19 October 2023
We Need to Talk about Devices – Deb’s Digest Term 3, 2021
By Deb Gould
Image source: pxfuel
Initially, Nicole and I had flagged ‘gaming’ as this term’s topic. But, with the average gamer being 34 (Brand et al., 2019), this doesn’t really cover the concern that many of us have about young people in the online world. And, let’s be real, the humble phone is where most of us play: games that are small bites but as ‘addictive’ and distracting as the big console games. Breaking down the issue we wanted to address, it seems the following are of concern to parents, teachers and health workers (hereafter referred to as adults):
Screen use – We worry about eye strain, overstimulation, distractibility and passivity.
Gaming – Also known as video games, often played on a console or computer. There are larger worlds and complex narratives, requiring longer attention and greater engagement, due to their interactive nature. We worry about violence and unacceptable behaviour in virtual worlds.
Social media – The use of an electronic device to connect with others. We worry about bullying, self-esteem and distraction from real life connection.
Audio-visual entertainment – TV shows, movies and the YouTube/TikTok phenomenon. We worry about passivity and exposure to divergent morals.
The phrase I will use to cover all of these is device use, being specific when specifics are needed. Research sometimes unpacks these domains but sometimes generalises – be aware of that when reviewing it. Why would we review research? Because we have become very worried about school-aged people and their use of devices. Before looking at some of the research that might soothe or intensify our worries, I want to take a step back in time:
- Socrates warned against writing (it would prevent us using our memories);
- In the mid-1500s, scientist Conrad Gessner worried that the overabundance of books enabled by the printing press would result in confusion for the common human;
- 300 years later, public education caused a stir, imprisoning children and exhausting their brains with excess complexity;
- Of course, the radio caused a few problems because children would listen to it while doing their homework and some would “lie awake in bed restless and fearful, or wake up screaming as a result of nightmares brought on by mystery stories.” (Gramophone magazine, 1936, no reference details).
In this moral panic, new technologies are demonised while the old start to be framed as wholesome. I’d urge you all to reflect on the things your parents tried to force you to stop in their panic about “todays’ youth”. Mine was comics and 70’s rock which could be violent and sexist and look at me now.
The point is not to capitulate and accept device use uncritically, but rather to sit with a perspective that might modulate our response to the device-focused child we are parenting/teaching/being with. For refugee families, this might be more difficult. Already faced with shifting perspectives and rapid departures from tradition, this issue might be a last straw for some. Hopefully, this brief article will provide some conversational resources to support parents and students in making good enough decisions about device use.
One approach we can attempt is to explore the attraction. Simply put, devices offer immediate rewards, a sense of achievement, relaxation, fun, excitement, connection, belonging, unique identity, escape, control. For refugee students, they might be a way in to a new group of friends, a sign that they are fitting in to a new way.
And devices are available and useful:
- Devices are ubiquitous in classrooms and make schooling possible during COVID-19 lockdowns;
- Important healthcare messages as well as psychological treatment are delivered online;
- Devices allow isolated children to connect – from those in hospital to those whose loved ones are across the globe or across town in a pandemic.
The problem starts when device use causes distress and impacts negatively on core areas of life: family, school, friendships, and health. In my experience, the distress is usually the parents’. When asked during an assessment session for their referred child, “What would you like most help with regarding your child?”, many say “He’s obsessed with his ipad and won’t even eat with us” or “She refuses to go to bed because she is talking to her friends in Syria at night”. At source, it might reflect the feeling of losing contact with a child because of the time and energy spent on their device. But parents are also worried about children waking up tired.
An already negative orientation to devices might fuel beliefs about overwhelmingly negative impacts. To assist with robust discussions about these impacts, I have included a reading list at the end of this article which contains discussion and review of much of the research conducted in the last 10 years. Not always particularly robust or repeatable, the research does not always clearly differentiate between screen time, video game playing and passive consumption of TV or “the internet”. Many of the reported impacts seem to be bi-directional (certain conditions predict problem gaming as much as problem gaming predicts those conditions). I’ll illustrate this by going through some of the more common discussion points:
Academic performance – Poulain, T., et al (2018) conducted a detailed study of high school students that suggests a link between increased gaming and poor academic performance. This makes sense if those students are not getting homework done or enough sleep.
