Zsolt Demetrovics, psychologist: ‘You should never give children a device to calm them down’

The president of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Addictions talks about the difficulties that society faces in adapting to the use of technology and the habits of the youth of today

Zsolt Demetrovics
Zsolt Demetrovics, president of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Addictions, in a corridor of the Bellvitge hospital, in Barcelona.Kike Rincón
Bernat Coll

Zsolt Demetrovics answers every question after a moment of quiet reflection. As he meditates on how the forms of interaction have changed in recent decades, he acknowledges that doubting or suspecting the new technologies is only logical. Still, “behind online gaming, there is a need for enjoyment and socialization.” The Hungarian psychologist, president of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Addictions, spoke to EL PAÍS shortly before giving a lecture on behavioral addictions at the Bellvitge hospital in Barcelona, Spain.

Question. Do you use social networks?

Answer. I have Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn accounts, but I don’t really use them. I don’t have time.

Q. Does their impact on young people worry you?

A. The question is always how we use these technologies. What has happened in the past 25 years is an increasingly fast development of the IT communications. In my childhood, we didn’t even have a phone at home. If you wanted to call someone, you had to walk to a public telephone. All these developments offer us a lot of possibilities. On the other hand, there are risks.

Q. What risks?

A. Addiction. Overuse. But that’s not everything; there are physical consequences if you just sit in front of your computer, and you don’t move enough, you don’t exercise. [Also] eye issues, sleep issues, and obviously it has a very significant impact on interpersonal relationships.

Q. Is there a connection between compulsive gaming and loneliness in the medium or long term?

A. It’s a very important issue. When we start to use these devices, and social media or gaming, there is always a reason. We always have to look at what the motives are. Twenty, thirty years ago, if we wanted to meet someone we went to their home, we organized a meeting, and now much of this happens online. It’s very good, but it might have negative consequences.

Q. You often talk about escapism.

A. Gaming and socializing with others on the internet is absolutely okay. If you had a stressful day, you get home from work and you want to sit down and scroll through Facebook or play games for one or two hours, that’s relaxation. You want to forget about your problems, you want to forget about your conflicts with your boss, and that’s fine. But there’s a problem if because of gaming or because of the internet, you have problems in your relationship, in your work or your studies.

Q. How much is too much?

A. It’s not necessarily the amount. It’s difficult to say “it’s that many hours” or if that is the only solution. We have to switch off sometimes. The question is, will we go back to the problem and solve it, or will we do the same the next day?

Q. Are we less capable of facing problems?

A. There are different strategies. We all face many stressful events every day, and we need to cope with that. And we have different inner abilities and capacities to do so. If you have a fight with your boss, you may say, “He’s like that. I don’t care. I’ll do my job.” And others ruminate on that all day and the next. They have more difficulties to cope with this emotional stress. They are more prone to look for any substance or behavior to reduce the stress.

Zsolt Demetrovics at the Bellvitge hospital in Barcelona.
Zsolt Demetrovics at the Bellvitge hospital in Barcelona.Kike Rincón

Q. Addictions are increasing among teenagers. Why?

A. Gaming [addiction] is a very prevalent problem among the youth. But we also see that compared to most addictive behaviors, including alcohol, substances, even gambling, gaming seems to be a much less progressive disorder. Spontaneous recovery is quite frequent among young gamers.

Q. How does it happen?

A. For example, a person will play ten or 12 or even more hours a day in front of the computer. But after a few months or half year, it decreases and gets normalized. You don’t see that with alcohol. When alcohol use starts, it will progress for the next one or two decades in most cases.

Q. Why does this happen?

A. We don’t know much about it yet. Maybe they get used to it or don’t get the effect they want. We would need more research to know if gaming is a progressive or a more transient problem.

Q. Were we happier before the internet?

A. I don’t know, I don’t think so. I don’t like to see the new technologies as good or bad. Before, people walked on the street and saw their neighbors and said, “Hey, how are you doing?” And you could share something. Now we have likes instead of that. So, Facebook, or social media, they respond to the same need. We haven’t changed; our environment has changed. But our needs are rooted in our evolutionary history.

Q. Schools demand an evaluation of the use of technologies.

A. It takes time. We’ve seen the possibilities: we have now the experience of remote teaching with Covid-19, and now we see the advantages of the in-person, direct teaching.

Q. When should screens be introduced to children?

A. Probably not [at a very early age], and then it’s very important that you do it together. It’s not very good if you give your mobile or an iPad to a kid to watch something. But it was also not good to put the kid in front of the TV. There’s going to be an interaction between the screen and the kid. You should never give them a device to calm them down if they’re crying or upset or just irritated, it’s not how technology should be used.

Q. Parents do not have models to educate in technology.

A. No, not all. We have no models, no memories. We have to learn it together with the kids. It’s better to develop these rules together. We have to understand that they do different things than what we did, and what a mobile phone means to them.

Q. Should public administrations regulate the use of technology in the educational sector?

A. I wouldn’t intervene very drastically, and not on the level of the users, but probably more on the level of the developers. What’s important is explaining the risks. Governments have a tendency to solve issues by law, but you cannot solve mental health issues by law.

Q. The average age of access to pornography has dropped to eight years, according to the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD).

A. Pornography is an increasing problem. But the motives and the amount make the difference. It’s always kind of a replacement question or a compensation question. [It is okay] if you watch pornography because you want to enhance your sexual life, but if you do it because you have relationship problems or because you are not satisfied, it’s different. You will not solve the problem.

Q. Is porn the worst enemy of sexual health?

A. I don’t think so. I think it can contribute to understand that there are things that shouldn’t be normalized. And of course porn has a huge risk, because it shows an unreal sexuality.

Q. Parents can play video games with their kids, but not watch pornography with them. How is sexuality introduced to them?

A. It’s always a difficult issue. It depends very much on the relationship. But yeah, I don’t think that watching porn with the kids is a good idea.

Q. What is the behavioral addiction with the best prognosis?

A. With behavioral addictions, one additional difficulty is that many are just part of your life. With alcohol, the goal is abstinence. You cannot drink anymore, which is difficult to reach, but it can be done. With the internet or with sexual disorders, the goal is not that you shouldn’t have sex anymore or play video games.

Q. What is the goal?

A. To learn to control it. And that’s obviously difficult.

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