Dossier: Digital life

Digital temptation

For children and young people, the endless opportunities for entertainment and information offered by digital media also pose risks. When the digital world replaces experiences and interpersonal relationships in the real world, even their psychological and physical health is at stake.

Whizzing down a mountain on your bike, diving head first into water, learning cool moves on your skateboard or just hanging out with your mates – all of this, and much more, is possible today without even lifting a finger: through Youtube films, gaming and chat apps. Young people in particular have access to a huge variety of subjects through digital media which encourages them to favour virtual experiences over real-life ones.

Risk to health through excessive use

Screen use by children and young adults is increasing rapidly, with the smartphone in top position, followed by television. According to the 2016 James study, over half of all Swiss children aged 6 to 13 and nearly 100% of all young adults own a mobile phone and 97% of those surveyed have a smartphone with internet access. Today, young people spend half an hour longer per day using digital media than their counterparts who participated in the first James study back in 2010. During the week, they spend an average of 2 hours and 30 minutes online and 3 hours 40 minutes on weekends. One-fifth of adolescents said they spend even longer on their mobiles. And 8% of those surveyed are so immersed in the digital world that they’re deemed at high risk of addiction. The more frequent the use, the more likely young people are to experience psychological and physical health problems.

“The more frequent the use, the more likely young people are to experience psychological and physical health problems.”

Needs satisfied in the virtual word

Any time that young people spend on digital media is time spent away from activities and social contact in the real world and it often has an adverse effect on sleep and homework, too. The digital world thus takes on a very dominant role, replacing the playroom, football pitch, woods or other meeting places as a virtual room designed to banish boredom, frustration, anger and sexual arousal. “The real world seems uninteresting as the need for entertainment, belonging, tasks and challenges can be satisfied by the virtual world”, says child psychiatrist Professor Christoph Möller*. “Unfortunately, this means that children don’t learn how to regulate the consequences in a natural, social environment and instead need a device to do so. You’re much less likely to become dependent on these devices if you learn emotional self-control in real life and you’re engaged in the real world.”

Less empathy and imagination, more pounds on the scales

Möller also emphasises that intensive use of modern media exposes young people to the risk of losing the ability to empathise with others, or even never developing the ability in the first place. They struggle to judge the emotional state of others and to enter into meaningful relationships. “Young people also lack imagination as it’s simply no longer required as they respond constantly to prescribed images instead of engaging their imagination as encouraged by reading, for example.” Frequent use of digital media can also take its toll on our bodies. Möller is familiar with cases in which young people have neglected essential needs such as hunger, thirst and hygiene in favour of an uninterrupted online presence. Or youngsters who eat unhealthily and become overweight because mealtimes have to be as quick and convenient as possible.

“Young people also lack imagination as it’s simply no longer required as they respond constantly to prescribed images instead of engaging their imagination as encouraged by reading, for example.”
Prof. Dr. Christoph Möller

Digital dependence: an addiction with consequences

The more time a young person spends on digital media, the more difficult they’ll find it to be offline. Möller claims the fear of missing out on something, or the belief that you’re more entertaining or better able to express yourself online than in real life can develop into an addiction. And, sooner or later, addicts suffer from withdrawal symptoms. “Youngsters suffering from an internet or gaming addiction experience withdrawal symptoms similar to those felt by drug addicts and alcoholics, with symptoms ranging from palpitations and cold sweats to problems sleeping.”

“Media competence starts with media abstinence”

Möller recommends waiting to introduce children to digital media until they can demonstrate the following skills: self-control, frustration tolerance, empathy, communication with other people, interest in learning, enthusiasm and a love for playing. Some might master these skills early on, others may need more time. Parents know their children and generally know whether they’re capable of communicating and listening well – in other words, if their communication skills are up to scratch. They sense whether their children can deal with feelings of frustration and have enough self-control. And they’re best equipped to notice if their children are capable of demonstrating empathy or are still preoccupied with themselves and whether they can get excited about experiences and learning in the real world. “Media competence starts with media abstinence”, says Möller. “People don’t learn how to make sense out of life and how to interpret behaviour and information by themselves in front of a screen – they learn it in the real world.” It is therefore possible for children to learn how to use digital media in an appropriate and sensible manner: not too often, not too long, and not as a substitute for the real world. People of all ages need help to improve their media competence.

Tips to improve your media competence

Sucht Schweiz has summarised the most useful tips for parents and teachers:

  • Talk to children and young adults about their experiences with digital media. Getting them to show you apps, computer games, online activities and their favourite websites can help you gain a better understanding of why they use them.
  • Establish age-appropriate rules for usage times (you’ll find tips on how to do so on the following websites):
  • Be a role model: Parents and teachers should review their own media habits and make changes if necessary. No televisions, computers or games consoles in bedrooms – put them in a communal room. Smartphone use should also be restricted in the evening.
  • Don’t use screen time as a reward or punishment as this only enhances its importance.
  • Get out and about in the real world – both children and young adults alike enjoy ice-skating, swimming outdoors or going to the cinema.

Prof. Dr. Christoph Möller

Chief consultant in the department for paediatric psychiatry and psychotherapy and psychosomatic medicine at the Auf der Bult centre in Hanover and has written several books on the subject of digital media (only available in German).