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Czechia Slowly Recognises Need to Tackle Digital Addictions

As young Czechs’ dependence on social media grows, the threat this poses has found its way onto the government’s radar. Yet in the absence of a nationwide strategy, it’s left mostly to experts to increase awareness and dispel misconceptions surrounding addictions in the digital age.

“Istarted working on youth digital addictions about 10 years ago, initially focusing on the educational value of video games,” Michaela Slussareff, an assistant professor in new media studies at Charles University and founder of the Slow Tech Institute, tells BIRN.

“Although this isn’t specific to the Czech Republic, I realised there was very little research done in this field. All the articles I read on the topic were largely negative, and as a soon-to-be mother, I was scared, probably like a lot of parents in the same situation,” she says.

Since then, Slussareff has devoted her time to researching how digital addictions work and promoting ways to use social media responsibly from the youngest age. Last year, she published Games, Networks, Porn: A Parent’s Guide to the Jungle of Digital Childhood and Adolescence to navigate the dangers, and enhance the benefits, of digital technologies.

Photo by Adem AY on Unsplash

Hooked on Meta

Czechs are on par with other European countries when it comes to internet penetration (used by 78 per cent of the population daily) and social media use (about 60 per cent of the population, and 95% per cent of 16-24 year olds).

But as the influence of Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and the like on our daily lives continues to grow, studies are highlighting how, for a growing number of young users, this dependence is becoming somewhat toxic.

According to the 2022 Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) study, an international WHO-led review conducted every four years, about 8 per cent of Czechs aged 11 to 15 years old could be addicted to social media, up from 5 per cent four years before.

Contrary to other online activities like gaming or pornography, girls are twice as likely to be classified as “problematic users” of social media compared to boys of the same age.

At the age of 16, about one-fourth of Czech students spend at least four hours on social media every day, and one-third may be considered at risk of addiction to networking sites.

Although data shows that the average screentime starts dropping around the age of 17-18, the National Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addictions found that nearly 450,000 Czechs over 15 might fall into digital addictions in one form or another (social media, gaming, pornography, online shopping, etc.), including 18 per cent of the 15-24 age category.

“This is an ever-growing topic that is not only affecting children, but also adults,” states Michal Skerle from the Brno Prevention Centre of Podane ruce, a local NGO working in the field of digital addiction prevention and offering individual counselling.

While teenagers are not the only ones concerned, the stakes appear higher at a younger age, when unhealthy digital habits may form faster and have longer-lasting consequences.

Michaela Slussareff, an assistant professor in new media studies at Charles University and founder of the Slow Tech Institute. Photo: YouTube

Down the digital rabbit hole

Psychological studies have long linked overuse of social media to a string of negative outcomes, including irritability, compulsiveness, feelings of loneliness or the inability to deal with real-life social interactions.

“Problematic social media users neglect their hobbies or schoolwork, get in conflict with relatives and friends because of their social media use, lie about the amount of time they spend online, or feel miserable when not able to be on social media,” confirms Petr Badura, a data analyst for the HBSC study and researcher at Palacky University in Olomouc.

In the long term, he adds, spending an unhealthy amount of time on social media can also lead to elevated risks of depression, unhealthy eating habits and sleep patterns, low levels of physical activity, and higher odds of regular substance abuse.

“But links are bi-directional,” he cautions. “It’s difficult to know whether risks of depressions or bad relationships with one’s peers occur because of problematic social media use, or the other way around, if those risks lead to problematic social media use.”

“A big problem here is how social media algorithms work and their huge influence in amplifying our psychological state at any given time,” Slussareff points out. “Whenever we start feeling slightly depressed or sad, that’s when these algorithms start working at ‘their best’, trapping us in a negative spiral.”

Michal Miovsky, from the Addiction Clinic for Children and Youth at the General Teaching Hospital in Prague, told Czech Radio that the average age of ‘addicted children’ is approximately 13-15 years old, hinting at the crucial role played by parents and adults in setting rules and limits for their offspring from an early age.

But only a few, both at home and in schools, are equipped to properly assess whether their child or student’s use of social media should be a cause for concern.

“One problem which is specific for the Czech Republic and other former Eastern Bloc countries is a relatively poor system of school prevention,” Miovsky explains. “There is not enough counselling targeted at internet use and the use of other digital technologies.”

The government, however, has finally taken notice. Established in 1993 as the National Drug Commission focusing solely on illegal drugs, the Czech Government Council for Drug Policy Coordination saw its competencies grow over the years to include alcohol, gambling and, more recently, digital addictions such as online gaming, gambling and social media.

“Digital addictions are now incorporated into the government’s overall strategy, especially in the field of prevention, and were for the first time included in our annual report on addictions last year,” Lucia Kissova, director of the Drug Policy Department, tells BIRN.

