As a child psychiatrist who has prescribed electronic fasts for over a decade despite frequent resistance—including from other mental health clinicians—I welcomed the news that Japan’s Health, Labor and Welfare ministry announced they would soon be opening up “internet fasting camps” for youths who engaged in excessive electronics use. Officials decided to take action after a study suggested that over a half a million children were suffering significant consequences from being tied to their screens, from depression and inattention to not eating, drinking or sleeping. Some children had even experienced serious medical issues like deep vein thromboses (a clot in the leg caused by stagnant blood flow).
Here in the U.S., resources for addressing problematic electronics use or addiction are scarce, often directed at adults, and costs are out-of-pocket unless the practitioner or program bills for other mental disorders as a work-around. Seattle’s ReSTART program offers a formal rehab program for adults as well as various other services for families, and Digital Detox in Oakland offers retreats for adults. The nation’s first hospital-based program opened just this month at Bradford Regional Medical Center in Pennsylvania with international internet addiction expert Dr.Kimberly Young serving as program director, but it is also for adults. The website states the patient must have an “Axis I diagnosis” to qualify for the program—presumably so they can bill insurance for a diagnosis other than internet addiction—but time will tell whether the insurance companies will actually pay for it.[*] Outpatient treatment programs that include treatment for younger children such as Dr. Young’s, Christopher Mulligan’s and my own are few and far between. (I receive calls from mothers all over the U.S., some asking for my services and others for resources near their residence.)
Many programs don’t necessarily advocate a fast—that is, going screen-free for several weeks—which I feel is critical to for the brain to rest and then reboot. And some children can’t tolerate any electronic stimulation, so programs that teach moderation may not work for kids with complicated psychiatric conditions who are especially sensitive to electronic screen interaction[†] and EMFs.
So what to do with an apparent lack of resources? The answer lies in taking responsibility and creating programs in our own backyard—literally! Japan’s programs will emphasize nature, face to face interaction, and developing interests outside of the internet. This is what I prescribe as well, but parents have to implement the fast from home. They’re forced to brainstorm activities, buy or create art supplies, play board games with their children and orchestrate neighborhood play dates. Many mothers band together with other moms in their neighborhood, making it easier to avoid electronic play at friends’ homes, organize healthy activities, and educate others.
As an aside, I’ve seen poverty-stricken families, single mothers, and even a family living in their car successfully complete an electronic fast. (Yes, even homeless children have gadgets!) So it’s not just stay-at-home moms and families with swimming pools that can pull off living screen-free for a few weeks. It just takes dedication and being armed with information.
So until and unless Uncle Sam or private insurance companies are willing to shoulder the responsibility for the dark side of electronics, we must take a grassroots approach. And it’s not just extreme cases, violent video game exposure, or addiction that deserves attention. Mood, cognition and behavior can be affected—especially in children—even with moderate, regular use of screen devices.
And perhaps the lack of formal “camps” for children with problematic electronics’ use in the U.S. isn’t all bad: you can be sure that parents who spearhead an electronic fast at home are much more likely to successfully manage their child’s electronics’ usage after completing the fast: they’ve got skin in the game.
For more information on activities to go screen-free, visit screenfree.org/resources and simplehomemade.net/resources-to-inspire-your-screen-free-week.
[*] Typically for inpatient psychiatric care, insurance covers only a few days of hospitalization while the patient is “a danger to self or others”. Internet and video game addiction are not yet formal diagnoses as recognized by psychiatry’s diagnostic manual, but may be in the future.