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Screen addiction and device dependency - what are the impacts of being constantly plugged in?

In an interview with Dr Wayne Warburton, Associate Professor in Developmental Psychology at the Macquarie University, we investigate the relationship between media and human behaviour, the complexities of digital dependency, and the impacts of screen addiction on a generation growing up with technology. Read the exclusive article here.

16 November, 2020

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Depression Anxiety Social Media and Mental Health Assessment Digital Dependency

In an interview with Dr Wayne Warburton, Associate Professor in Developmental Psychology at the Macquarie University, we investigate the relationship between media and human behaviour, the complexities of digital dependency, and the impacts of screen addiction on a generation growing up with technology.

All of us are guilty of spending too much time buried in technology. Some of us are conscious of our use and work to actively govern our digital activity, whereas others see no issue in being plugged in all day. Screen addiction, digital dependency or screen overuse, however you like to frame it, is a term that’s here to stay.

We’re now hearing a lot about screen addiction as a term to denote screen or device-related poor behaviour, and it’s a tricky area for psychologists to fully comprehend. Typically, when we refer to addiction, it involves a substance, such as alcohol or drugs. But as we’re now seeing, non-substance addictions are real.

When you consider how much daily screen time one has in the 21st century — from scanning emails at work to online shopping or running a search for the best rated local café — our reliance on technology can be jarring. Technology is everywhere and seemingly always within an arm’s reach — it’s part of our personal lives as much as it is our professional lives. Is it becoming something of a necessary evil? Still, it’s likely too soon to say.

But given our heavy reliance (or dependency) on our digital devices, it begs the question whether society is becoming increasingly numb to the psychological effects of our persistent immersion in digital technology. We know we need to use it in today’s age, but just how much is too much?

The reality is clear: technology isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s an industry that will see a consistent flow of new electronic media, shiny gadgets and enhanced technologies introduced into the consumer market every year, and as a direct result of this our collective screen use will rise.

With that considered, is screen overuse deemed a clinical concern for global health authorities? Put simply, it is, and there’s growing research in the area of screen addiction to help us better understand its short-term and long-term impact. Additionally, The World Health Organisation (WHO) concluded that human beings can indeed be addicted to screens, as reflected in the 2018 inclusion of what’s considered “gaming disorder" to the 11th revision of the Internal Classification of Diseases.

According to the WHO, gaming disorder is defined as follows: “A pattern of gaming behaviour characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences”.

Despite the growing research in this area, experts have said that we still don’t have enough information to know whether our use of screens is good or bad for our mental and physical health.

So, what is the formative research telling us and what role do parents play in screen addiction?

Dr Wayne Warburton, Associate Professor in Developmental Psychology at the Macquarie University, says that while we still may be some years away from a strong scientific consensus on screen addiction, our understanding of the negative mental health outcomes associated with too much screen time is growing rapidly.

“I think we are still some years away from getting a really good scientific consensus on what’s going on. We just need more studies, and while the current studies are indicative, what we want to see is a whole lot more findings in the same direction before we can categorically say one thing or another. The bottom line is that we’ll know a lot more in the next few years once we get a larger research base around what’s really going on. And what I suspect is that we’ll find these negative mental health outcomes will start to firm up and we’ll get a clear sense of the people who are more vulnerable to them.”

Wayne notes that the learnings from the past 2-3 years of research in the area shows that parents need to model healthy screen use, as their children closely watch how they interact with technology and see that as a mode of inspiration.

“What we have learned from the current research is that kids are watching their parents very closely in terms of what they're doing with media. They're watching their mums and dads on social media and emails, and generally they dislike that they're being told to hold their own media use back, because they see their parents buried in their devices too.”

So, Wayne’s message is clear: if parents want their children to be healthy users of technology, then they need to be well governed users themselves. Additionally, Wayne notes that when parents are interactively involved with their child’s digital activities, it often lends itself to better outcomes.

“Parents are more effective when overseeing their child’s screen use, when they’re actively involved and not just monitoring. It's about being actively involved with what their kids are doing with their media, with what they're playing and watching.

“So, for example, this may look like playing video games with them, or talking about the YouTube clips they’re watching, or listening to the music they’re tuned into. This opens channels of communication, which makes it easier to have a conversation about what's happening and can help in moderating use, too.”

The importance of understanding the relationship between media and human behaviour

In terms of what constitutes screen media, Wayne says that it encompasses everything that’s done on a screen. So, that’s anything you might do on your phone, tablet, computer or video game console — ultimately, anything that’s screen-based.

For Wayne, it’s important for us to understand the effects of media on human behaviour simply because it’s such a big part of daily life. He says that the things we experience and do shape who we are and the way our brains wire up. Things we experience a lot have a bigger impact, and the concern, Wayne says, lies in the numbers.

“In the most recent US poll, kids aged between 5 and 12 used screens for recreational purposes, so not for school-related activities, for about 4 hours and 45 minutes on average. And when you look at teenagers, so those aged 12 to 17, that figure rises to more than 7 hours and 20 minutes per day on average — that's a lot of time. It’s more time than kids spend with teachers or with friends and family, and with many other activities in their life, barring sleeping and sometimes not even that.”

The risks of not addressing pathological levels of screen use

Wayne notes that screen addiction occurs on a continuum. This measurement framework, Wayne says, consists of a not having a problem with screen use to having extreme, pathological levels of use. He’s concerned about the kids who are that far end of the continuum.

“What we’re worried about are kids at one end of that continuum, and in terms of severe problems, which are the kids that have problems that look like an addiction, we think that about 2-3 per cent of those kids have serious, addiction-level problems with video games. We don’t yet know the definitive numbers for other areas like social media addiction, internet addiction, and pornography addiction, but we’re getting a sense of it as the research progresses.”

Wayne says that there’s another demographic where there is some cause for concern, and it’s those whose level of screen time is having a serious impact on at least one key area of their life, such as their schoolwork or their mental health. “We think it’s about 5-10 per cent of kids. But we need to remember that the 2-3 per cent referenced earlier are included in that 5-10 per cent. So, at the top end, we have about 10 per cent of kids who have problematic levels of use.”

Wayne notes that there’s also one large group who aren’t in the top 5-10 per cent, but who remain at risk of developing problematic or pathological levels of screen use. “These kids are using devices at high levels and it’s starting to raise red flags with mum and dad, and what we're looking at here is identifying the risk and stopping them from moving across the continuum where they’re having more problems.”

In extreme scenarios, screen addiction can be the number one threat to a child’s wellbeing. Wayne has seen a case where the person stopped going to school in the middle of year 7 and never went back — they stayed in their room up until their late teens and never left the bedroom. “At the extreme end, it’s extreme,” says Wayne.

Keeping screen overuse at bay

According to Wayne, for children to develop normally they need to spend sufficient time outdoors and having offline active play, which lends itself to stronger face-to-face relationships and better developmental outcomes. He says the argument that ‘I get everything I need with my online friends’ doesn’t hold water developmentally - the online arena is simply not the same.

Wayne adds that adopting a healthy and moderate ‘media diet’, and making a family media plan, can help ensure that screen addiction is kept at bay, and that the positive elements of technology can be leveraged for positive outcomes. It’s a joint effort, however, involving the co-operation between parents, children and mental health experts to ensure that screen use doesn’t get out of hand.