Technology Addiction: The Growing Dangers for Students

January 12, 2021
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In this episode of Real Talk, Student & Athlete Defense attorneys Susan Stone and Kristina Supler are joined by Dr. Jay Berk, a psychologist who specializes in electronic addition, to discuss the dangers of technology for students and how it can lead to school problems, issues with anxiety and mental health and criminal issues. Dr. Berk also shares insight into the trends he is seeing regarding sexting, and advises parents about when technology use crosses the line into addiction.

Susan Stone:

Welcome back to Real Talk With Susan & Kristina. And today, we are going to be talking about how an abuse of technology by students can lead to school problems and actual criminal issues. Today, we welcome to explore this issue, Dr. Jay Berk. Welcome, Jay.

Jay Berk:

Thank you for having me guys. Good to see you. Hope everybody’s staying safe.

Susan Stone:

Yeah. We hope so too. Kristina, before we start questioning Dr. Berk, can you give an overview to our listeners about what we’ve been seeing in our practice?

Kristina Supler:

Sure. Our cases for years have entailed a real confluence between mental health issues among students as well as struggles with technology. And so, students come to us when they’re in need of legal services for issues with special education and receiving services from a school district. Sometimes, student issues lead to criminal cases. And so, we’ve been pleased over the years to work with Dr. Berk, who’s a national expert in this area of technology and helping students.

Susan Stone:

And Jay, I just have to mention to the listeners out there, do you realize we’ve been working together on different matters for almost eight years now?

Jay Berk:

That’s a long time.

Susan Stone:

I know.

Jay Berk:

We’re both getting older. That’s what happens, huh?

Susan Stone:

Yeah. That is what happens. And I’ve really seen what you do change over time. When I first met with you, I remember our whole focus was on oppositional disorder, which is still your specialty, anxiety, depression. Moving into an expertise in students with autism. But really, in the last couple years, you’ve led your field in educating both other therapists and parents in the field of electronic addiction. So, we welcome you and we’re grateful that we can collaborate with you basically because of your wealth of knowledge in so many areas.

Jay Berk:

Thanks. And I think what’s important for listeners to know is it’s an emerging area. There’s more information coming out about it. The research is trailing. Actually, the practical pieces that need to be done. So, I’m involved around the planet at this point. There’s a lot of information coming out of South Korea and other places for research. But looking at this because some countries were ahead of us in these challenges. And so, there is a little bit of a blueprint out there that’s somewhat transferrable and sometimes not so transferrable. So, that’s why I wrote the book Parent’s Guide to Electronic Addiction. And looking at the aspects of what parents can do to prevent the problem, and then what to do if they’re starting to see a problem, what to do if there’s a really a big problem with kids.

Jay Berk:

And I think that’s important to consider in the nature of our discussion today. There’s different levels of this. Because a lot of people game fine. There’s no big deal, kids just use it healthy. It’s when it’s a problem, technology becomes a real problem. I think the second thing that’d be helpful for parents to understand is that kids growing up today are digital natives. So, they know way more than the parents know about things. A lot of times kids tell me things about how to ride around the school system that I’m not even sure the school district knows. And the adults are chasing the kids on some of this information. And the games are changing too. Two years ago, Fortnite. Last year, Fortnite. This year, Among Us is the big happening game out there. So, it’s moving as well.

Sexting and The Teenage Brain

Kristina Supler:

I know we’ve had in our practice… We had the pleasure of working with a fine young man who, in fact, shut down the whole IT system for a school district. Dr. Berk, let’s take a turn into left field a bit, but it’s all related. We have seen a tremendous rise in cases involving sexting. Let’s talk about sexting. Is that something… First, I guess, can you share with our listeners what sexting is and what trends you’re seeing among your student patients?

