A week ago, after I gave a speech to a parent group, a mother with a difficult issue approached me. It was something she didn’t want to discuss in front of her school community during the question-and-answer session.
“Basically,” she whispered, “my daughter is totally addicted to Facebook. She is on it all the time — and I mean ALL the time — and if we ask her to click off and join the family, she gets very nasty.
“I feel like I should do something,” the mother told me, choking back her emotion, “but I don’t know what to do.”
This is not the first time a parent has confided in me about struggling with a child’s behavior. When it comes to parenting dilemmas, I’m like the proverbial airplane seatmate. People tend to spill their guts to me because they know they will never see me again. So I figure the good Lord has put me in these situations to speak the truth.
What’s true is that “Internet-use disorder” is going into the international listing of mental diagnoses — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — as a condition “recommended for further study,” when the next manual is published in May.
According to news reports, specialists from Australia, along with the Australian Psychological Society, submitted the diagnosis, along with a separate listing for Internet gaming addiction. Medically speaking, an addiction is anything that so consumes a person that stopping it causes withdrawal symptoms.
Certainly, what the mother at last week’s parent conference described to me was withdrawal. She said efforts to curb her daughter’s Web time resulted in anger, irritability, aggressive behavior and depression on the part of her middle-schooler.
Sounds like an ugly month I spent in the ‘80s going cold turkey on Virginia Slims.
But who is responsible for this new addiction afflicting young people? Steve Jobs? Mark Zuckerberg? The Super Mario Bros.?
I blame Al Gore.
OK, no. But someone has to take responsibility for allowing children to be so engaged with a particular type of activity that such engagement becomes a health risk.
Someone has to notice that a child as young as 10 or 12, who formerly was a typical, active youngster, no longer goes outside to play or asks to bake brownies or gets into fights with his siblings, but instead retreats to a bedroom or the basement recreation room, puts on a pair of headphones and proceeds to spend upward of six hours after school on Facebook or playing “Tour of Duty.”
Someone ought to be able to see the change in demeanor early in this addictive behavior, when merely calling the child to the dinner table elicits a negative, argumentative response.
Someone certainly is capable of observing the signs that a child is more interested in being alone with a machine than being involved with family members or the children in the neighborhood or the cat.
I think we all know who that someone is.
To allow technology to be so central to the lives of our children that they become deranged by the thought of turning it off strikes me as a profound act of neglect on the part of the people responsible for their care.
Not that I said any of this to that mother who asked what to do.
To her, I said, “Call a family meeting and say, ‘Dad and I have decided we can do a better job of keeping the Internet from becoming an unhealthy part of our lives. So we are creating new family standards about how we use technology and media.’”
Then, I suggested, write down the rules about how much time your children can spend online, when they may use the Internet and where in the house they are permitted to be. When the time is up, unplug the router and call it a night.
As for the withdrawal symptoms? They’ll subside. The question is, can parents give up being too permissive? That’s a much harder habit to kick.