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Frozen realities: the straight goods on cyber-addiction and emotional regulation through excessive gaming and smart phone use

 Reliance on smart phones, tablets, laptop computers and other internet interfacing devices is often seen as a real necessity nowadays. However, from a mental health perspective, there are many unhealthy side-effects that may develop over time with prolonged exposure to interfacing electronically with these tools. Because of their widespread use and our increasing reliance on such devices for everything from work, shopping for household items to staying connected to family it is easy to loose sight of their cumulative impacts to using them over sustained periods. The negative impacts of prolonged use begin with a disruption of sleep cycles, a decreased ability to regulate emotions, and a reduced ability to tolerate stress over time. It’s also not just the blue light emitted from these devices that are disruptive to sleep cycles,  but also the content and nature of gaming or internet browsing that may have a cumulative and negative effect on human function.

 

It has becoming evident in my counselling with adolescents that prolonged exposure and unregulated internet and electronic interfacing is leading many adolescents to experience mental health symptoms such as anxiety, depression and is contributing to mood and sleep disorders. It is now common knowledge is that the blue light that comes from the electronics, in fact, shuts down the production of the sleep hormone melatonin resulting in interrupted sleep or prolonged wake periods.  A secondary result of shortened sleep times and unplanned wake periods is the interruption of circadian rhythms. This ultimately leads to the loss of REM cycle sleep and an increase of mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression.

 

REM or rapid eye movement sleep is the time when the brain is most active because it is during this time that your brain is sorting out all the information that has been inputted through your senses from the day previous.  It is crucial in our ability to sort information and regulate our feelings. It is during this time that left and right brain hemispheres sort out the information from the previous day- or wake period. Without this crucial sorting function a person undoubtedly begins to feel anxious as the mind has had the necessary time, or REM sleep, to process and integrate new information.  With the cingulate becomes overwhelmed and in a hyper-vigilant state, and message inundate the hippocampus alerting the limbic system to fight, flight or freeze. This may leave one in an emotionally dysregulated state after a night of gaming or net surfing - feeling anxious or alternately depressed. At this point, most people crash and sleep during the day to catch up on their much-needed rest and REM. They wake up and then not feeling quite the same level of stimulation repeat the cycle by returning to electronics to help us them feel more connected to others and a return to more mentally stimulation. This becomes the addictive cycle in which many adolescents and adults experience as a result of unregulated exposure.   In such a manner, people may become more dependent on electronics-smart phone and computer internet interface to regulate their emotions as these devices and their programming become a replacement for human interaction.

 

What is excessive gaming? More studies need to occur in this area. I suspect gaming period longer than what any person would initially feel comfortable sitting alone in a room in a chair would be a good measure for length of time. At my house, the rule is this: However long you read or interact with family is the how long it is Ok to be interfaced electronically. Give or take that we sit together for dinner for less than 45 minutes at dinner and my son's reading doesn't usually extend beyond 20 minutes. I set the limit for gaming and internet access at one hour. This does not include using computers for homework or employment. (After a day at work, I find it irritating to be in front of any screen.) But even that should not exceed an hour of use per day.

 

 Long period gaming binges also create a similar roller coaster steady diet of mind-blowing neuro-chemical inducing stimuli. The release of norepinephrine activates the limbic system and our children begin to experience the adrenalized mind-blowing release of natural painkillers-dopamine and neuropeptides as the mind loses touch with what is real and actual and more enmeshed with what is not. Without the experience the highs and lows that gamers or social media addicts feel from their interface to the gaming world, the roller-coaster effects of the stimuli of intense light and sound, with the lack of sleep gamers may begin to experience feelings of depression the morning after. As well, many experience high anxiety, mood dysregulation and depression. In fact, it has been demonstrated in research that the body’s basal metabolic rate slows down when we don’t get enough rest after missing crucial early term REM sleep that can be associated with gaming into the late hours. With the brain on sensory overload with unprocessed information it is little wonder that feelings of anxiety in the gamer become amplified.

 

Many parents are also now discovering that it is also nearly impossible to avoid exposure to inappropriate pornographic site content when their kids are online unsupervised.  In busy homes, the unregulated use, and inadequate supervision has left some children increasingly exposed to pornography. Pornography has been shown in recent studies to cause the brain to light up like a Christmas tree. These effects cause the brain to become flooded with dopamine, peptides and a host of other feel good chemicals that reinforce the experience of the user to want more. These effects may also compound and amplify the effects of internet addiction when the user attempts to maintain a sense of feel good. A person who also games or uses the internet as an alternate reality or means of social connection will experienced an even more distorted sense of social interaction with people of the opposite sex and normal social engagement when also accessing pornography.

 

Another fascinating aspect gaming in the social components of some gaming platforms. It can be said that many first-person fighting platforms displace the healthy relationships that adolescents and adults require.  Instead of being plugged to the real world where they may learn to gauge the expressions of other people or required to modulate and regulate their thoughts and feelings to function as part of groups; these youths may begin to live in imaginary world where they withdraw into themselves and feel they never face such life challenges where they don’t learn to solve simple challenges such as engaging with a peer group. This can often lead to further anxiety and isolation. What begins to occur is gradual conditioning and a trading away of physical and emotional interactions with family and friends as well as a moving away from healthy social expectations. The result is increased isolation and a decreased ability to interact with others in a normal fashion.