Jay Berk:

Well, I think that possibly a way to look at is to think about how kids see things today. So, a lot of the kids are saying, “Well, it’s my body. And if I want to send this picture, that’s up to me.” And realizing… They don’t really realize the legal implications associated with the choices they’re making. Kids airdropping pictures in the cafeteria to other kids, kids forwarding pictures. And a lot of kids… And be it that they’re teenagers most of the time. Frontal lobe development occurs until your age 25. They don’t realize the long-term implications that later on, they’re not going to want those pictures out there. Also, a lot of kids with social issues where the boyfriend or girlfriend will say, “I’m not going to show this to anybody. It’s just for you and I.” And then, all of a sudden they break up and it’s not so between you and I anymore. And I would say those are some of the trends that are occurring.

When does a typical teenager’s preoccupation with technology become a genuine technology addiction?

Susan Stone:

You mentioned that students today are digital natives and they need technology, especially during the pandemic, but even before to go to school, to communicate with their friends. At what point does a typical teenager’s preoccupation with technology become a genuine addiction?

Jay Berk:

Yeah. That’s a great question because I think parents really need to think about that. Let’s start with how do you prevent having a problem? How do you prevent having a problem starts with the parents. We’re doing a collaborative problem solving agreement with the kid about the use of technology. What are the rules around it? Where do they see it?

Kristina Supler:

Like a technology contract with your kids?

Jay Berk:

Yeah. Technology contract and more… I guess I would say technology agreement that everybody’s philosophically on the same page of what this looks like. The most common question I get from parents is, “Well, how many hours a day should a kid be in technology?” Well, that’s impossible to answer in today’s world because they’re Zooming all day, they’re with their friends. It depends on what you’re doing on technology to be able to answer that question.

Now, according to the World Health Organization, who came out with the diagnostic criteria for gaming addiction, there is… You start to see things like loss of friendships, grade problems, up in the middle of the night, rage issues. When you’re starting to see those things, that’s where the kids starting to have a problem. They’re starting to move from healthy gaming, into a zone of danger where they’re starting to have these issues. The kids that are having the true addiction issues are the kids who are really failing in school, stealing money from their parents, that’s a huge one, multiple times. Getting in trouble with the law because they’re doing things that they shouldn’t be doing online, et cetera, et cetera. And so, there’s a continuum there that really moves along.

Susan Stone:

Just to be clear for parents out there, if you’re a student who’s on Zoom for five, six hours, and then who’s talking on the phone, and then wants to play a game to unwind, how long would you allow or do you think is prescribed to put in that agreement? An hour?

Jay Berk:

I do it a little bit differently and I think this will be helpful for parents to understand. But begin back to what are they doing with the technology? Because right now we’re in a pandemic. So, a lot of kids are saying, “Well, what else am I supposed to do?” And there is some merit to that because some parents aren’t letting their kids socialize at all, some kids will let their parent go to the park with a friend, some kid’s parents don’t care, and the kid’s over others kids houses.

When it comes to Technology and Internet Addiction, Quality matters more than Quantity

Kristina Supler:

Are you saying, Dr. Berk, it’s not necessarily the time the student is interfacing with technology so much as in what way the interface is occurring?

Jay Berk:

Correct. It’s not so simple as just saying, “Well, you get three hours a day.” Now, I do say to parents… in my book, I put this info in there. I talk about pay-to-play. And the concept is, is that if you do other things that are healthy, for example, you exercise for an hour, you’re on the treadmill doing stuff, or you do things for charity, you do other social things, then you can gain extra technology time because there’s a balance. And I think that’s important to think about. Now, let’s say the kid has social anxiety and they’re online playing Among Us, but they’re with local kids making friends. Am I going to limit that? Well, I’ve got to, again, look at what is that kid doing now? Now, can they spin that into getting together with those local kids? Are they playing Among Us with a kid in England that they’re never going to get to know? And that’s why I say that it’s more sophisticated than just that simple answer.

Kristina Supler:

[Concerning] a kid’s preoccupation with technology, have you seen instances where it actually causes the child to lose social skills?

Jay Berk:

Yes. We can think about some categories of kids for a minute. Example of kids with ADHD tend to play first-person shooter games. They play first-person shooter games because they like the dopamine rush off those games. Okay. The kid that’s hacking the school district is getting a rush of getting the power to do but the school doesn’t think they can do. Hackers like the challenge, i.e., we just got hacked by some government, I won’t know who it is, in United States and what are they doing with that info? And there’s people that just like the challenge of hacking. So, that’s part of what we want to think about. Now, kids on the spectrum would be another example.