Addiction – There is big debate on this. While some might fit the criteria (e.g. inappropriate pattern of use, unable to stop, impairment across several domains), by and large this is not what we are concerned about here and using addiction discourse with school-aged people is not useful. It tends to leave people feeling powerless and it fuels the panic – never a great state to think clearly about things.
The actual brain – A University of Montreal study (UdemNouvelles, 2017) found that habitual gamers have less grey matter in the hippocampus, putting them at risk of several neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disorders; how this will be expressed over the years is yet to be seen. The incidence of seizures in gamers with pre-existing epilepsy who play frequently, is of course, concerning.
Palaus et al’s’ (2017) metastudy looked at changes in brain structure, function and behaviour in habitual gamers. They found improvements in sustained and selective attention as well as increased efficiency of brain regions associated with visuospatial functions.
Mental disorders – The complex relationship between mental well-being and gaming has not been clearly articulated in spite of a great deal of research; it still seems to be the case that poor mental health outcomes are seen in people already predisposed to depression, anxiety and ADHD. Low self-esteem, poor school performance and maladaptive coping skills seem to pre-exist and possibly determine excessive gaming.
Furthermore, it seems that, the relationship between technology use and mental well-being is u-shaped: no use and excessive use (playing over 3 hours a day) have negative impacts and moderate use has a positive impact. Positive? Have a look at Przybylski (2017) – playing about one hour per day enhanced psychological well-being.
Motivation – The constant supply of dopamine during gaming (with that delicious burst during moments of success) can make other activities …. boring.
Musculo-skeletal – Repetitive strain injuries and the consequences of poor posture include the obvious: wrist, neck, elbow pain as well as “XBox blister” and “Playstation vibration syndrome”. I’m only mildly kidding on the last two. All of these resolve when use reduces, although some physiotherapy intervention can be useful.
Obesity – Much device use occurs in a physically inactive state and often in the presence of poor-quality food. Children who are less fit or active are drawn to video games because they are less physically demanding.
Relationship issues – The time taken up on devices might be at the expense of maintaining family, social and romantic relationships. However, the device might be a replacement for relationships in people who have social anxiety or limited social skills, or an escape space when relationships are rocky or unsatisfying. The social disconnection that either causes or results from gaming is further perpetuated by the lack of attention to resolving relational issues and practicing social skills.
Self-esteem – There is reasonable worry that some social media and gaming environments are toxic, exposing kids to bullying, sexism, racism to a greater degree than real life due to the anonymity and relative disconnection between perpetrators and their victims. And conversely, kids may come to gaming to escape difficulties like bullying, difference, lack of acceptance in the real world. Sure, escape and avoidance are not great problem-solving skills, but some of the problems being avoided need the support of adults to solve.
Sleep – The effects of insufficient sleep are now well known and include the obvious (eg fatigue and reduced attention) and the less obvious (eg weight gain and systemic inflammation). The sleep needs of school aged children vary but it is fair to say (in summary of so much information) that 10 hours for primary and 8 for high school students would be sufficient. A fair amount of research has demonstrated the negative impacts of device use on sleep – our ability to fall asleep and stay there at a level conducive to a sense of being rested and refreshed (e.g. Hysing et al, 2015). Sleep is disrupted by device use in several ways:
- Simply, we might use devices instead of settling down to sleep;
- The light from devices can reduce the production of melatonin (Shechter et al, 2018). Melatonin is produced by the body in response to certain cues and facilitates the initiation of sleep; and
- There might be content in the game we play or social network we access that stimulates thinking or feeling in ways that prevent settling into sleep.
