By Angela Murphy, School Psychologist

Once when I was visiting a family, the 12-year old adopted son *Josh, took me to his room to show me his game.  Within a 5-minute time span I saw his very real looking character smoke marijuana, pick up a prostitute, run down a police officer, and the boy talked about killing his family next (in the game).  By the time I stood up to leave the room, my head was spinning and I felt dizzy.  That was only 5 minutes, imagine what 6+ hours a day could do?

In my work with children and youth that have experienced complex trauma, it seems that many of these children are drawn to gaming. Research has shown us that the brain of a child who has experienced complex trauma isn’t as developed as compared to that of the “average child”.   The complex trauma brain is often drawn to immediate rewards as it lights up the pleasure parts of the brain.  I believe this is correlated to gaming; there is an instantaneous reward-pleasure seeking component of the brain that is activated.  It is becoming increasingly concerning for parents and educators as often, gaming becomes an obsession (sometimes an addiction).  Parents are alarmed about the complete meltdowns that can happen when they try to set limits.  Sound familiar?

Josh has been with this family for approximately ten years.  His parents were feeling that over the past year, Josh has been increasingly whiny, irritable, having tantrums, verbally aggressive, and withdrawing from outdoor activities with his peers and parents. Parents admitted that about a year ago there was a decline of 1-1 quality time with Josh when they took in two additional foster babies.  It was around this time that Josh turned to playing video games on a daily basis.  They averaged his tech use to about 4 hours a day during the school week and more on the weekends.  His dad said that he knows it’s wrong but him and his wife struggle to find an agreeable boundary. When they try to disconnect Josh’s gaming system, his behaviours become increasingly explosive, to the point where he has thrown a chair across the room.  They worry that if they start setting limits now, it will cause an increase in more concerning behaviours.

Occupational therapists like Cris Rowan are concerned about the effects of all of our technology on brain and social development in our kids.  She cites some red flags for overuse that all parents should be aware of:

Red Flags for technology overuse:

  • Vision: Eyes not aligned, trouble focusing on objects, drops things in play
  • Delayed Development: late to sit, stand, walk, talk, looks delayed when with peers
  • Sleeping Difficulty: trouble getting to sleep, wakes frequently, nightmares
  • Speech Problem: can’t understand speech, doesn’t attempt to speak
  • Social Difficulties: doesn’t play with peers, behaviour prevents public outings
  • Tantrums: frequent meltdowns, impatient, needs to get own way
  • Aggression: hits or kicks others, spits, swears
  • Attention Problems: cannot focus on tasks or play, only attends to screens
  • Technology addiction: tantrums with device removal, cannot sleep without device

In addition, Daniel Riseman, children’s book author and President of Riseman Educational Consulting, explains the impact of excessive use of devices in, The Reconfiguration of Children’s Brains (as exert shared in Psychology Today):

The American Academy of Pediatrics has instituted strict guidelines per a child’s exposure to technology: infants should have no contact; 3-5 year olds are allocated one hour per day, and 6-18 year olds are allotted two hours per day (“Preschool Matters,” p. 2). In spite of these guidelines, young people, on average, are online four times the recommended allowance. They have become dependent on the online world because such activity allows them to escape from stress and unpleasant feelings, and this escapism can become addictive. The fast pace of online activity is not only altering the way young people’s brains process information, but such activity is also physically changing their brains.

This article goes to on share that:

Other researchers have discovered that the overuse of online devices places children in a “digital fog” in which they feel fatigued, irritable, and distracted…To combat this mental burnout, the brain secretes more cortisol and adrenaline. While these hormones increase energy levels in the short term, they lead to depression and alter neural circuitry for self-regulation over the long run. The facts are frightening: one in six children has a diagnosed mental illness, and aggressive and unmanageable behavior has become the norm at many schools across the country.

Many of us are left asking the same questions that Josh’s parents are.  These are good parents and good people trying to do the right thing.  This family really wants to “disconnect to re-connect” but aren’t sure where to start.

Stay tuned for next week’s addition of how to DISCONNECT TO RECONNECT.


Read more to find out about technology guidelines for children and youth:

About the author

Angela Murphy

Angela has a passion for supporting children and families through a collaborative approach. She brings expansive knowledge from her work in Aboriginal communities and has a profound respect for delivering safe and caring practices. To read more about Angela click here:

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