‘The computer is my best friend, I can always speak to it, it opens up the world for me, I am never lonely and never bored; it gives me all I need’. (16-year-old boy)

Have you felt the irresistible pull to check your e-mail or see who might have sent you an SMS on your cellphone? Do you remember looking at the latest glitzy cellphone with 3 megapixcels, voice recorder and MP3 player and feeling the urgent desire to have one? Have you been surfing the web and found it compulsively difficult to click off, thinking I’ll do just one more site, and then … just one more? Have you experienced the compelling hold of a computer game where you just had to keep playing until you achieved your goal? If you can identify with any of these experiences, you will know from the inside the addictive power of computer technology. You will easily be able to appreciate how children and adolescents, who generally have far less ability than adults to resist the pressure of satisfying their needs, are so readily sucked into the controlling nature of electronic technology. Notice how a child involved in a computer game, the Internet or her cellphone may be so hooked into another reality she just doesn’t notice you are there. There can be little doubt that electronic technology has opened the way to another form of soul addiction, promising to offer ever-more powerful and interesting gratification to the hungry unsatisfied soul of the child. Computer game, Internet and cellphone addiction disorders are not yet formally recognised as clinical psychological conditions, yet many clinics and rehab centres worldwide are treating them as full-on addictive disorders, recognising that the salient features fulfill all the criteria used to define an addictive behaviour disorder.

Although there are no exact statistics available, it is well known that more and more children and teenagers worldwide are spending increasing amounts of time playing computer games, surfing the Internet, mailing and chatting on-line with anonymous surfers. A survey by the Kaiser Foundation found that children aged 2 – 18 years spend on average 4 hours and 45 minutes daily outside of school plugged into electronic media. This amounts to 2 solid years of computer viewing in the first 14 years of life!

What then does the computer world do to children and adolescents? Whereas the compelling nature of the entertainment world forces the viewer to switch off his creative human powers and passively but willingly submit to the gratification that the world of entertainment provides for his needy soul, the controlling power of computers enables the user to also be actively involved with the digitalised material for his personal gratification, either of empowerment or freedom. By feeling empowered through winning a game, overpowering an adversary, having access to so much information or  being in control of his social life through a mobile phone, he connects himself more with his body, just as someone using tik feels more empowered in his physical being. By feeling liberated through free access to the worldwide web, and to a fantasy world of infinite possibilities that has nothing to do with the earthly reality in which the computer-user lives, he frees himself from his physical being, just as someone using marijuana liberates himself from his bodily nature. Computer technology therefore does what the designer drugs like Ecstasy do – one part of the soul connects powerfully with the body (neurosensory system, eyes and the digits of the hands), leading to a desire for action or company with an impersonal companion, while another part separates from the body, leading to an expansion of consciousness and a desire for heightened sensory experience.

Children and youth who are addicted to computer technology spend several hours every day being shaped by an intelligence that operates out of the electrical duality of on-and-off and the mathematical duality of 0 and 1, an intelligence that on the one hand brings the growing and developing child too strongly into his nervous system, visual system, fingers and wrists, and on the other hand disconnects him from the rest of his body and projects him into a second fantasy life that exists alongside his normal life. One may well ask what this does to the child’s physical, psychological and spiritual well-being.

All documented research on children that characterises the physical and psychosocial phenomena resulting from the misuse or abuse of computer technology, can be understood in accordance with the above picture. It is not possible to give a detailed description of the effects of computer technology on growing children in this article. It is only possible to give a list of the potential hazards, with a warning that the overuse of computer technology in childhood may expose children to the risk of a broad range of developmental setbacks that may be hazardous to their health.

Physical hazards
    Musculoskeletal injuries of the thumb and wrist/repetitive strain injury, play station thumb
    Visual strain and shortsightedness
    Obesity, diabetes and other complications of a sedentary lifestyle
    Possible side-effects from toxic emissions and electromagnetic radiation

Emotional and social hazards
    Social isolation
    Weakened bonds with teachers
    Lack of self-discipline and self-motivation
    Emotional detachment from the community

Intellectual hazards
    Lack of creativity
    Stunted imagination
    Impoverished language and literacy skills
    Poor concentration, attention deficits
    Too little patience for the hard work of learning
    Plagiarism
    Distraction from meaning

Moral hazards
    Exposure to online violence, pornography, bigotry and other inappropriate material
    Emphasis on information devoid of ethical and moral context
    Lack of purpose and irresponsibility in seeking and applying knowledge.

