What Is Screen Addiction And How Can You Help Your Child?

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS

Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

What is screen addiction and does it really apply to your child?

It’s a big, scary question for parents, psychologists and young people alike. 

In this article I’m going to explore the signs of what is screen addiction.

As a counsellor and parent, I’ll offer some helpful tips on the best way to manage this part of your child’s life.

Screen Addiction In Children: Key Questions

Let’s consider….

  • How can we, as parents, meet the challenges of today’s digital world to ensure our kids’ screen use is safe, and that they are healthy and happy on and off screens?
  • How do we develop good parenting practices which are appropriate in a media-saturated world?
  • And how do we notice and assess whether our child’s relationship with screens is cause for concern?

What is Screen Addiction?

Screen time could be considered an addiction if it has a significant and negative impact on a child’s everyday life.

Screen time addiction might take the form of social media or video gaming on electronic devices, or “binge watching” Netflix (or other) series. It

a nine year old boy addicted to his screen looking at his phone

The issue is possibly better looked at as a ‘habit’ rather than an ‘addiction’. 

Teenagers are typically more empowered to change behaviours that are an unhealthy ‘habit’. An ‘addiction’ may feel like a bigger, insurmountable challenge to overcome.

Child Screen Addiction: A Closer Look

In the last ten years or so we have witnessed a global shift in the use of screen time for children’s educational learning.

Not to mention their increased need to stay connected socially, and our own screen time at work and at home increasing as parents. Spending many hours a day on screens has become normal.

Screen Time in Kids: Health and Wellbeing

The American Academy of Paediatrics has published a helpful policy statement including clear guidance.

This document highlights many worrying yet interesting statistics including:  

  1. Screen Time and Obesity: Adolescents watching over 5 hours of TV daily are nearly 5 times more likely to be overweight compared to those watching 0 to 2 hours.
  2. Media and Sleep: High social media use and sleeping with devices in the room are linked to significant sleep disturbances in young people.
  3. Online Safety: About 12% of youth aged 10 to 19 have sent sexually explicit photos.

Official Recommendations About Screen Time

The advice for the amount of screen time children should be allowed is under constant review but it is currently as follows.

  • Up to 6 months old. No screen time.
  • 6 months to 2 years old. Use screen time for interactive social play only with an adult or to video-chat with loved ones
  • 2-5 years old. No more than one hour per day
  • 6+ (school age). Ideally around 2 hours of screen time, but realistically, where time limit is set, parents should limit social media and gaming use. There can be adverse effects when sleeping, playing, conversation and physical activities are displaced by screen time.

I highly recommend reading Dr Katie MacPhee’s article about what is too much screen time and Dr Lucy Russell’s article about screen time boundaries.

Signs That Your Child is Addicted to Screens

The most obvious warning sign that your child is gaining a dependency on screen time, is a change in their behaviour.

Look at patterns of behavior, what do you notice that’s different? 

little boy watching ipad screen addiction

Worried about screen addiction in your child? As a first step ask yourself these questions:

  • Is my child healthy and eating well?
  • Do they sleep for the recommended amount of time?
  • Is my child able to manage social and face to face interactions?
  • Is my child engaged with school?
  • Does my child enjoy extra-curricular activities and have hobbies and interests that aren’t screen based?
  • Does my child benefit from using digital media for learning?
  • Are on-screen activities the only thing my child is interested in doing?
  • Does my child get angry or show defiance when requested to stop their screen activity?
  • Does my child have “real life” as well as online friendships?

Listen to how you feel. Does your gut tell you that your child’s health and wellbeing are affected by screen addiction, whether that is social media, YouTube or gaming?

Rather than focussing on how many hours your child is spending on screens, the critical questions to ask are: Is screen addiction detrimentally impacting, sleep, social skill development, play, conversations and physical activity? 

If the answer is ‘yes’ then it’s times to take a closer look and re-dress the balance.

teen boy screen addiction gaming

Screen Addiction Symptoms

Here’s what to look out for.