 

 It is my opinion that the content and nature of first-person shooter games are very damaging and impacting to the development of the adolescent mind in that they encourage narcissistic or negative self-focusing. This is healthy and natural if you fighting a war real time as foot soldier, but totally wrong grooming for junior/ette. During adolescence, the brain is in an intensified pruning of neural networks and capacities that are not being used. Many first-person shooter games and games like Grand theft auto encourage a narcissistic and psychopathic way of relating to others and the environment. Research has now show that frontal cortical function in adolescents are virtually non-existent amplifying the need, to nurture critical interactions with adults. Rather than spending time interacting with adults, youth are tending to be plugged in more to gaming platforms where social engagement is limited. Many forms of social media may also have this effect on users. Everything from Facebook to Instagram. The focus is quick unregulated uploads of ego stroking affirmations help users feel stimulated and with a false sense of connection where the vital brain/user/context interface is absent.  What begins to develop is a growing reliance and dependency for users to stay connected to electronics devices to regulate their emotions.

 

 In a more balanced lifestyle people regulate their thoughts and feelings by getting enough sleep, engaging in healthy and nurturing social relationships with friends and family, as well as creating activities, perhaps even engaging in outdoor activities connecting with the environment, or engaging in a hobby that focuses the person in their lived space. Social interactions are necessary for human beings to emotionally regulate in a healthy manner. Without these opportunities for growth adolescents may adapt to a very limited scope of engagement with others and their environment. As well, their ability to manage and cope with stress and anxiety will decrease over time and over their development into adulthood, a time when such interaction is crucial.

 

Prevention of electronic addiction is huge for parents who may be interested in protecting their youth and adolescents from the impacts of overexposure and unregulated cyber interfacing. A high degree of supervision and healthy limit setting on internet use and gaming is necessary to ensure children have the greatest frequency of opportunities for healthy interactions with adults. It is in my view a biological imperative for adolescents to ensure connections to healthy adults for optimal social and emotional development.

 

Treatment pathways for cyber-addicted youth include helping them to relearn emotional self-regulation, developing strategies to increase their stress tolerance, systematic desensitization, and strategies to change behaviors.  New behaviors such as learning other pleasurable activities such engaging with friends, going for walks or doing other non-cyber related behaviors will require planning and intentional shifts in routine and behavior choices. Fasting from electronics and gradually replacing gaming time with healthy social interactions is also part of the treatment regimen. Often, adolescents receiving treatment for cyber addiction require intensive monitoring, sensitive re-engagement strategies social supports which necessitate the inclusion of friends and families and most often the assistance of a knowledgeable therapist who may help facilitate the reintegration process.

 

Once dependency on cyber-interfacing and electronics use occurs the phone, tablet or laptop becomes something more than just a device. It becomes the mechanism by which a person maintains emotional balance and regulation. In other words, it’s how they keep themselves feeling good. Any attempt to take devices without consent will be met with great hostility. Many parents miss this because they themselves are, in fact, cyber-addicted and miss the signs of a developing addiction.  Smart phones are equally problematic as they concentrate more activities to one access point replacing business access, phone, gaming platforms and a plethora of social applications. With today's smartphones, it is now possible to sit in your closet at home and not have to move your body geographically at all. This reduces the net output of exercise and reduces the need to change environments to accomplish what decades ago would have required travel, exercise and face-to-face interactions with people.

 

There is little doubt in my mind that unregulated gaming and internet interfacing by adolescents contributes to mental health issues we are facing due to reduced social interactions with adults and peers, a reduction in having to deal with the real needs of others, the reduced need for delayed gratification and/or stress tolerance, the narcissistic focus of gaming content. As well, there are numerous negative effects on the body which include reduced rest for the mind, increases in feelings of anxiety and depression, and a disruption of crucial resting cycles for brain and body. There are protective factors which I feel will mitigate the addictive aspects of cyber-addiction. These protective factors may include interpersonal resources such self-discipline, family values which reflect a tendency to delay immediate gratification, strong extant family and social relationships, a strong orientation to hands on hobby or active lifestyle, as well as, an orientation to an outdoor lifestyle wherein individuals nurture a relationship to the environment.

 

One can only wonder about the long-term impact of Pokémon Go? Can internet use be made healthier by spending more time outdoor in the real world? Time will only tell. Such gaming locks people into a more disconnected virtual reality with imaginary relationships.  Perhaps imaginary conflicts mean people don’t have to face disappointment they may feel when having to deal with real conflict. All things considered, I’d much rather have my child or daughter learn to navigate relationships with real people as well as experience real consequences for their behaviors when they confront obstacles to their needs and wants. These interactions are chalked full of essential learning moments that will help develop your child’s communication skills as well as shape your teen’s ability to adjust to diverse relationship environments, tolerate stress and effectively communicate with others. These learned skills are essential for success at home, school, and successful relationships.

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