5 Questions: Is your child addicted to technology?

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Charlie is texting on his phone. Or maybe it’s one of those computer games again. Either way, he’s not paying attention.

Is this just the typical nuisance? Or is it something worse? Is Charlie actually addicted to his cellphone?

Lisa Strohman, a clinical psychologist and “technology wellness specialist,” says many kids really are addicted to their phones, their tablets, their technology.  She spoke about the issue earlier this summer at the annual conference of the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Philadelphia.

Strohman, the author of “Unplug: Raising Kids in a Technology-Addicted World,” also is the director of the Technology Wellness Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., which she cofounded with Melissa Westendorf.  The women met while they were in the Drexel and Villanova joint degree program in law and psychology.  Strohman also founded Digital Citizen Academy, which provides programs to educate children, parents, and educators about the safe use of technology.

Here are some of Strohman’s thoughts.

I understand that cellphone use in schools was a big topic at the recent conference.
Most schools, because of parental pressure, allow students to bring cellphones on campus. A large part of that is due to fear, based on the shootings that have happened and were highly publicized. Parents want to know they can get ahold of their children.

But we’re at a tipping point. A lot of the schools want to invest in technology but it’s creating more distractions, more disruptions, more social and emotional issues on campuses. We’ve given these kids devices that connect them to the world, so that’s what they’re doing.  But now they’re not paying attention to the teacher.


Lisa Strohman, a clinical psychologist and “technology wellness specialist.”

Now that school is about to begin, how can a parent wean a child off of technology if it’s been overused during the summer?
For a parent, it’s about setting a clear back-to-school message.  We get new pencils, new paper, and we have new rules for technology. It should be as normal as doing those other things. You set the expectations ahead of time.

One of the things parents don’t know is that scientific research now shows that when you use technology continuously — anything over a four-hour period — it starts to rewire the brain and causes the pleasure center to be altered.  If you put an image of the brain of a technology-addicted youth next to one of a youth addicted to a substance, such as drugs or alcohol, you can’t tell them apart.

We suggest a tech-free Tuesday, where kids learn they can take a day off from technology. Or you can set specific times — around dinner and lunch — when phones should be off.  In the home, modeling is important. Don’t be on technology all the time yourself.

How do you know if your child is following the guidelines you’ve set? Every internet service provider has programs that can help parents monitor; it allows them to read text messages or shut down data when they’re in school. Typically, these are free resources. There also are products that parents can buy. But I always say, start with what you’re already paying for.

How do you know if your child is showing signs of a technology addiction?
The easiest way to tell is if there’s a mood shift. If you see a depressed mood, withdrawal, isolation, irritability. I realize I’m pretty much describing every teenager in America. My recommendation is to ask kids to hand over their phones at night. Don’t let them sleep with their devices. If they’re unable to part with them or leave them off for a specific amount of time, that’s a sign.

The average age that kids in the U.S. are getting their first devices is now about 7 years old. Consider that Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use iPads. Bill Gates didn’t give his kids cellphones until they were 14. The guys developing the technology industry understand.

If you have a child with a family genetic disposition for addiction, and you hand them a cellphone that potentially activates this really robust dopamine reward system, then when they get to the age when drugs and alcohol are accessible, they’ll be at higher risk.

We have to start teaching our children balance. There’s online life and offline life.

What are other potential dangers of addiction or overuse?
When you tap into the addiction center of the brain, there’s increased potential for suicide, anxiety, and depression. And there’s a loss of academic potential. Technology is causing kids to have what some people call technology-acquired Attention Deficit Disorder.

They’re sending naked pictures of each other and then getting suspended.  How far behind are they when they come back? It’s a slippery slope. We’re just getting the data on this now. What we’re seeing is that kids are starting to lose their way, based on one or two bad decisions they make online.

And we all know about the dangers of sexual predators online. As parents, we can’t block every site. But we have to understand that the more unrestricted access your child has to the internet, the higher the risks.

What is Digital Citizen Academy and how do you see it combating technology addiction?
It provides education and prevention programs for schools K-12, teaching digital citizenship, about things such as cyberbullying and plagiarism.  The curriculum we’ve developed is age appropriate and there’s also a segment for educators and parents. Educators working in concert with the parents is the best approach for protecting and preparing kids.

We’re finding that in the schools using the programs, we’re reducing technology infractions significantly. Kids ultimately want to do the right thing. If you start early, they’ll make better choices. A lot of parents are overwhelmed, but we know that it works. If we make changes now, it doesn’t have to be as overwhelming and scary.