Published on 17. May 2021

Lost in the Web?

Parents are desperate, teachers, psychologists, doctors and even the Federal Drug Commissioner are worried: Is our youth "addicted to media"? The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the problem, with adolescents spending up to 75 percent more time with digital media since it began.
HOW MUCH TIME can you spend online without developing an addiction? Is two hours a day still okay, but three hours already problematic? Are there reasons and motives that justify intensive use of digital content? Who and what decides whether and when someone can be classified as an addict and, above all, what are the consequences of this behavior?

gesund! asked Dr. Darius Chahmoradi Tabatabai, head physician at the Hartmut Spittler Specialized Clinic for De-Addiction Therapy at the Vivantes Auguste-Viktoria Hospital, about dealing with "digital junkies."

Dr. Tabatabai, are young people increasingly losing themselves in the Web? And how dangerous is that?

Some surveys show that time spent with digital media is increasing, but that doesn't just affect young people. In the pandemic, we're learning even more about the opportunities and risks of digital possibilities: The missed digitization in schools is just making itself felt negatively, and we will have to deal with the consequences of educational failure. At the same time, young people in particular, who are already at risk of losing themselves in digital worlds, will now increasingly turn to it. Whether the prevalence (morbidity) of online use disorders will actually increase, however, remains to be seen. They are dangerous in any case: The withdrawal from real human relationships causes a psychological maldevelopment, and the frequently activity-poor lifestyle sometimes also results in severe physical health deficits.

How much time spent on the cell phone, tablet or computer is still acceptable?

That's difficult to determine, because the distinction between school or work-related use and leisure time use is sometimes blurred. The decisive factor for distinguishing "normal" use from "online addiction" is the interest in real life "outside". As long as this is maintained and still plays a central role, the concern can be kept within limits. Parents must act, however, if children do not return to reallife sports training after the end of the lockdown, for example, but prefer to remain on the e-sports level: Then limited consumption times have to be negotiated and incentives for returning to the "real world" have to be created.

What are the consequences of heavy dependency?

Preferring virtual worlds to the real world can be significant for later adult life: The brain is in a developmental phase during puberty; it restructures itself and has to make the transition from childhood to the adult world. The withdrawal into the digital world comes at the expense of the necessary and also strenuous contacts with the environment. Later, this can have the effect of an insufficient ability to form relationships and engage with other people. These difficulties eventually reinforce the impulse to withdraw further into the digital world, to feel safe there, to maintain control. Things get complicated when the use of cannabis, alcohol and/or other substances is added to the mix, reinforcing the tendency to withdraw. Reversing this development is of course possible. However, it makes sense to intervene much earlier.

What advice do you give to parents and other concerned people?

In primary prevention, i.e., the prevention of disorders, the term "media literacy" comes up very often. Children today are growing up as "digital natives," in a world shaped by various media. Accordingly, they should be well prepared for this: with an interplay of reliable boundaries, i.e. time limits, but also with room for maneuver in which they can develop their agency and judgment. For parents, this is exhausting; it demands an intense interest in the child's world, often after a stressful day at work. But the child's later development will thank us if we sit aside from time to time while gaming and try to understand what is so fascinating about it for the children. Parents should also remember their own childhood: the annoying discussions about TV times or the trips with their parents that were perceived as uncool. But perhaps they also remember that their interest was somehow also nice and that the arguments contributed to growing up?

 

The smart brain

Moms and dads are racking their brains: Our kids spend too much time on PCs, tablets and smartphones - how can we control this problem? Experts who help addicts get away from alcohol, tobacco or drugs, for example, know about the enormous efforts that are needed to break away from addictive substances. The brain remembers the paths that seem to lead to feeling better, stronger and safer in life. Like with 18-year-old Tim. The e-professional gamer trains all night long, and he wants to graduate from high school in a year. He suffers from sleep deprivation, eats poorly, and goes to school irregularly. Or in the case of twelve-year-old Marleen. She can't get away from social media, looks for role models there and tries to live up to them. The consequences: Eating disorders, depression and the thought of doing something to herself. Parents desperately try to help. But therapists' offices are half filled with similar cases, and it often takes months for an initial consultation.

Adolescents must learn to find their way in the world of the limitless Internet without drowning in its maelstrom and not being able to find their way out. It's about showing them ways to do that. That was true before Coronavirus crisis, and it's true now.

Media consumption and Coronavirus

Since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, we adults have also come to appreciate the Internet once again. Not only because Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and Co. enable work from the home office and online teaching for our children, but also because we can keep our offspring busy on tablets, computers and smartphones. So it's no surprise that media use is rising steeply.

In April 2020, the first shutdown month after the pandemic outbreak and the accompanying restrictions, a study by the Hamburg health insurance company DAKGesundheit and researchers at the German Center for Child and Adolescent Addiction at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) provided concrete figures: On weekdays, children between the ages of 10 and 18 spent 75 percent (instead of 1:19 hours now 2:19 hours) more time playing computer games and 66 percent (instead of 1:56 hours now 3:13 hours) more with social media than six months earlier. Reasons: maintaining social contacts, fighting boredom, escaping reality, forgetting worries. Finding: digital media fulfill a function – they are not used for pleasure or joy, but to avoid situations or conditions that frustrate and make people unhappy. That's why it's not a matter of badmouthing them, but of making sense of how we use them. They will never disappear from all our lives and, used correctly, they definitely represent added value.

Parents should know what their daughters and sons are doing on the Internet and for what purpose. It's about separating the good from the bad, finding out what does good, what doesn't, and also what dose is appropriate. You have to stay in conversation with your children, observe them carefully: How do they deal with emotions? Do they try to escape feelings such as anger, sadness or boredom with digital activity? Are they socially integrated and able to exchange and engage with other people, are they self-confident? Do they have a realistic sense of time? Do they manage to schedule time for exercise in the fresh air, for learning, eating and sleeping?

Establishing rules

Firm rules help: for example, keeping a list that allocates the 24 hours per day to necessary activities such as sleep, eating, exercise, school, homework, and which periods are available for media. At best, they should spend these near mom and dad; that way, it's easier to ask and answer questions: What's so exciting about this game, what's interesting about this app or Instagram? Ultimately, the best recommendation is to be a role model and show the adolescents that there are also things outside of digital media that are fun and happy!

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