We live in a digital world. Laptops. Tablets. Smartphones. Smart TVs. There are so many devices that occupy our kids’ attention. Controlling screen time is an ever-present task for parents, but it can be tricky because screens are literally everywhere. The challenge is this: technology isn’t going anywhere. And I’m not even suggesting that it should. But with so many screen-obsessed young people glued to their devices, parents can’t help but wonder . . .
Is my child addicted?
The answer is, not likely. The term “addiction” has a very specific definition in the world of psychology. Being addicted to something means that there is a chemical change in the brain that leads you to require more and more of that thing in order to be able to function. For example, your child’s social media usage or gaming would have to trump all other activities—schoolwork, engaging in sports, hanging out with friends—to qualify.
Additionally, technology use is not the same as drug or alcohol addiction since devices serve an important role in our kids’ lives. Technology is now required for schoolwork and to stay connected, particularly during a global pandemic.
So, what appears to be screen-obsession can also be a reflection of how today’s tweens and teens socialize and maintain peer connection. While parents are correct to be concerned (and maybe even disturbed) about the increasing use of technology among children and teens, most experts in the psychiatric community do not describe what most parents are seeing as an addiction. That, of course, could change.
However, I’d like to pose a different, but equally important, question.
Can too much screen time negatively affect our kids and teens?
The simple answer is yes. I’m guessing you aren’t surprised by that. But many “time-poor” parents are often at a loss as to what to do to help.
While the term “technology addiction” is still under debate, here are some signs your child may be overly preoccupied with or developing an unhealthy relationship with technology:
- They are unable to entertain themselves without tech devices.
- They throw huge meltdowns when you ask them to disengage with their devices.
- They begin to prefer spending more time indoors with devices than outdoors playing with peers.
When thinking about our kids and technology, it might be more helpful to think of it in terms of cost and benefits. We all know the benefits of technology.
But here are some costs:
Screen time can make kids more aggressive.
Have you ever said to your child, “Okay, buddy, time to put the tablet up and come to dinner,” only to be met with a massive meltdown where your child nearly hurls the tablet at you? For me, I notice a distinct shift in mood when my boys spend more than an hour on their tablets. It becomes much more difficult for them to transition to dinner, or bed, or really any other activity. While every child is unique, some studies show that screen time can actually increase levels of aggression. If your kids emotionally struggle with putting down their device, this can be an indication of an unhealthy relationship with technology.
Screen time can make kids more sad.
Regular exposure to screens can hinder a child’s emotional processing and decision-making abilities and negatively impact their ability to sustain focus and attention. Our brains are wired to engage in activities that are stimulating. Experts believe that dopamine, the feel good hormone, plays a role in technology use. It’s less taxing on the brian to check Instagram likes or the latest TikTok video than engage in activities that require mental focus like algebra. Some studies point to a correlation between excessive social media use and declining mental health. For teen girls in particular, constant social comparison along with feedback-seeking behaviors have been associated with depression and anxiety.
Screen time can impact kids’ sleep.
Early childhood is a time of rapid brain development. Excessive screen time can not only be damaging to a child’s sense of self-worth, but also to their sleep. There have been studies that show that the blue light that gets emitted from the screen of our mobile devices can be very harmful and contributes to poor sleep and even insomnia. Just two hours on your device before bedtime can suppress the hormone that makes us feel sleepy called melatonin. Screen time can zap our kids’ and teens’ energy and cause a chronic disruption of our body’s sleep-wake cycle, also called our circadian rhythm. This disruption can affect our sleep and mood. We all know what happens when our kids (or us) don’t get enough rest.
Screen time means less time outside.
Apps, social media, and video games are specifically designed to keep us engaged for long periods of time. And an over-consumption of screens means less time outdoors. When kids interact with nature, it lowers stress, decreases aggression, and helps with concentration and focus. Experts say that screen time does the opposite of what nature does. While taking a walk in nature calms and relaxes us, too much screen time can amp us up. Excessive amounts of time spent on gadgets is time our kids are not spending exploring the world and engaging with other humans. Some studies show that teens who use text messaging as their primary means of communication eventually demonstrate poor face-to-face communication skills. In other words, it’s about opportunity cost. Attention to technology pulls kids and teens away from other activities that are more developmentally meaningful—such as socializing with peers in-person and exploring personal interests.
What can you do to help your family stay healthy?
If your child or teen is experiencing any of these things, it may be time to re-evaluate screen usage. The key is to set appropriate boundaries.
Here are some recommendations that I often share with parents:
- Avoid offering up a device when your child says they are bored. Rather, help her come up other fun activities (e.g., crafting, puzzling, making a card for a sick friend) that can benefit her or someone else,
- Insist on device-free play dates. Instead, encourage your kids to explore the park, the zoo, or ride their bikes or scooters.
- Ask your tween and teen to invite you into their social media world. Watch their feeds and learn more about what the accounts they follow.
- Enforce screen time rules for the entire family. Have a rule that all family members power down or put away all screens at least one to two hours before bed.
- Monitor what your kids are viewing. Help them understand that what they see on video games or on social media isn’t always true or real.
- Technology has many benefits. Help your child to follow accounts and use apps that improve their well-being. For example, Presently: A Gratitude Journal is an app that prompts users to write about what they are grateful for each day.
- Model healthy screen habits. Adults getting swept up in the social media age can lead to tuned-out and distracted parenting. Try and take a social media detox for yourself and encourage your kid or teen to do the same.
It’s important to note that what some parents perceive as an “addiction” is behavior that is hiding mental health issues such as social anxiety, despair, or depression. If you notice mood shifts that result from excessive social media or video game use or if you think your child may be struggling with a mental health condition, please call your pediatrician or schedule an appointment with a mental health therapist.