Kristina Supler:

I was going to ask about autism and how that factors in.

Jay Berk:

Kids on the spectrum. For example, if the kid has a high interest in bugs like I have, my caseload, or kid has as a high interest in model railroads, well, it could be good because you can find other people on a server that have an interest in bugs or model railroad. Now, the problem becomes that could be good but it also can become so easy. Why should I talk to anybody else when I only want to talk about bugs and I can instantly hop online with the phone in my pocket and find people that will talk about bugs until the end of time?

Susan Stone:

Kristina and I have represented a number of college students on the spectrum who use the various social media platforms to actually stalk students that they’re interested in. And then, it blows up in a college disciplinary action. Can you describe the different… And we’ve touched on it but what are you seeing today as behavior that leads to you having to give a lawyer a call, whether it’s us or another firm, for criminal behavior?

Jay Berk:

Usually, to be honest with you and forthright about this answer, I have told the parents, or the kid, or the college-aged kid where the problem lies before it probably hits the attorney’s door.

Kristina Supler:

So you can see that often because you are… From the clinical perspective as a psychologist, you sense a storm is brewing?

Jay Berk:

Right. Or they come to me because the storm hit and they’re in trouble.

Kristina Supler:

Got it.

Susan Stone:

What kind of storms are you seeing? Tell us about those stories.

Desensitization & Dissociation Online Can Have Consequences IRL

Jay Berk:

Kids, for example, making threats online towards other people that they say was joking or was only meant between them and the other person. And all of a sudden, when you look at that data, from a different eyes, they don’t understand how other people might see that. Number two is I’ve had kids, a lot of kids at college… Everybody’s had a crush and things like that. But with social media, you can find out about anything about anybody. And it’s like even if you’re blocked, they get the social media connection from somebody else who’s unblocked, or you could just change your name or your account and move around so easily. It’s amazing the things that people can do.

There’s so much information out there that you can get. I mean, i.e., if you look at… Seeing things going on in the United States parallel, some of the people in government that had been threatened and people found out where they live, where their house is, what church they go to, their availability of information if you know how to use it is pretty crazy. Now, we’re dealing with, a lot of times, really smart, savvy people that underestimate the implications of the choices they’re making.

Susan Stone:

It’s like a blind spot.

Jay Berk:

It is. I would say most of the kids are young adults, that I deal with, did not go into this situation thinking that what they were doing was criminal or going to be a problem.

Kristina Supler:

I mean, you talked about parents having an agreement with their children and expectations for technology use, and sounds like maybe incentivizing them, the children, if you do this, this and this, then you can have more screen time. But I guess my question is, is there anything that parents can really do to head off at the past any technology struggle before it becomes a really big issue?

Jay Berk:

Yeah. There’s a number of things. This will sound crazy but let me give you some really practical stuff. One is, The Beatles came and everybody’s like, “Oh, my gosh. The world’s going to fall apart.” The Beatles, it’s going… the world’s going crazy. Okay. Electronics and games are out there. So maybe, you got to learn a couple of Beatles songs. In other words, sit down with your kid and watch him play or play with them a little bit on the games, know what they’re playing and know that games and things are rated away for a reason. Okay. I was doing an NPR story once, and that was pretty interesting, doing NPR radio, and one of the questions was. “My six-year old’s having problems in his behavior and he’s playing Fortnite. Do you think that might be a problem?” And it’s like, “Yeah. Look at the rating on Fortnite for games.” So, be aware that the games are rated certain ways for certain reasons.

I think sit down with the kid, watch what they’re playing, be aware of… If you want to be amazed as a parent, put on the kid’s headphones and listen to the trash talk that’s going on on Xbox Live or something like that. So teaching your kid, “All right. If you’re playing the games and somebody’s trash-talking, what do you do with it? How do you manage that?” Okay. Be aware of who you’re playing with. So for example, if you’re playing Among Us, are you playing with just people you know? From school, church, temple or something? Are you playing with anybody’s in there and if somebody’s not following the rules, what do you do? Those have to be the kind of discussions parents have. And to do that, they have to understand the technology that’s being used. And those would be examples of what parents can do.

