Quebec looks to combat huge rise in cyber addiction among youth

Quebec's junior health minister says there's been an alarming rise in the number of youth being treated for cyber addiction and now his government is looking for ways to pull the plug on the growing problem.

Health Ministry data shows 83 youth were treated for screen addiction in 2014, versus 467 last year

Early symptoms of dry eye syndrome are showing up in patients as young as 10 and that's just the start of issues caused by too much screen time among youth. (Kiichiro Sato/The Associated Press)

There's been an alarming rise in the number of Quebec youth being treated for cyber addiction and the provincial government will begin looking for ways to pull the plug on the problem, Quebec's junior health minister said Monday.

Cyber addiction among youth is usually related to social media and video games. Experts warn screen bingeing can lead to mental and physical health issues.

"Over the past five years, there's been an eight-fold increase in youth admitted for this reason," said junior Health Minister Lionel Carmant, citing data collected by his office.

The Health Ministry data shows 83 youth were treated for screen addiction in 2014, versus 467 over the last year.

"We need to look at what's happening," Carmant told CBC's Daybreak said. "Studies show 18 per cent of our kids are at risk of screen addiction."

That estimate, which equates to one youth in five, is from a 2017 study conducted by Dr. Magali Dufour, a UQAM professor who researches cyber addiction.

'Over the past five years, there's been an eight-fold increase in youth' being treated for screen addiction,' junior Health Minister Lionel Carmant said Monday. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

To address the issue, the Quebec government plans to host a forum on the topic, bringing officials, parents and experts together to explore screen dependance.

The forum will set the foundation for a new action plan, which Carmant said should be in place by 2020. Premier François Legault first announced the forum during a weekend meeting of his party's youth wing. 

Evaluating e-sport trend in schools

While developing its strategy to combat cyber addiction, the Quebec government will also be evaluating the effects of the new "e-sport" trend.

E-sports pit teams of video gamers against each other on various electronic platforms. It's growing in popularity around the world, and many Quebec schools have initiated programs in recent years.

Carmant said that trend underscores the need to have better resources in place to address screen dependance. 

"We need to have people in schools to teach our children about the effects of this potentially toxic dependence," he said.

"We need also to be able to identify who is at risk and we need to do a better job of treating the ones we identify."

Pause Your Screen campaign

An effort to reduce screen time, prevent addiction and get Quebec youth to spend more time outdoors has been in the works for some time.

Addiction expert Carolanne Campeau has been co-ordinating that effort — a provincially financed campaign called "Pause Your Screen."

Addiction expert Carolanne Campeau co-ordinates a provincially funded campaign aimed at raising awareness about screen addiction. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

Campeau said the forum, and the plans to develop a province-wide strategy, is good news. While there are benefits to screen-based technology, there can be negative consequences for people's physical and mental health, she said.

"If a person is spending a lot of time online, they won't necessarily be taking care of themselves," Campeau said.

Prevention should be initiated before habits become addictions, she said, recommending that young people be taught about screen usage, internet advertising and the importance of taking a break from computers.

"It's important to realize we need to be in control. Technology can take over and we have to set different limits," she said. 

"People are working on the other side of the screen to grab our attention and keep it for a very, very long time. Adults are aware of this, but kids aren't. Kids are more at risk. They are more vulnerable."

But Campeau also maintains there isn't enough research being done on screen addiction. She hopes the forum planned by the Quebec government will help fill that gap. 

Adults need to take that into consideration and set limits on screen-time at home.

The Pause Your Screen campaign's website provides advice on how parents can do just that: changing device settings, improving digital habits and setting screen-free time as a family.


Isaac Olson has been a Montreal-area journalist for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Isaac_J_Olson

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak


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