  • A loss of interest in other activities.
  • Avoidance behaviours – avoiding activities they used to really enjoy. Avoiding outings and declining invitations in preference to spending time on screen.
  • Reduction in healthy hygiene habits.
  • Noticeable loss or increase in appetite.
  • Weight gain or loss.
  • Preoccupation and disengagement from what’s going on around them.
  • Lack of response when you call their name, talk to them or ask them to help out.
  • Are they sneaking around to use screens?
  • Disengagement from school work or a significant change in grades or ability to cope with academic expectations.


Screen Addiction is Complex

A dependency on screen time can lead to some noticeable changes in your child. 

Patterns of addictive behaviour usually build up over time, often initially without the person realising that this is happening.

When someone is addicted to something, the source of their addiction becomes their absolute priority.

Daily life activities can become neglected and when the source of the addiction is cut off, negative, intense and emotional reactions can be triggered.

Gaming and Screen Addiction in Children

Gaming is a big feature in our modern world, lots of children absolutely love it, the competitiveness, the strategizing and connecting with other players.

It can bring a lot of benefits. But it can easily become all-consuming too and that’s not healthy.

Children have access to a wide range screen devices in the real world: cellphones, iPads, watches, computers, TVs and gaming consoles and this can lead to engaging in excessive screen time.

teen girl on electrnic device with headphones

According to the World Health Organization and many independent clinical scientists, human beings can be addicted to screens and it is becoming an increasing problem both for adults and children. 

It listed “Gaming disorder” in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases, in 2018.

  • Gaming disorder is characterized by impaired control over gaming, prioritizing gaming over other activities, and continuation of gaming despite negative consequences.
  • For a diagnosis, the behaviour must significantly impair personal, family, social, educational, or occupational functioning for at least 12 months.
  • It only a small proportion of gamers.

Social Media & Screen Addiction in Kids

Social media is designed to draw us in and keep us engaged.

It can also provide an escape from everyday life which can be highly addictive.

Hours can go by without the viewer being conscious of time.

Read my article about social media use in teens and how to support responsible social media use.

Below, we will talk about some strategies you can help your child to put in place to make them more aware and limit the “endless scroll”.

How is a Child’s Wellbeing Affected by Screen Addiction?

Low self-esteem, anxiety, stress and depression are risk factors for addictive behaviour (particularly in teens and young adults).

And it works both ways. Screen addiction is a risk factor for poor mental health.

Mental health professionals like myself will encourage you not to be overly alarmed.

It’s important to remember that an increased risk for addiction does not necessarily mean your child will become addicted.

However, below I will talk through what you can do as a parent of a screen addicted child.

little girl watching something on a cell phone

A child’s physical and mental health and well-being may be affected by screen addiction but it’s never too late to take action.

Here are some known effects that extensive exposure to unregulated screen time can have on children that parents should be aware of:

Physical Effects of Childhood Screen Addiction

Screen Addiction, Brain Function and Development

Screen use releases dopamine in the brain which can negatively affect impulse control and attention. Studies have been conducted which indicate that children who spend more than 2 hours per day on screens score lower on language and thinking tests.

Body Aches & Weight Changes

If children spend too much time in one position they might experience chronic body aches including their neck or spine, shoulders and limbs.

Repetition of digit and wrist/arm use may contribute to more long term problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Weight Changes

Some screen activities also combine movement (e.g. Wii fit, Xbox).

However, a young person is typically inactive when using screens and in a sedentary position for a lot of time, using up little energy. 

This displaces time that could be spent being more physically active. 

Being inactive can disrupt our normal appetite signalling and lead to passively eating more than the body requires.

Eye Function

Studies show that people blink significantly less often when concentrating on a digital screen, which can leave eyes dry and irritated.

Mental and Emotional Effects of Screen Addiciton

Sleep and Screen Addiction in Kids

Overuse of screen time (particularly on portable devices) can have an adverse effect on the quality and quantity of sleep a child gets and can sometimes cause insomnia.

When a child’s sleep is poor in quality, it can leave them feeling depleted, with low resilience and may affect mood and concentration.

Pleasure/Reward Cycle

Much like substance abuse, when exposed to something rewarding (in this instance, screen time) the brain responds by releasing an increased amount of dopamine.

This is known as the ‘feel-good’ hormone.

When your child gets this reward from the activity on screen, it’s a motivator to do it again and again.

They start to prioritise getting that “hit” of dopamine and this can come at the expense of other things like eating or sleeping. It can lead to exhaustion, irritability and a sense of loss of control.