Life After Internet & Technology Addiction

Susan Stone:

Jay, once someone comes to our office and we’re done, let’s say, making changes in, an education plan, or we’ve concluded a criminal representation, that doesn’t mean, for that student… They’re done with their lawyers, but they still need follow-up mental health support. And what I’d like to know from you, can you tell us about your success stories that there is life after you get in trouble with school or law enforcement?

Jay Berk:

Yeah. I mean, I would actually go with most of the kids, including underaged kids and adult college age, the individuals that I’ve had get in trouble are doing fine on the other end of that. Now, that’s not without work at it, and that’s not without coaching on the parent’s side and therapy with the kids, but they turn out, when they get their life in place, fine. But I think part of it is understanding what got them there and that’s where the important work comes in.

Jay Berk:

So, if they just get out of the legal trouble but you haven’t fixed what got them there, they’re probably going to return. And if you look at the cases I’ve had that have returned to legal problems, the underlying issue has not been addressed that created the legal problem in the first place. And a lot of times, parents don’t want to work on it because the legal problem is solved. But I think the parents that are more savvy, understand, “All right. I got a problem. Let’s stay out of going back here again.” Because there have been repeat performances of some kids, even though they get in trouble, they had paid their penalty, and then boom, they’re back in and again.

Susan Stone:

I know Kristina and I work really hard to make referrals to therapists, and coaches, and other resources for students because we don’t want to see them back in our office.

Staying on Track: Not All Coaches Are Created Equal

Jay Berk:

Well, you guys are very… Let me put it this way, you have integrity, not all professionals have such integrity but I appreciate that. I would make a comment about what you just said though. And that is, I think when parents are considering who’s going to work with their kid or how that’s going to go down, they need to think about the qualifications of the individual they’re selecting, because anybody right now can call themselves a coach. Coaching is not a regulated area. Now, there’s some people that are really qualified coaches. There are some people that are not. And on the other side, there are therapists that say they do certain work, some do, some don’t, some just say they do. So, I tell parents to be very involved in the care. You want to have goals and objectives. What are we trying to do? And measurable goals that you’re looking at as you move forward.

Kristina Supler:

Dr. Berk, I have a final question for you. Given that we are in a day and age, where for better or for worse, technology is ever present and will be forever, so-

Jay Berk:

In your pocket right now but probably embedded in you as a chip in the next couple years.

Kristina Supler:

Likely, yes. My question is this, for students who have had either issues at school or, perhaps worse, in the criminal justice system, after the storm passes, it seems like it’s not realistic that they’re going to have no relationship with technology. So, when the immediate crisis resolves and after there’s been some ongoing supportive therapy, generally speaking, how would you describe… For students, what is a healthy relationship with technology look like?

After Technology Addiction, What Does A Healthy Relationship With Technology Look Like?

Jay Berk:

Okay. Let’s consider it this way. I think that [the] technology problem is not like an alcohol or drug addiction. There are people that are doing that and I don’t agree with that, there are pieces that are parallel. I say it’s more like an eating disorder. Okay. And with an eating disorder, you have to work with the individual to learn to eat healthy. You can’t take away food and just say, “That’s it.” So, a good relationship with technology is defined by that like what’s healthy eating type of parallel. Again, I would say to you, there’s not an overall this is the one way to do that. I think for each kid it is different.

Jay Berk:

For example, the kid that got in trouble for hacking, they may be brilliant at coding and may have a career in coding and channeling them into that coding is where they need to move that behavior. That’s different than a kid that got in trouble for something else. And I think that the relationship with technology is looking at is there a balance? So, is there a balance socially? Is there a balance exercise? Is there a balance in relationships in the family? Is there an academic plan?