Violence – The factors hypothesised to link violent behaviour to gaming include modelling, desensitisation and hyperarousal. But is there a link? The research has been mixed with the strongest recent evidence for a link being from Prescott et al (2018) “violent video game play is associated with subsequent increases in physical aggression.” This increase over time is challenged by a few researchers (eg Ferguson, 2017) who note that the changes are very small and not statistically significant. Increased physical aggression is not regarded as a consequence of non-violent game play and other device use.
Vision – eye strain from prolonged viewing (e.g. without breaks where the eye focuses on varying distances) of electronic information is something we all get from overuse of our computers. Headaches and dizziness can be part of this response.
With research not being particularly clear about impacts, how do you go about advising young people and their parents on device use? You could try the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) which famously recommended only two hours’ screen time a day for kids. This position changed in 2020 in acknowledgement of the ubiquity of “screen” use: We couldn’t have it both ways – if we want kids to do their school work and that work is computer based, we couldn’t be saying that screens are bad. They moved to saying that this refers to 2 hours of recreational use.
Concluding his review of the research, Ferguson (2017) was clear that screen time should not be a focus when designing measures to prevent problematic behaviour (and, presumably, other poor outcomes) in young people. So, what should we be doing? We already know that a positive parent-child relationship is vital in optimal development and it seems that encouraging parental engagement in their children’s interests might be the best course of action. This can translate in many ways:
- Doing it together – a great way to connect, and possibly for parents to get a better sense of the things that interest their children (particularly in a new country). It can also be a time to talk about what’s happening in the game and separate it from reality (for younger children) or explore more complex moral decisions with older kids. As with any play or compelling activity, video games elicit a range of emotions and thus present an opportunity for adults to engage and help children to navigate those emotions. There are opportunities for several life lessons, e.g. being a good sport, team play, sacrifice, managing frustration. For me, the greatest is when a child is able to have an awareness of their own limits and know when it is time to walk away from a game or screen.
- Letting kids be involved in a “device plan” – A parent driven plan is meaningless if it doesn’t address the young person’s drive to play and is structured in a way that they have no control over. But few are likely to self-limit alone. Positive time can be spent together in conversation about life goals and other things they want to spend time on, reflecting with them how that extra hour on the device might impact. This highlights other drives to help us step away from devices but also facilitates meaningful limits on use. Some call this process “intentional gaming” – youth consciously choosing to play as part of a larger life.
- Specific, adult managed rules might be needed around sleep, bedtime and bedroom device use. Families have their own styles of setting out rules, but when it comes to issues like sleep, it might be useful to provide a little (non-judgemental) information from research as well as asking young people to reflect on how they think device use might impact on sleep. Three problems: high schoolers might be working into the night to meet academic expectations AND have friends in different times zones, perhaps still in dangerous places AND these rules are often best taught through role modelling. We might need to have a good look at our own device use.
- Getting a bit of perspective is another good idea: young people have always had a passion for something but rarely for housework or studying when there is play of any sort to be had. Video games and computers are newcomers on the scene of things-we-prefer-to-do and can’t reasonably be blamed for children’s attitudes towards school- or housework.
In spite of our best intentions, device use can become problematic, particularly for those with vulnerabilities (anxiety, trauma, social isolation, family violence etc). The following are red flags:
- Change in behaviour: Increased aggression, social isolation or irritability
- Decline in school performance or attendance
- Difficulty sleeping and/or not getting enough sleep
- New unusual behaviours or interests.
These might trigger new plans for managing tech time but also to explore more deeply the core issues driving overuse. The emotional triggers, more than the device overuse, would be the focus of coaching, counselling or parenting. Those triggers need to be identified and addressed. Total bans on devices are less helpful (this is not heroin, folks) and ultimately, the goal is to have a child able to regulate themselves with regard to difficult emotions and device use.
I like the perspective of social psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, whose Self Determination Theory sees humans having a tendency towards growth. Competence, autonomy and relatedness are regarded as conditions necessary for this growth. Is it possible that children are turning to excessive device use because these needs are not being met at home, school and community? And that they are met in an online world? Play is the way children navigate these things and play is changing – not driven by kids themselves but by parents and educators.
