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‘Taking over’: Spokane experts say social media and gaming is causing anxiety in teens

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 24, 2020

Back when she lived in Pennsylvania, Lisa Silvestri was jogging through a memorial park when she saw a woman on her cellphone standing before a tombstone.

“I remember thinking what a funny picture that was,” said Silvestri, a Gonzaga University communications professor. “I just wondered what if her phone call was like ‘You’ve got a raise!’ or something, you know? We’re so dislocated from our place and time.”

This dislocation is a major part of Silvestri’s book, “Friended at the Front: Social Media in the American War Zone.” Silvestri’s brother was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and Afghanistan in 2013, and it struck her how different communications were the second time around, which she described as a “collapse between the war front and homefront.”

“They were being shot at and shooting at targets very, very close,” Silvestri said. “And then they were going back to their base and hopping online and clicking on an Instagram picture of a lasagna dinner.”

Silvestri said when she asked her students what time period they would choose to live in, they told her “any time before the internet.”

“We talked about them as having grown up with this, and they’re so fluent, but I don’t think that they like it,” Silvestri said. “They have a sense that it’s contributing to anxiety and depression.”

Joseph Judd, a therapist with Advanced Behavioral Health, said about 90% of his teen patients have some amount of anxiety stemming from gaming or social media use. With social media, Judd said teens are constantly connected because they fear missing out on something.

Jennifer O’Halloran, a counselor at Rogers High School, said many students walk through her door with varying degrees of issues stemming from social media and video game usage.

The biggest issue is sleep: students staying up to the wee hours FaceTiming with their friends. She’s seen cases of students at risk of not graduating because of performance affected by technology use.

“They’re, in my opinion, obsessed with just all the social media and looking to see how many people have commented and liked things and having to check back. A lot of kids, it seems like that’s really the overriding need in their mind,” O’Halloran said. “I have kids who are actually falling asleep in class, so the grades are getting impacted.”

In a couple of cases, students have expressed to her that receiving their education is pointless because they will make their living as a YouTube personality streaming themselves playing videogames.

Judd said in the cases of teens he’s treated with gaming issues, the game is a way to escape.

“They’re really spending a lot of time gaming and absorbed in the gaming world,” Judd said. “That in and of itself is a type of addiction because they crave being in that world. When they wake up, they want to get back to playing the game.”

The 2013 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not list a gaming or social media addiction, though internet gaming was listed in the section recommending further research, and the World Health Organization listed “gaming disorder” in the International Classification of Diseases.

O’Halloran said she would not be surprised if one day there was an identified social media or internet gaming addiction.

Judd and O’Halloran suggest strategies to disconnect, including putting the phone in a docking station in the living room before bed so the teen isn’t texting through the night.

“It’s scary, honestly, how pervasive it is and how much it’s taken over kids’ lives,” O’Halloran said.

Though she tries to avoid speaking directly with parents, she has had a few cases where she felt it was necessary.

“It’s a little odd to give parenting advice and tell them how to do punishments,” O’Halloran said. “I try not to cross that boundary a ton, but if a kid really is at risk for not graduating and not doing what they’re supposed to, sometimes I eventually do say, ‘Can you take the phone away?’ ”

Silvestri thinks we need to have the will to be inconvenienced.

“It’s so easy to order things on Amazon, and it’s so easy to just check someone’s status update instead of giving them a call and see how they’re doing,” Silvestri said. “We just have to add a little friction back into our everyday living.”

As part of her research, she went to Silicon Valley and toured Facebook headquarters.

“There are all these 22-year-old kids making these huge platforms that are changing our lives, and they don’t have philosophy degrees, there are no … people thinking about the moral implications of all of these things,” Silvestri said.

“They’re just doing ‘what would be cool and wouldn’t that be neat.’ And one of the things that they say often is they want the user experiences to be frictionless.”

Silvestri cited the example of streaming services.

“It’s one second between shows now,” Silvestri said. “They want don’t want you to have any opportunity to take your eyeballs off. They don’t want to give you any reason to pause and locate yourself. And so for me, it’s just a matter of we just have to will ourselves to be inconvenienced and to insert a little friction, to close the window.”

Silvestri will be one of three Gonzaga professors in conversation around the question “Is the internet making us miserable?” as part of Humanities Washington’s “Think and Drink” series at the Magic Lantern at 7 p.m. Monday. The talk is free and open to the public and will be moderated by The Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal.

“I would push back against the prompt technology isn’t making us miserable,” Silvestri said. “I think it’s contributing to a bunch of habits that we have that are probably not doing ourselves any favors. Happiness is an inside job.”

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