Are your kids addicted to their computers?

Are your kids addicted to their computers? »Play Video
SEATTLE - Avi Magaram, 10, and his 8-year-old brother Ezra are happy, healthy, typical young boys. And like typical brothers, there's often a tug of war over who gets to do what and when on the computer.

In a typical exchange, when Avi asks if he can finish an on-screen game before turning the computer over to his younger brother, Ezra quickly answers, "no."

Like many families, screen time was a growing issue.

"You know we want our kids to do other things," said the boys' father, Justin Magaram. "We want them to engage in all these different healthy activities."

But, the father said, once involved in a computer game, it was difficult to get them to stop, "and they would want to play them just for hours on end."

That's no surprise, said Dr. Hillarie Cash, an expert in computer gaming addiction. "In many ways the video games now are a lot more addictive," Cash said.

She said games are designed to keep players glued to the screen longer - it's called the "stickiness factor."

"If a game developer can create a game that's highly addictive that kind of guarantees their audience for the game," she said.

But in kids, Cash said the long-term effects can be destructive. In some cases it creates addicts who are as dependent on their games as drug addicts needing their next fix. And in a growing number of extreme cases, Cash said she's seeing patients who've become social loners unable to function normally. In one such case, "this is a young man who became suicidally depressed when that happened."

There are warning signs:
- Less time with friends, family and hobbies
- Falling grades
- And more fights over computer use

Cash said limiting screen time can prevent these problems, but parents often see computer time as "safe" time.

"They know where their kids are, they're not out drugging, it seems educational - they're not out on the streets getting into trouble," Cash said.

Justin Magaram wasn't having serious problems with his boys, but he still struggled with reasonable limits. The family tried using the kitchen time, but that proved useless when the kids begged for more time and the parents would ultimately give in.

"It was just a very tiring, difficult power struggle we would have," he said.

But Magaram is a software designer, so he turned to his strength and developed a software savior called "Times Up Kidz." It's a program that takes parents out of the equation.

While parents set the time limits, the computer enforces them. A pleasant voice alerts the user that they have five minutes, two minutes, one minute left. Then, if the child doesn't shut down the computer - when the time is up - the software does it for them and turns the computer off.

Magaram says it worked for his family. "Yeah, it definitely ended a lot of the arguments and fights we would have."

There aren't any numbers yet on how big a problem computer addiction is in this country, but Cash warns it is real and it is growing. She believes setting appropriate limits early is the key to avoiding serious problems later.

For More Information:

Signs & Symptoms of Computer & Internet Addiction