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Alarming Rise in Digital Device Use and Addiction Among Young Children in Poland

HEALTH & MEDICINEAlarming Rise in Digital Device Use and Addiction Among Young Children in Poland

Over half of children up to six years old use mobile devices – this is the result of the “Toddler on the Net” study. Almost two thirds of parents give digital devices to their little ones as a reward or when they cry and complain, unconsciously teaching children to regulate emotions through technology. Experts believe this is the first step towards addiction to digital devices. Early prevention and introduction of mental health promotion programs for the youngest ones is crucial in the fight against behavioral addictions.

“Addiction to behavior, such as technology, social media, and computer games, is also dangerous, not only drugs and alcohol. This is something that is accessible to children and teenagers from the moment they are born. Research shows that one in ten children in Poland use digital devices before their first birthday. This means that access and the development of habits – using certain patterns – begins before children even reach nursery school,” says Dr. Magdalena Rowicka from the Department of Psychological Research Methodology at the Academy of Special Education.

According to the “Toddler on the Net” study conducted among the parents of the youngest children by the Academy of Special Education in Warsaw, over half (54 percent) of toddlers aged 0 to 6 use mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, or laptops. The average age of initiating the use of digital devices is two years and two months, but even younger toddlers reach for their smartphones. On average, youngsters spend an hour and 15 minutes in front of screens. This also applies to infants who have not yet had their first birthday.

Parents often hand over smartphones to children when they don’t have an idea of how to spend time with them. Almost two-thirds of parents give digital devices to their children as a reward or when they cry and whine, thereby unconsciously teaching children to regulate emotions through technology.

“At the age of 13 or 14, we may be dealing with a young person who essentially knows no other way of dealing with a difficult situation, stress, emotions than escaping to the screen. Before, it used to be cartoons, now it can be social media or playing video games. This is one of the mechanisms of addiction,” explains the APS expert.

A national scientific study on the quality of life of children and adolescents commissioned by the Children’s Rights Ombudsman found that 13 percent of younger children and 15 percent of teenagers are addicted to social media. Only every eighth second-grade primary school student (12 percent) did not use social media in their free time. Among sixth graders and high school students, it’s even worse – already only 2 percent and 1 percent of them claimed to do this. Every third teenager spends several hours a day on social media, and many of them even 12 hours.

The RPD report also indicates a high percentage of young people who want to limit their use of social media but fail to do so. Among the youngest students, such attempts ended in failure for one-third of students. A similar percentage of second graders admit that they use social media to feel better. According to the ThinkStat NASK “Teenagers 3.0” report, one in eight young people shows symptoms of a strong addiction to social media.

Based on research conducted by the Center for Education Development on “Effective Prevention of Behavioral Addictions”, a feature of addiction – differing certain behaviors from passion – is a loss of control (feeling compelled) and the reason why we carry out a specific activity. Loss of control means that the activity can’t be stopped despite attempts. The reason for addiction is largely related to the fact that we can’t cope with emotions or stress and kind of escape into a certain behavior so as not to think about the difficulties. The difference also lies in the fact that an addicted person cannot think rationally about their addiction.

Addiction develops when our thoughts and behaviors revolve solely around a specific activity. This state, called absorption, is one of the diagnostic criteria of the disorder. Another is giving more and more time to perform a certain activity because the current time frames do not allow achieving a sufficient level of satisfaction. Experts call this criterion tolerance. Diagnostic criteria also include mood modification, i.e., engaging in addictive behaviors to avoid stress or difficult thoughts, as well as the negative consequences of behavior – the more time a child spends on games, the less time and energy remains for homework, learning, and rest.

“Therapy with behavioral addictions, especially technological ones, differs mainly in that there is no question of abstinence here,” emphasizes Dr. Magdalena Rowicka. “We cannot expect a child to never use a phone or other device in their life again, so effectively our goal will be to restore healthy, functional, adaptive use. This is more difficult because if we continuously use the screen, sometimes it can be just a moment when we cross the border and there will be a relapse, we will need intervention again.”

The most effective prevention strategies include training in psychosocial skills, i.e. learning how to cope with emotions and stress, communicate, maintain good interpersonal relationships, and make decisions and solve problems.

“We have quite a lot of knowledge about what works in general, which most often involves the development of psychosocial skills, it also works on a detailed level. In both areas, we have programs, we have the ability to finance them from municipal funds or city funds. So a lot is ready, available, but there will always be a shortage when it comes to cooperation between different institutions and parents,” explains the APS expert.

In the case of treating behavioral addictions, cognitive-behavioral therapy is most often used, which allows reaching the root of the problem. Support from loved ones is also important in therapy. However, the expert believes appropriate prevention for the youngest is necessary, which could reduce the number of addicted persons.

“What we need above all is a mental health promotion program in every school, even in every kindergarten. Equipping the youngest children with psychosocial skills, which are standardized and basic skills to prevent any addiction. The second issue is preventive programs at the beginning of school, which should be carried out on a much larger scale. They are not very expensive, but they require teacher training, non-teaching staff in schools, but also time and acceptance from parents,” Dr. Magdalena Rowicka is convinced.

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