What is our duty and responsibility to children who are born into and grow up in a world of high technology that offers great services and promises huge benefits, but that is likely to cause many children who abuse the tech-nology serious ill health? Dependency on computer technology is as devastating to the individual and to society as any other addiction. We need to realise that ideally, computers and electronic gadgetry are designed to serve the adult world and to replace and enhance to a high degree of perfection the automaton-like functions of the brain. Here the mathematical intelligence of the computer can greatly serve humanity. For children, there may be some educational value if used creatively and appropriately. For the most part, however, children and youth make use of computers and electronic gadgetry mainly for entertainment and gratification value. There is little understanding today of the forces at work in computer technology and therefore no care is given to protecting children from this danger. We must recognise the compelling power of computer technology to covertly gain access to human souls, threatening to bind humanity in an illusory grip of power and freedom. For when the vigilant self is not watchful, human nature can easily succumb to the many temptations, comforts and gratifications that computers and other electronic gadgetry so freely provide. And by virtue of their undeveloped awareness of self, children and youth are most vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.

We need to have a clear strategy to deal with children at all levels of the dependency spectrum. Most children seem to pass through close encounters with computer technology as a passing juvenile phase, seemingly unscathed and without becoming dependent. Yet can we be sure of this? Unless we as child guardians exercise extreme vigilance around their use of computers, can we be sure that their thinking, feeling and behaviour are not influenced by an intelligence based on duality?

    There is a growing world view that children should be introduced to computers as early as possible. In the USA, sale of preschool software is a huge industry and programmes for babies as young as 6 months are booming. I am uncompromisingly clear that preschool children under the age of 7 years should not be allowed to handle a computer. This is because of the misalignment that takes place between body and soul, which has a weakening effect on the developing organs and growing soul. Computer or electronic equipment should best be kept in a room that small children do not enter frequently.

    As children enter school and meet new friends they will inevitably become exposed to computers and other elec-tronic gadgetry. We cannot hide children from this technology. It is here to stay. The question is how we can learn to live with it in a way that is life-supporting and not damaging to health. Children will awaken to computer technology on an individual basis, often in accordance with the degree of their exposure. When this happens, the child should be introduced to the computer under strict supervision, explaining in simple language the reason for having a computer. Parents need to clarify for themselves how far they choose to expose their children to computer technology. To do justice to this important issue, parents need to be informed of the potential hazards, in exactly the same way as they would first read the package insert of a potentially harmful pharmaceutical drug before they let their child take it.

    One should try to avoid games and the Internet as long as possible, and parents should be aware of the type of games being played and the sites being visited. Plugging into the Internet is like tuning into 100 000 unrestricted channels, only a tiny fraction of which are dedicated to educational programmes. The Internet isn’t about education, it’s about marketing. The danger of a teenager having her own computer or powerful computerised cellphone is that you as a parent will no longer be able to monitor and control computer usage. This freedom of use undoubtedly creates a greater possibility for computer dependency.

    Today cellphones are an indispensable part of a teenager’s outfit. It is a development of computer technology that takes the computer ever more deeply into the intimate life of the human being, and it is therefore infinitely more dangerous than anything that has come before. Children have the world of the web in their palms, instant communication, and the power of instant photography. Cellphones should be delayed as far as possible, at least until puberty.

    Where addiction to computer games, the Internet or cellphones has been identified, this
approach can be followed:
–    Understanding the child’s deeper needs and vulnerable nature is the foundation stone for
effective management.
–    Assess when it is used, how long, how frequently, and whether there are warning signs of
overuse.
–    Assess your own relationship to your computer and other electronic gadgetry. How dependent
are you on this technology? What percentage of its use is work-related, entertainment-related,
or social?
–    The details of managing the computer/cellphone-dependent child or adolescent follow the
same principles outlined in previous articles in this series.

The world of electronic technology has become an indispensable and intimate part of our culture and our inner soul life. It is like a partner that accompanies our life path, and children born into it experience it as a natural part of their world. Computer technology is programmed by an intelligence that operates out of dualism, the same polarity that determines all addictive tendencies. It is the human ‘I’ working out of the reality of the triad that determines whether we are served or controlled by it. Children and adolescents do not yet possess the power of this discerning self to protect them from potentially dehumanising forces that may abuse their vulnerability and corrupt their innocence, drawing needy children into servile dependency and addiction. It is the discerning power of their adult guardians and caregivers alone that can protect them until they develop the means to do so themselves.

References
A copy of the references and a hard copy of the unabridged version can be obtained from the Syringa Health Centre, Tel: 021-762 2364 or e-mail: raoulg@netpoint.co.za.