A number of social media services have recently come under fire for exploiting vulnerabilities in human psychology to compete for our time (and advertisement views) in the attention economy. Most of us are at least anecdotally aware of the rush (or disappointment) we feel when our social media posts get more ‘likes’ than expected (or none at all!), or how a “quick refresh” of our Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter feeds can quickly turn into an hour of wasted time that we wish we could have back. Needless to say, consumers are generally concerned about the addictive nature of social media and wary of being manipulated by the social engineering prowess of these behemoth companies.

At the same time, however, there is another digital industry exploiting the addictive tendencies of its users that tends to receive much less public backlash: Gaming. Unlike social media, not only do we accept that the gaming industry deliberately exploits our psychological vulnerabilities, but we normalize potentially addictive behavior by referring to gaming as a ‘hobby’ which many parents actively invest in through the purchase of expensive hardware, software, and subscriptions for their children. To be clear, video games – like most forms of entertainment when enjoyed in moderation – can provide valuable relief from the stresses of daily life, and in many cases, even offer educational value. (The effects of classroom ‘gamification‘ on intrinsic motivation (Hanus & Fox 2015) may warrant a separate post in the future!)

Over the past few years, this Head of School has seen multiple cases of students struggling with gaming addiction. In a few more severe cases, these struggles have even contributed to the formal withdrawal of students from school. Whether it is a symptom or a disease, compulsive gaming and other online activities can have catastrophic effects on adolescents’ sleep patterns, attention, motivation, and ultimately school attendance. While mental health professionals have been noticing concerning trends for several years – and the WHO has recently classified gaming disorder as a disease – it has not yet been formally recognized as an official disorder in the DSM-5, and because of its recency, few professionals are deeply experienced in treating the condition.

At BIS, we are careful to moderate technology use through Grade 5, run digital citizenship units in grades 6 – 8, and teachers do their best to balance digital and ‘real world’ assignments. We are also developing plans to further educate our students on responsible technology use during homerooms and assemblies. That said, there are many tasks – including research, compositions, internal assessments, and subject-specific online practice resources – which invariably require both computers and internet access. This can make it difficult for parents to distinguish when their children are genuinely doing school work or simply pretending to do so while engaging in less productive online activities! If you notice that gaming or other online behavior are disrupting your child’s sleep or hygiene, replacing their social activities in the real world, or causing anxiety, irritability, or aggression when they cannot be accessed, please speak to them about your concerns and expectations, or explore some basic tips to support responsible use. And of course, if you have serious concerns, come to see Ms Bowley or me at any time to explore local treatment resources, or seek treatment from the best resources abroad. The optimistic news is that as mental health challenges become less and less stigmatized around the world – and indeed each one of us struggles with our own internal battles – the easier it becomes for us to ask for help when we need it, and without feeling ashamed.

The lures of technology are here to stay. As parents and teachers, our job is to educate ourselves on contemporary trends – such as the dramatic changes in teenage mental health issues correlated to the ubiquity of smartphones, per the Food for Thought article below – and more importantly, to regularly discuss with our children the benefits and risks of technology and guide them in using these powerful new resources responsibly.

Mr Toomer
September 2018