When it comes to getting hooked to digital screens, there are also gender differences. This is indicated by a study conducted by the Gambling and Technological Addictions Unit at the University of Valencia, in collaboration with Fundación MAPFRE.

Anyone who knows a mother or father of a teenager knows full well that, if there is one common reason for a “misunderstanding” between the two that causes parents to despair more than any other, this is the use of smartphones and other electronic devices. The kids can spend hours in front of the computer, tablet, smartphone or console screen, playing, talking with friends and checking their social media as though their life depended on it. Rare is the father or mother who is not concerned about their children’s use of these devices. And it is no surprise that, as soon as they start spending more time together with them (or confronting them), household harmony deteriorates considerably. It must be said that, considering such use excessive is not exclusively a fixation of parents; experts declare that this can pose a real risk of addiction. Even more so when it comes to Internet gaming, with the added risk of gambling.

Up to three times more risk

Evidence of this has been provided by Mariano Chóliz and Marta Marcos, from the Gambling and Technological Addictions Unit at the University of Valencia.

They are the authors of the study entitled Early Detection and Prevention of Technological Addictions in Adolescents, conducted in collaboration with Fundación MAPFRE prior to the declaration of the State of Alarm due to the coronavirus pandemic. One of the most surprising conclusions of this study has to do with the difference between the sexes as regards being hooked to the screen. The data leave no room for doubt: adolescent males, especially 15 and 16-year-olds, are three times more likely to develop an online gambling addiction.

Alicia Rodríguez, from Fundación MAPFRE’s Health Promotion Area, confirms this: “Both in the case of video games and online gaming, adolescent males reveal significantly higher dependency scores than their female peers.” To be specific, some 18 percent of the boys, compared to 2.2 percent of the girls. As for the reasons, Marta refers to the fact that “it allows them to demonstrate strategic, competitive and winning abilities. Those who choose this form of entertainment opt for massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), potentially more addictive than offline gaming.” Moreover, the researcher mentions that video games “are marketed using the main male stereotypes”.

Something similar happens in the case of Internet gambling: “This is principally a male activity, given that, above all else, it appeals to their competitive streak which, boosted by the characteristics of these technologies, tremendously increases the addictive potential of traditional games.” It is also true that companies in this sector have not yet found a way to attract the female population to games of chance.

The most vulnerable age

Any addiction is dangerous at any age; however, in the case of teenagers, it is even more worrying. Mariano Chóliz, coauthor of the study, explains it thus: “Adolescents are particularly vulnerable because of the evolutionary stage of their lives they are in. The planning and control areas of their brain are not yet fully formed and this influences their decision-making process, leading to them taking greater risks, without being aware of the consequences arising from the way they use technologies or how they relate to them. In addition, the characteristics the new technologies bring to these games increase the addictive potential they inherently possess: the fascination with screens and playing games on the Internet, which is the main problem with video games and the new online gambling modalities.”

To all this we must add the fact that they feel completely impervious to danger, as Chóliz remarks: “Adolescence is a developmental phase in which risks are not perceived as clearly as in other age groups and this makes them feel invulnerable. The false belief that this won’t happen to me tips the motivational scales toward the benefits of continuing with the activity, even where problems have already arisen, as they don’t admit this or they attribute them to other circumstances.” However, the symptoms are there, even when they believe it is something that affects others and they know that those who have problems may even lose everything.

It is not a question of time

It is interesting to note that, of all the symptoms, the time the teenager spends staring at the device is not as important as we tend to believe. As Marta Marcos, co-author of the study, explains: “It’s not so much the number of hours the person spends online, as the relationship established with an activity that becomes an uncontrolled, irrepressible pastime.” So much so that the person who is already addicted feels an ever-growing need to use technology in order to achieve the same benefits as at the start; negative emotional reactions arise in the event of being unable to use technology or once a considerable amount of time passes without being able to use it, i.e. withdrawal syndrome. The excessive use of technologies interferes in every sphere of the patients’ lives and may result in them finding it difficult to stop using electronic devices, despite being aware of the negative consequences; and their mood undergoes modifications as a strategy adopted in order to escape from the hardships of everyday life, even reaching the extreme of missing out on academic and/or job opportunities.

How to know if you have an addict at home

It is not easy to discern whether the behavior of our teenagers warrants concern or whether it is within normal parameters for their age. With that in mind, Mariano Chóliz and Marta Marcos have conducted a pioneering test in Spain which enables us to assess and swiftly detect addiction to smartphones, social media, video games and gambling among adolescents aged 11 to 20. Called TecnoTest, it consists of 24 questions – 12 of them key – which enable us to discover whether there is a real problem. It takes just a few minutes to complete and offers clear guidelines to help prevent addiction to each of these technological phenomena, as well as gambling.

The test distinguishes between those who use the new technologies properly, i.e. those that show no signs of addiction, namely the majority of our teenagers. It also reveals those that meet some criterion which indicates that they may be at risk of addiction and, therefore, should follow certain guidelines and adopt preventive measures with the help of a counselor or teacher. And those suspected of having an addiction problem, which means that not only do they use the new technologies excessively, but also that this is hindering their personal development. The ones in this latter group require a more in-depth evaluation by a specialist in order to help them regain control of their habits. TecnoTest is available free of charge from the website of Fundación MAPFRE: www.fundacionmapfre.org

TecnoTest está disponible de manera gratuita en la web de Fundación MAPFRE: www.fundacionmapfre.org