I first have noticed that something was wrong when my 9-year-old started having troubles falling asleep. It is quite common for the kids of his age, so I took all the usual steps. We’ve talked about how sleep is important and how he must get up in the morning to be at school on time. We negotiated the time. I stocked up on chamomile tea and lavender essential oil.
Then I told him, that he probably should not play with his tablet before the bedtime. That is when the true issue came to light. I agree, I probably should not have allowed him tablet in the evenings in the first place, but it seemed so calming. Until he began throwing tantrums after my saying “That’s enough for the day”. The pattern appeared to be erratic. One day he would give up his tablet willingly, another day he would cling to it for his life.
- You will play tomorrow, but now it’s time to go to bed.
- I don’t want to go to bed! My scores are messy!
“Messy” meaning not all round numbers. He wouldn’t go to bed until he put them all in order as he perceived it. The worst thing about this was that he could not fall asleep because he kept imagining “the mess”.
Then there were my playlists. He asked for my smartphone only to alphabetize the titles, put everything in order in folders and add missing album artworks and tags. At first, I didn’t realize it might be a problem. After all, instead of playing some gory game, he wanted to systematize things. What can be more harmless, tranquil and beneficial? The problem was, again, that he could not get it out of his mind until everything was done and perfectly arranged, and sometimes it took more than a reasonable amount of time.
After we went to see a specialist, she surprised us with mild to moderate case of OCD. I was puzzled. I could see no signs of anything one would imagine when hearing “OCD”. That is in the real life I couldn’t.
As odd as the diagnosis seemed to me at the time, it makes sense now. One just has to look how much time kids spend on their digital devices. They practically live there. Maybe that is the reason why they channel their quirks, anxieties, fears and their need for order there as well. The real world is not that relevant. Besides, the world is too complicated and unyielding. It is for grown-ups. Whereas digital is obedient and pliable.
Just by moving a finger, kids can put things in order, rearrange or erase. If something is boring they skip it, if something is too complicated they switch to another app, page, tab. They rule their digital realm. Likewise, if something is forbidden in the real world, they go and do, say, search and find it online, and they do so mostly in secret.
The secrecy of what children do online is a reason why parents worldwide struggle with understanding the issues they have to deal with. That was the case with me, and it took me a lot of time to find out what was wrong in the first place. That is because I kept looking for the signs in the real world, the world from which my son was gradually alienating himself.
Why so serious?
The problem is that we do not actually live in our tablets and smartphones (although, it often seems that we do). We must prepare our kids to meet the real tough challenges of the real tough world. It is good that they have cyberworld as an aid, this channel to vent out, but we must make sure that they realize it is not the way to tackle the actual problems. If anything, it is a way to create some new ones (like my son’s insomnia).
By just moving a finger they won’t be able to tidy up their room, fix their grades, or get a job. We have to teach them problem-solving skills, the only way to deal with something disturbing and uncomfortable, i.e. facing it. Not escaping into digital perfectionism (self-indulgence, anonymous bullying, or whatever kids do online when their parents aren’t watching).
Yet to provide a positive example, we must face the problems ourselves. And I see the digital barrier as a problem. We live in separate worlds, on the opposite sides of this thin glowing facet of liquid crystals. We give tablets to our kids as pacifiers when they are still in their cribs; we give them our phones instead of our attention and from this stem multiple problems that persist into adulthood. While we look another way, they drift away from us, slowly but surely. If I kept ignoring my son’s digital life any longer, who knows how deep his OCD issues would become (or any other issues for that matter).
We must change our perspective on digital. For us, it’s entertainment. For them, it’s the world. The whole new world with its own dangers, struggles, disorders, and other novelty phenomena. Now I believe that no parent should give their kids gadgets without serious discussions and some sort of iPhone or Android child protection software. We cannot afford to be ignorant and “old-fashioned” if we want to understand our children and be able to help them when they need us to.