Emotional Effects of Child Screen Addiction

As I have discussed above, screen addiction can lead to a lack of basic self-care, and the need for the dopamine hit can take over a child’s life.

At the same time, the young person may be well aware their life is not in balance.

Screen addiction can contribute directly to increased anxiety, depression, mood swings, and social isolation.

Social Skills and The Effect Screen Addiction Can Have

Social skills develop over a child’s lifetime. Younger children and school-aged children in particular, need to learn social skills and about relationships through a wide variety of human to human interactions. 

They are more likely to have poor social skills if their primary or most frequent way of interacting is through a screen.

How To Stop Screen Addiction: 10 Positive Steps to Take as a Parent

So, we’ve how to understand screen addiction in your child and its possible impacts.

Now we need to think about how we, as parents, proactively help our children to manage screen time in a healthier way.

  1. Prioritise your child’s safety when they are in front of screens.
  2. Instead of policing, controlling or monitoring your children’s media use, put yourself in the role of ‘media mentor’. By this I mean, be a role model. You can do this by monitoring and limiting your own screen time and making good choices about what you watch and for how long.
  3. Find ways to balance your child’s time in front of a screen with crucial aspects of a healthy lifestyle. Ensure they engage in some physical activity and have access to social contact. For example, you can negotiate that for every 1 hour in a screen, they will have one hour outside or engaging in a non screen-based activity.
  4. Set screen time limits. Designated ‘media free’ time. The AAP provides an interactive online tool to help create this. For social media I find that setting a timer on the phone is such a simple but powerful measure. Time can run away with us when we are scrolling, but if we set a 20 minute timer we are brought back into the present and we can make a conscious decision to stop or continue.
  5. Set parental controls. Ensure software/apps for parental control/boundaries are in place, but let your children know why this is necessary by engaging them in the conversation.
  6. Avoid screens at least one hour before bedtime. Bedrooms are for sleeping, so discourage recreational screen use in bedrooms as this can have a negative impact on the ability to get to sleep.
  7. Don’t just focus on the negative outcomes of your child using digital devices. There are lots of valuable and educational and social activities that children can participate in. Positive screen time should be encouraged.
  8. Get other family members on-side in helping to manage screen-time within the home.
  9. Protect family time. If sitting down together to eat is possible and important to you as a family, protect this time and insist that all devices are left aside.
  10. If your child is willing to include you, sit together for some on-screen activities, especially video-games and when deciding on which social media apps to use. This gives you the opportunity to teach what is appropriate and what to avoid.

Screen Addiction: Child Treatment And How To Access It

If you have tried to manage screen time with your child at home but still have concerns about their health and mental well-being, visit your doctor to talk about support options. 

If you are in the UK, they may refer your child to the child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) in your area. 

Wherever you live, therapeutic support may include specialist therapy sessions with a counsellor or clinical psychologist.

The UK charity UK-Rehab has some helpful resources about gaming addiction.

Screen Addiction in Children: Summary

Whether your child has a technology addiction or not isn’t simply answered by measuring their child’s screen time alone. 

The most important factor, is the relationship they have with it.

This needs observing and managing in the context of their own life. It’s hard work for you as a parent but it’s vital you can monitor your child’s relationship with screens, and put clear boundaries in place to support their health and wellbeing.

Related Articles

SMART Goals for Teens: Help your Teen to Happiness and Success

28 Brilliant Exam Confidence Motivational Quotes for Students

16 Best Family Wellbeing Activities for Teens

Is Attention Seeking Behaviour in Teens Normal?

10 Ways to Easily Motivate an Anxious Teen

12 Effective Ways to Handle Your Entitled Teenager

Powerful Anger Iceberg Worksheet For Children (Free Printable)

Hayley Vaughan-Smith is a Person-Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling & Psychotherapy Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.

Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care for four years.

Hayley is mum to 3 grown up girls, and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.

UK parents, looking for expert parenting advice?

Dr. Lucy Russell’s Everlief Parent Club offers a clear path towards a calmer, happier family life. This monthly membership includes exclusive workshops, direct support from child psychologists, and access to our private Facebook community.

Together, we can move towards a calm, happy family life and boost your child’s wellbeing. Become a member today!