Addiction is a scary word for parents. We have four children, Ben (18), Gabriel (15), Jessica (13) and Noah (7) and I’m not sure if anything would scare me more than finding out one of them had a drug Addiction. I was a teen in the Grange Hill generation of “Just Say No” and horror stories of HIV being passed through needles. The movie Trainspottting came along shortly afterwards.
Although there are plenty of problems with drug and alcohol addiction, far more prevalent amongst teens are gaming and internet addictions – and given the connected society we live in, it’s easy to overlook the ‘addiction’ and assume that being permanently plugged in is a necessary survival skill for your bedroom dwelling digital native.
I had no idea that my children were hooked (or that I was) until one day in 2013 we decided to remove the internet for the day. No phones, no computers, no tablets, no streaming. I just unplugged us all.
The fallout was extreme, we have good kids – really. Good school results, no trouble, active, pleasant, polite – but unplugging them from the web turned them into monsters – and me too. We stuck with it, and over the next few months we slowly weaned the whole family off their dependency.
And started to do some research, and that’s when it got a little scary.
There may be no physical signs to internet addiction, aside from slightly crooked neck from looking down and a larger waistline from spending too much time in front of a screen. But there huge mental implications that we were all unaware of – including increased levels of anxiety, poor concentration, lack of creativity and a drop in social skills.
Studies show that if you place adolescents in MRI machines, and scan their brains over a period of time, those with higher time spent on the internet show tissue loss in their frontal lobe, and compromised connections between brain hemispheres (among other symptoms).
Keeping the phone in the bedroom at night leads to poor sleep quality due to a condition known as ‘hypervigilance’ – your subconscious is expecting an alert, ping or alarm at any moment, and prevents you from falling deeply asleep. Even looking at a device within half an hour of going to bed slows the production of sleep hormones and effectively keeps you awake for much longer than you should be.
But enough of the ‘scary’ let’s talk about Benefit. The internet is not evil, it’s a fantastic tool that can be used for great things. Crowdfunding, research, connecting cultures and education to name a few – but (as wise parents always say) “Everything In Moderation”.
What about changes in our family? Since we began our weekly internet break all of the children are happier, healthier, safer and smarter than they were before.
Happier, because they get more attention from us and each other – and any ‘school life’ that they don’t want cannot follow them home in the form of digital messaging or socialising (think WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook etc.)
Healthier, because they spend more time in creative play and less time in front of a
screen. ‘Step counts’ are up, waistlines down, skin tone a little darker from the sun.
Safer, because they’re not spending as much time ‘looking down’ when walking or cycling – and they are far more able to resist the attraction of tempting internet content.
And smarter, because the benefits this has to both their sleep quality and their creativity has led to much improved marks at school.
You might think that one day a week off won’t change things, but it allows everyone to understand that they can manage without. They can resist the urge to pick up the phone, they can delay gratification for a few hours, the internet is not needed for social survival.
If your family is anything like ours, you could probably benefit from a digital diet too. My book “Digitox” is all about the lessons we learned on our family journey, together with some easy steps to take if you’d like to do the same, based on our experiences. It wasn’t easy at first, but the benefits have been amazing.
I asked our 18 year old recently what he liked best about our days off – “We spend more time together as a family” was his reply. I love that response.
If you would like a copy of “Digitox”, then you can get it on Amazon by clicking here, or ask for it at any high street bookstore.
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