last fall. “We calculated this to equal a text every three minutes during the 18 hours a day she is awake,” my friend said. “She barely passed calculus and has given up her premed dreams … yet still can’t admit that the incessant texting might have interfered just a teeny bit with her concentration. She is now down to 4,000 texts a month, one every six minutes during her 18 waking hours. … We call this binge texting, and we believe, truly, that it is killing her dreams.”
In a recent Psychology Today article headlined “Teens and the Internet: How Much Is Too Much?” one of the subjects, a 16-year-old girl, spent seven hours per day updating her Facebook. When her grades suffered, her parents took the computer, and she threatened to leave home. She only recovered her equilibrium with “intensive outpatient therapy.”
A friend who counsels at a top-ranked high school told me that, several years ago, he decided his advisees were video game addicts.
“I make a home visit every year. One of the questions I ask is “’Halo’ or ‘Call of Duty’?” And then I watch the parents react. A few parents do despair. They can’t keep a lid on things. One couple despaired of their son’s gaming, and I could see stacks of game cartridges next to the T.V. Another plays until 2 a.m. most nights and later on weekends. Both of these guys refused to show their parents their report cards this year, so I called home to let them know they had been distributed. BAM! Parents pulled the plug. The 2a.m. gamer’s parents took away his stuff to work with them. However, he told me that the box they took had been stuffed with something else, an old system, and that he had hidden the new one and continues to play.”
How much is too much? I do have friends whose kid’s “personal hygiene” has suffered (according to Dr. Drew, one of the addiction signs to watch out for). But we may all be addicts, already. Internet gaming disorder is now listed in section three of the DSM-5. An inpatient treatment center for Internet addiction opened last summer in Pennsylvania. There is an Internet addiction diagnostic questionnaire online. I answered “yes” to more than half of the questions.
I spent the holiday break on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the unholy trinity of the Church of Timesuck. After several social media and email binges, I turned off the smaller screen and opened the Kindle I got for Christmas. I finished one novel in two days, but I found myself frequently distracted by the “highlight and share” option. I fought the urge, every 10 pages or so, to highlight and share a particularly wise passage with my thousands of virtual friends.
In the time it took me to write this, I deviated to Instagram several times to check out how many “likes” my pictures got and to “like” some of my friends’ snaps. I checked Twitter and fired another salvo in an ongoing one-liner argument I’m having with some evolution-deniers I have never met. And of course I checked Facebook, ostensibly to see if anyone responded to my crowdsourcing reportage on kids and computers but ended up browsing updates about new dogs and trips to Mexico.
Then I fell asleep with my nose on the screen.