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Finding the addicts

Allowing us to get a general grasp of the scope of the problem, figures reveal that most Czech teenagers still exhibit relatively healthy behaviour online. But these results hinge on one crucial problem: the lack of consensus on what truly constitutes a digital addiction, especially when it comes to social media.

“The overall time spent on social media is not a crucial factor, even though high amounts of time can be a sign,” Badura tells BIRN. “Our measures only allow us to speak about ‘problematic social media use’, characterised by a lack of control over our digital behaviour when it interferes with our normal daily life. All so-called ‘problematic social media users’ are definitely not addicts in the medical sense.”

Stressing that, unlike gaming or gambling, there isn’t any official diagnosis for social media addiction in the DSM-5, Slussareff is also keen not to over-simplify or exaggerate the issue of a lack of proper data.

“Unlike other addictions, we cannot rely on a strong and complex set of visible symptoms when it comes to social media,” she says, adding that a seemingly similar use of social media can conceal vastly different approaches, from the most toxic ones to highly positive uses.

Conventional wisdom states that acknowledging one’s addiction is the first step to remission. But without any proper guidelines to do so, this could prove too difficult a task.

“It wouldn’t be wise to treat social media as a problem in itself. It can be ‘a good servant but a bad master’ and be used to enrich our lives,” Badura agrees, while highlighting the need to “build our knowledge around so-called digital wellbeing and ways to use social media wisely while not forgetting the risks associated with the virtual world.”

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Scattered help

While the Czech debate on social media’s influence on the young is still in its infancy, a lot more can be done in the educational field to promote digital wellbeing as “an indispensable competency for the 21st century”, according to Badura.

Various initiatives are already tackling the problem. In addition to the National Helpline for addiction launched in 2019, there are over 100 treatment programs throughout the country dealing with the overuse of digital technologies, though still mainly used for people struggling with online gambling issues.

Anyone seeking help or support can also turn to the website opatruj.se run by the Czech National Institute of Mental Health, use the online counselling offered by the Department of Addictology at the First Faculty of Medicine of Charles University, or fall back on the services of NGOs like Podane ruce.

Although the Czech government is clearly monitoring the potential threats posed by digital addictions, “we have neither the competency nor the money to implement truly nationwide preventive programs in this area,” the Drug Policy Department’s Kissova notes.

“And it’s unlikely we will,” she acknowledges, adding that even substance-based (drugs, alcohol, etc.) addiction prevention programs – commonly prioritised over non-substance addictions – still lack proper funding themselves.

Every year, however, 300 million koruna (about 12 million euros) are allocated from state coffers to support the work of over 200 NGOs and professional associations working in the field of addiction prevention and treatment, Kissova explains.

“It’s hard to identify how much actually goes to digital addictions, as none of these structures specialises solely on them, but instead focus on different target groups at the same time,” she says. “But these services do exist, especially in bigger cities like Prague and Brno.”

“Addiction clinics deal quite well with problems like gaming, but when it comes to social media, parents usually turn to school psychologists. They do their best but, for lack of proper knowledge and professional guidelines, they unfortunately don’t really know how to deal with it,” Slussareff explains.

I’m more and more surprised about how interested and aware young people are of the impact of technology on their lives.

– Michaela Slussareff, founder of the Slow Tech Institute

For lack of a proper budget, homogenised guidelines and in the absence of a national program, individual or NGO-led initiatives are there to pick up the batton.

Throughout the year, Slussareff also runs programs in schools with pupils and students from various ages to talk about these issues. “I’m more and more surprised about how interested and aware young people are of the impact of technology on their lives. We talk a lot about the psychological impact of social media, and about how their design and features can influence them,” she tells BIRN. “They really like to engage with us.”

“Each generation had a space where they met and communicated – playgrounds, shopping malls, etc.,” opines Skerle from Podane ruce. “Nowadays, this space is the online environment and communication can take place in essentially unlimited ways. It doesn’t make sense to just scare children, but to discuss with them what they watch on social networks, what they think about it, etc.”

In reaction to the omnipotent presence of social media in everyday lives, so-called “digital detox” has been gaining in popularity in recent years. But experts warn that complete avoidance can hardly be a lasting cure.

“We laugh today at the hysteria and debates surrounding the advent of television nearly a century ago. In the same way, 15 years from now we might be laughing at the question of whether these digital tools and platforms are dangerous for us,” Slussareff argues.

“We must simply remember not to lose ourselves on social media, and focus on what’s truly important in our lives instead of feeding ourselves this endless stream of information and entertainment. What we probably need more than anything, today, is to be more bored,” she says.

Source : Reporting Democracy