Jay Berk:

And so, what I do with my clientele is look at all those areas and look at what does that balance look like for that individual? Now, that’s not to say that if a kid got in criminal trouble, that maybe we’re going to layoff an area for a bit, but eventually you can’t keep every computer, every phone, every iPad away from that individual, it’s impossible. Example, this is just aside but it might make sense to parents, you were asking about inappropriate content in sexting and stuff. Where do you think kids first learn about that? I’ll ask you guys quiz question. Most common area kids first learn about it.

Kristina Supler:

Porn on the internet.

Jay Berk:

No.

Susan Stone:

I would’ve said the same thing, Kristina.

Jay Berk:

On the school bus from older kids showing them inappropriate sites and stuff.

Susan Stone:

It’s always the school bus.

Jay Berk:

In [the] school bus, the most unsupervised area in the world with older kids showing younger kids stuff or kids just… They all got a phone on there and nobody’s watching them and that’s a problem. So, that’s an example of how to prepare kids. If somebody’s doing something on the bus, how are you going to handle this? Because you don’t want to be the kid who’s weird, and not included, and being called a baby and all that, but yet, you don’t want to be involved and get in trouble, that becomes a problem.

Kristina Supler:

Well, you’ve given us so much practical advice today.

Susan Stone:

Yeah. No, it’s great. And what strikes me though is that there are so many different perils of technology. If it’s not cyberbullying, or sexting, or hacking, it’s really so broad that I think sometimes we forget, there are so many things in life than technology. I mean, what’s wrong with cooking, or drawing, or reading, or just taking a walk outside. I feel like we’ve all lost perspective. I, myself, was thinking last night, I just got a Peloton. And even that is looking at a screen and I love my Peloton. I absolutely love it. But I also love walking in the snow.

Replace Digital Habits With Quality Family Time

Jay Berk:

Yeah. And I think that people… Part of that is… and this is again the overall arching theme a bit, where do you learn those kind of habits from? I water-skied from a very young age. Why? Because my family did. I snow-skied because a friend of mine in middle school said join the ski club and I learned to snow ski. So, I think, is your family doing things that invest you in certain activities? And the family like to go skiing or the family goes for walk in the park. Are you teaching your kids those habits from an early age? Then, our friends getting together and doing things and introducing themselves to positive things, these are examples of that. Are parents promoting that? If that’s another way to think about it. Are they willing to drive kids to a ski resort and things like that?

And I think everybody’s busier nowadays and everybody’s got a phone in their pocket and it’s quick and easy. And we haven’t even gone into the way that gaming design and things are set because there’s an addictive quality to some of these games. Now, gaming itself, again, not necessarily a problem, but falling prey to the addictive qualities to it, can be. What else do kids do nowadays? Right now, a lot of sports aren’t happening. And so, they’re not seeing their friends in sports. A lot of clubs aren’t happening. So, they’re not doing clubs. It is a pandemic and it is very challenging. So, I would say as this pandemic clears, parents need to reintegrate their kids back into these activities. And that’s going to be a troublesome area because they’ve been doing it for a year, sitting at home on their computer. I think it’s going to be hard to get the kid to go join the chess club at school. And will the chess club be remote? And they’ll just do chess on Zoom.

Susan Stone:

I hope not. I want everybody to… I crave seeing other people.

Jay Berk:

Well, we’re Zooming today. Aren’t we now?

Susan Stone:

Yeah. But you know what, Jay, the real Jay’s better than the virtual Jay. But I thank you for… Giving us your time. I know that… Jay shared, Kristina, that he’s now working in overdrive because there are so many mental health issues that he’s trying to serve his population. And thank you for the work you do. And thank you for being here with us today.

Jay Berk:

Would you mind if I just get on my website because, parents, there are resources that are free on the website if parents want them? I upload videos and things on there. It’s JayBerkPHD.com… And for parents that are listening, if you’re just interested in information, feel free to hit the website, I’m always updating it. There’s videos that you can look at, there’s links. And I’m adding new links all the time. That’s just informative. You don’t have to be a client. You can just take advantage of the information because one of my goals in what I’m doing is to have that information source for parents.

Kristina Supler:

Well, thank you again for joining us and thank you to our listeners. Stay tuned for the next episode of Real Talk With Susan & Kristina.

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