Twelve or thirteen years ago, a 12-year-old boy and his parents came to my office complaining he was so anxious that he was unable to get out of bed and go to school. He also reported he couldn’t face his homework, found it difficult to concentrate, was not sleeping well and was increasingly irritable. Not long before he had been a good student, a voracious reader, emotionally stable and gave his parents few problems. In short, he had quickly gone from a ‘good’ kid to a ‘troubled’ one. Initially his parents thought the changes were related to puberty, but as his school performance plummeted and he started refusing to go, they realized something more significant was at play.
After speaking with him, his parents and a psychiatrist they were already seeing, it became clear that this was not a typical presentation of school phobia or any other sort of anxiety problem. Rather, I found that the boy was spending a huge amount of time on his computer, gaming and socializing online. He was staying up so late that he could not get up in the morning. He was so involved with the computer that he spent little time on homework, reading, with face-to-face friends or any other activity. His parents seemed powerless to rein him in. They tried everything they could think of to entice him, including rewards for completing homework, getting the school to re-arrange his schedule so he could go in later and promising previously-exciting outings just to get him off the computer. Nothing worked. Punishments were, if possible, even less successful. He tolerated the loss of all privileges except computer time. In fact, when his parents threatened to cut him off, he snuck online late at night, threatened to infect their other computers with viruses and eventually threatened to hurt himself. These strategies all served to manipulate his parents and to shift attention away from his unhealthy computer use. What parent would worry that a child was online ‘too much’ when they were threatening to kill themselves?
Unfortunately the parents backed off, and eventually the child was able to convince them to withdraw from treatment. I don’t know what happened to him, but I think of him frequently and wonder. I can’t help but replay my approach and think of a hundred ways I could have better served him and his family.
This treatment failure is the ultimate origin of Digital Media Health, although my fascination with technology and its role in health goes back to my graduate school days. Whether collecting computerized reaction time data for my dissertation, using video games to keep preadolescents involved in our work together or providing biofeedback and neurofeedback treatments, technology has always played an important role in my professional (and personal) life. What I have witnessed over the past two decades since earning my degree is the extent to which technology now fundamentally impacts our lives and the developmental trajectory of our children, both for good and for bad. Some of my clients find refuge in technology, discovering modes of creativity and communication I could only dream of when I was their age. Others experience the more negative aspects; rapid spreading of rumors, unrestrained access to unhealthy on-line material and compulsive overuse of digital devices.
I want our children to benefit from the many promises of technology. I love to watch my nine-year-old daughter surpass my ability with my iPad and to learn Scratch. The problem as I see it is not as much about the undesirable elements of the Online World as it is about how easily we can reach those elements. Whether it is pornography, cyberbullying or buying something, in my opinion, the Internet makes it too easy to indulge in our impulses.
That’s bad enough for adults, but children and adolescents have not yet developed the neurology to inhibit their impulses. And the Internet is a 24/7 universe lacking external imposed inhibitors (that would be us parents). I started Digital Media Health to help families figure out how to find the developmentally healthy balance. It may be hard to raise digital natives, but regardless of the world we launch our children into, we need to equip them with developmentally appropriate tools for responsible living.
In the coming months, I will write more about the services Digital Media Health offers, share what I learn from articles, conferences and discussions, and discuss my thoughts and ideas about healthy living in the digital world. For now, I welcome you to this new venture and I look forward to the work ahead.
Saul Rosenthal PhD December 4th, 2014