Have you found yourself asking ‘What is screen addiction’ and does it apply to my child? Is it possible that our children are at risk of becoming ‘addicted’ to technology?
It’s a big, scary question for young people, parents and scientists alike. We tackle this and many other questions in this article. We explore the signs of what is screen addiction and offer some helpful tips on the best way to manage this part of your child’s life.
- How can we, as parents, meet the challenges of today’s digital world to ensure our kids screen use is safe, 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?
The Oxford dictionary definition of the term ‘addiction’ is “the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity”. Screen time addiction might take the form of social media or video gaming on electronic devices, or “binge watching” Netflix (or other) series. It could be considered an addiciton if it has a significant and negative impact on a child’s everyday life.
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.
What Constitutes ‘Too Much Screen Time’?
There have been many studies to find answers to this question, but the landscape is ever changing. We have recently witnessed a global shift in the use of screen time for children’s educational learning and their need to stay connect in addition to our own screen time at work and at home.
Official Recommendations About Screen Time
The American Academy of Paediatrics gives clear advice on the maximum amount of screen time children should be exposed to by age. The advice for the amount of screen time children should be allowed is under constant review. A recent study outlines the following guidelines.
- 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.
What is Screen Addiction: Signs to Look out For in Your Child
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? What repetitive behaviours does your child display? Is their behaviour very different to what you’re used to?
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/college?
- Does my child enjoy extra-curricular activities and have hobbies and interests that aren’t screen based?
- Does my child enjoy 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?
- Listen to how you feel – do you feel your child is spending too much time on social media, youtube videos, and video games for example?
Rather than focussing on ‘how many hours a child is spending on screens’, the critical questions to ask are, is it 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.
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 – 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 is a big feature in our modern world, lots of children absolutely love it, the competitiveness, the strategising and connecting with other players. Children have access to a wide range screen devices in the real world: cellphones, ipads, watches, computers, t/v’s and gaming consoles and this can lead to engaging in excessive screen time.
According to the World Health Organization and many independent clinical scientists, human beings can be addicted to screens. It listed “Gaming disorder” in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases, in 2018.
Studies suggest that gaming disorder affects only a small proportion of people who engage in digital or video-gaming activities. However, people who partake in gaming should be alert to the amount of time they spend on gaming activities, particularly when it is to the exclusion of other daily activities, as well as to any changes in their physical or psychological health and social functioning that could be attributed to their pattern of gaming behaviour.
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.
How is a Child’s Wellbeing Affected by Screen Addiction?
Sometimes low self-esteem, anxiety, stress and depression are risk factors for addictive behavior (particularly in young adults). Mental health professionals 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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
As explained 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 addicition can contribute directly to increased anxiety, depression, mood swings, and social isolation.
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.
10 Positive Steps to Take if Your Child Has a Screen Addiction
So, we’ve explored the question ‘what is screen addiction’ – now we need to think about how, we as parents, proactively help our children to manage screen time effectively.
- Prioritise your child’s safety when they are in front of screens.
- 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.
- 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.
- Set screen time limits. Designated ‘media free’ time. The AAP provides an interactive online tool to help create this.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Get other family members on-side in helping to manage screen-time within the home.
- 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.
- 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.
When to Seek Professional Help
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. They may refer your child to the child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) in your area. Therapeutic support may include therapy sessions with a counsellor or clinical psychologist.
The UK charity UK-Rehab has some helpful resources about gaming addiction.
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.
Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling 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 has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure 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.
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