Save your children from digital addiction

There’s a good chance your children, whatever age they may be, are digital addicts. We do not have statistics for the Arab world, but if kids in our region are behaving anything like those in the rest of the world, from China to North America, many of them must be addicted to small screens.
It seems 2017 has been our wake-up year about the extreme harm that digital technology has been inflicting on our societies. Indeed, several books appeared last year detailing the problem and offering solutions. And, just in the past week, I read calls to reign in social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and other platforms) and even Google, which is now controlling large parts of our lives, digital and beyond.
Soon after it came out a few months ago, I read “Irresistible: The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked” by Adam Alter, and I was stunned at the extent of the problem. Indeed, you can only be alarmed when you learn that in China there are over 24 million internet addicts and 400 digital addiction treatment centers. The problem is so great that the government has declared internet addiction “the number one public health threat to teenagers.”
The book spends dozens of pages convincing us that digital technology has all the features of drugs such as cocaine. It does that first through stories from people who know digital technology best and that we like and trust — people like Steve Jobs. Indeed, the book opens with the scene in January 2010, when Jobs presented the iPad to the world in a masterful 90-minute pitch: “What this device does is extraordinary… It’s an incredible experience… It’s phenomenal for mail… It’s a dream to type on.” Then Alter tells us: But Jobs refused to let his kids use the device. Likewise Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired magazine and a father of five, who has instituted time limits and parental controls on every device in his home, “because we have seen the dangers of (digital) technology firsthand.”
Technological epidemic is afflicting youngsters everywhere and educators, communicators and social leaders need to address this phenomenon seriously and urgently before it destroys too many lives.
Nidhal Guessoum
Driving the drug similarity pointedly home, Alter titled his book’s prologue: “Never get high on your own supply”, which is what he calls “the cardinal rule of drug dealing.” Then, to make us realize that this problem touches every one of us, he asks: “How many hours do you think you spend looking at your smartphone on an average day, whether you read messages, play games, or watch videos?” He himself thought he spent no more than an hour, since he doesn’t play games and rarely watches any videos. But, having downloaded an app that tracks his usage, he came to realize he spends three hours a day on his smartphone. Then he gives us the statistics: Three hours is the average; more than 10 percent of us spend over five hours.
And, when you learn that an average of only six minutes pass between the moment an email arrives and the moment it is opened, you realize that we are indeed facing all the hallmarks of a behavioral addiction epidemic. Alter goes on to tell us what tricks digital game makers use to keep us hooked. Some experts told him that, after just looking at some games, they know they will never touch them, having immediately identified the addictive ingredients. He also explains to us how Facebook and Twitter ensure that we keep going back: It’s the “like” and “share/retweet” buttons. Indeed, with those features, social media plays on our egos and pushes us to keep checking our posts and tweets for reactions and comments, and to decide how we should react (reciprocate the kind praise, respond to the nasty comment, etc.).
Games are the most addictive form of digital technology (there are some extraordinary examples in the book), but social media has the most insidious effects: It not only robs us of countless hours, it also affects our egos and destroys or hinders the development of social skills, particularly in youngsters. Psychological experiments have shown how heavy users lose the capacity to deal with others in real life, to recognize love, to show empathy, etc.
Alter offers a number of solutions, all based on academic studies and interviews he conducted with experts. His solutions range from the general to the specific and practical. For one thing, one must be wary of solutions that involve quitting “cold turkey.” Unless you replace a bad habit with a good one, you won’t sustain the withdrawal. But there are simple things you can do: For example, disable email notifications, so that you don’t rush to quit what you’re doing to check an email that has just arrived — almost all emails can wait a few hours, if not a few days. On social media, ignore the like and share/retweet buttons. It will be easier for you to ignore the likes for your posts if you stop “liking” other posts. That will kill Facebook’s main addictive feature. And, for your kids, impose strict rules on the time and the places where they can use screen devices.
Though we unfortunately do not have figures from the Arab world, digital addiction is an epidemic that is afflicting youngsters everywhere. Educators, communicators and social leaders need to address this phenomenon seriously and urgently before it destroys too many lives.
Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE.
Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum​

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