Digital detox recommended for aggressive and hospitalized kids as parents unplug devices

In short:

The doctor said children have been ending up in emergency rooms after throwing tantrums when someone takes away their electronic devices.

Gaming disorder has been recognized as a problem by the World Health Organization, and psychologists say it can also lead to anxiety and depression.

What’s next?

Parents have been urged to address the problem by ensuring that children can enjoy the benefits of electronic devices – such as socialising and playing – in their real world.

Emergency departments are treating children who are “mentally impaired” after having their digital devices removed, with doctors warning parents of the risks of addiction.

Corne Esterhuysen, a senior doctor in Rockhampton for 16 years, now working at Rockhampton Hospital, said digital addiction was causing children to experience severe anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and ADHD symptoms.

“The effect is comparable to cocaine and heroin — that’s the effect it has on the brain,” Dr. Esterhuysen said.

“We see paramedics coming to homes and bringing in kids whose parents have just taken the chargers off their iPads, and they come in with a absent mind.”

Two men stand together and smile at the camera.

Dr. Corne Esterhuysen and author Brad Huddleston promote the benefits of digital detox.(ABC Capricornia: Jasmine Hines)

This is a problem recognized by the World Health Organization in the latest International Classification of Diseases (ICD), published in 2022.

Gaming disorder is defined as a “disturbance of control over gaming” in which gaming becomes more important than other activities and becomes increasingly more severe.

Dr. Esterhuysen said the frequency of such events in the emergency department has increased dramatically over the past few years.

“We can’t ask parents anymore. We’re begging them — disconnect them from the device,” he said.

Family tries digital detox

Central Queensland mother Erin Alcorn said her 13-year-old son’s behaviour became extremely concerning after he was given a school laptop.

“He would wake up at three or four (a.m.) and watch YouTube videos on his school laptop,” Ms. Alcorn said.

“There’s nothing worse than your child failing at school, failing socially, being completely withdrawn and saying they don’t want to live anymore.”


The Alcorn family decided to go on a month-long digital detox to curb their teenager’s bad behavior.

“We unplugged the TV (and) put it in the garage. We disconnected the home internet, removed all devices,” Ms. Alcorn said.

“At first (the children) rebelled, they were angry, and we were told we were the worst parents in the world.

“Once they realized it wasn’t coming back, they enjoyed quality time, board games in the evening, and over time we saw an improvement in their schoolwork.”

Parents can take action

Rockhampton-based clinical psychologist Helen Madell said that while children often give the impression that they are addicted to gaming and technology, this is not necessarily true.

“It may look like an addiction, but the difference is that they often do it for pleasure,” Ms Madell said.

“Children use technology to socialize, listen to music, explore their interests and shop.

“If parents want to get their kids off their devices, they need to move more of that pleasure offline.”

iPhone held in hand and pointed at the home screen.

Health authorities say digital addiction can cause serious anxiety and depression in children.(ABC Capricornia: Jasmine Hines)

A similar message was expressed by American author Brad Huddleston, who has researched the impact of screen time on behaviour and the brain and travelled to Queensland schools warning of the dangers of digital addiction.

“In my day we used to say, ‘We need to get kids on devices as early as possible because everything is going to go digital,’ and there’s some truth to that,” Mr Huddleston said.

“But then, a bit like smoking, the unintended consequences of cancer showed up after a few decades, and that’s exactly where we are with technology. In this case, it’s mental health issues.”

Ms Madell said she saw more children with increased anxiety and depression, as well as greater aggression, when their electronic devices were taken away.

“For young people, that’s where their peer group is right now,” she said.

“Parents need to understand why their children use the Internet and talk to them about why they use the Internet so they can feel less anxious about it.”

She admitted that digital detox has its benefits not only for children but also for parents.

“I think detox is not a bad thing because we know that devices are a huge distraction for people,” she said.

Heights College in Rockhampton principal Karen Bredenhann said she had seen students as early as Year 1 become aggressive when their electronic devices were taken away.

She supported calls for parents to try digital detox.

“There is definitely an increase in anxiety levels that can be related to the overuse of technology or uncontrolled use of technology late at night,” Ms Bredenhann said.

“We saw really aggressive students, even in second and first grade, because their phone was taken away when they had to come to school.”

Dr Esterhuysen called on parents to take action.

“If you love your children, I beg you, take them outside, get them away from electronic devices and you will see the difference,” he said.

Sign up for our local newsletter, delivered free every Friday