At home, there might be stressed, busy, unwell, traumatised, distracted parents. Fears of dangers in the neighbourhood and highly curated playgrounds mean that there is less opportunity for many city dwelling children to gather with friends after school and test the limits, get a bit injured, take care of one another. Those connections are then made online.
At school, many children’s sense of competence is compromised by learning difficulties, difference, a curriculum that doesn’t hold interest and being flooded with homework, some of which does not engage students with diverse learning needs or refugee backgrounds. In the absence of support or a genuinely engaging environment, many will prefer the online world of levelling up, attracting followers with a clever video or mining for emeralds.
To this extent, devices (the new play) can satisfy psychological needs that other areas of life do not and they can be an easier way for many young people whose real worlds do not provide the safety, soothing or stimulation. However, they are not a great substitute for meeting needs in the real, concrete, touchable world (the mastery of learning to write, the competence of scoring a goal and the connection made in the hug of a friend when you fail a test.) They are not neutral, offering important positive and unfortunate negative impacts. The latter in the way they intrude upon other essential activities (sleep, social connection, school work) and exacerbate issues already faced by vulnerable children. In order to maximise positive and minimise negative impacts, individual children might need assistance in relinquishing a pattern of excessive gaming – there will need to be a lot in place to meet the needs for connection, challenge, control and mastery. We have to be prepared to follow through – it is unlikely to be a seamless process because the pull of the screen is strong and it is often the space where refugee students can most easily feel themselves settling in to a new life.
Brand, J. E., Jervis, J., Huggins, P. M., & Wilson, T. W. (2019). Digital Australia 2020. Eveleigh, NSW: IGEA.
Ferguson, C. J. (2017). Everything in moderation: moderate use of screens unassociated with child behavior problems. Psychiatric quarterly, 88(4), 797-805.
Hysing, M., Pallesen, S., Stormark, K. M., Jakobsen, R., Lundervold, A. J., & Sivertsen, B. (2015). Sleep and use of electronic devices in adolescence: results from a large population-based study. BMJ open, 5(1), e006748.
Palaus, M., Marron, E. M., Viejo-Sobera, R., & Redolar-Ripoll, D. (2017). Neural basis of video gaming: A systematic review. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 11, 248.
Poulain, T., Peschel, T., Vogel, M., Jurkutat, A., & Kiess, W. (2018). Cross-sectional and longitudinal associations of screen time and physical activity with school performance at different types of secondary school. BMC public health, 18(1), 1-10.
Prescott, A. T., Sargent, J. D., & Hull, J. G. (2018). Metaanalysis of the relationship between violent video game play and physical aggression over time. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(40), 9882-9888.
Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (2017). A large-scale test of the goldilocks hypothesis: quantifying the relations between digital-screen use and the mental well-being of adolescents. Psychological science, 28(2), 204-215.
Shechter, A., Kim, E. W., St-Onge, M. P., & Westwood, A. J. (2018). Blocking nocturnal blue light for insomnia: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of psychiatric research, 96, 196-202.
UdemNouvelles (2017). Playing action video games can actually harm your brain. Accessed at: https://www.newswise.com/articles/playing-action-video-games-can-actually-harm-your-brain
George MJ, Odgers CL. (2015) “Seven Fears and the Science of How Mobile Technologies May Be Influencing Adolescents in the Digital Age”. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2015;10(6):832-851.
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). “Video games and health”. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.
Kardefelt-Winther, Daniel. (2017) “How Does the Time Children Spend Using Digital Technology Impact Their Mental Well-Being, Social Relationships and Physical Activity?” Innocenti Discussion Paper 2017. UNICEF
Kids Helpline – Kidshelpline.com.au
Mills, Kathryn L. (2016) “Possible Effects of Internet Use on Cognitive Development in Adolescence.” Media and Communication 4, no. 3 (June 16, 2016): 4–12.
Sleep Foundation – https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/how-electronics-affect-sleep