The Complete Download on Screen Addiction

By Katie Harlow, LCSW – Intermountain Clinical Director

The truth is, screens play a part in shaping our children’s lives at home and at school, and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. While screens have benefits (access to greater global knowledge and educational resources being shared in real-time, just to name a few) they, like all other aspects of life, should be used in moderation.

Behavioral Addiction vs Substance Addiction

  Some may have heard, and even used, the phrase “screen addiction.” For those who haven’t, this phrase has been used to identify a rapidly growing phenomenon observable among all populations but highly noticeable in young adults, teens, tweens, and children.
  According to studies from the nonprofit group Common Sense Media, our
children average the following screen times by age per day:
  • (13-19 years) average roughly 9 hours
  • (10-12 years) average roughly 6 hours
  • (0 to 8 years) average roughly 2.5 hours
  Does this mean a teen spending nearly a third of their day, or a tween spending nearly a fourth of their day in front of a screen is addicted? Not necessarily.
  To understand why use does not equate addiction, it is important to understand the difference between behavioral addiction and physical addiction. Behavioral addiction such as “screen addiction” is similar to physical addiction such as to alcohol, meth, or heroin, except that when it comes to behavior, the addiction is to the feeling the user gets from interaction rather than physical need. Even though “screen addiction” is not physical, the lack of screen interaction can cause similar reactions of intense emotional and negative behavioral responses when the screen is absent or taken away. This is because the same is true for all addiction – the source of the addiction becomes the greatest priority. This priority can be greater than life needs such as sleeping, eating, bathing, and interpersonal interaction.
  NOTE: Age can determine the capacity for addiction. For children under the age of 12, behavioral addictions do not necessarily occur due to a lack of what is needed for an addiction to exist – mainly a high capacity for self-reflection and self-regulation (self-determined change of behavior). This is why a negative reaction, such as having a meltdown, in response to the loss of screen time would not typically be seen as addiction in children under the age of 12.
  However, if a child under the age of 12 demonstrates self-reflection and the ability to self-regulate, behavioral addictions can occur.

How to Identify Screen Addiction

  Before we dive into the identification of, and if needed, “screen addiction” correction, think about your children for a second and see if the following nine statements describe them:
  • It is hard for my child to stop using screen media.
  • Screen media is the only thing that seems to motivate my child.
  • Screen media is all that my child seems to think about.
  • My child’s screen media use interferes with family activities.
  • My child’s screen media use causes problems for the family.
  • My child becomes frustrated when he/she cannot use screen media.
  • The amount of time my child wants to use screen media keeps increasing.
  • My child sneaks using screen media.
  • When my child has had a bad day, screen media seems to be the only thing that helps them feel better.
  After Sarah E. Domoff of Central Michigan University and a team of researchers studied parents, their children, and issues surrounding screen use, they developed the Problematic Media Use Measure (PMUM) and the Problematic Media Use Measure Short Form (PMUM SF). The above statements are from the PMUM SF. If these statements resonated in your child’s behavior, they may struggle with some degree of screen addiction.

Tips to Overcome Screen Addiction and Prevent It

  The new Canadian Paediatric Society has published 2019 guidelines for promoting healthy screen use in school-aged children and adolescents. Here are six of their recommendations to address and improve your child’s relationship with their screen:
1. Lead with Empathy
  Communicating with your child about sensitive issues is best done when they know you are firmly on their side and only have their best interest in mind. This means, approaching the topic of screen media with understanding and empathy will set all conversation up for success.
  • Acknowledge how you understand screen media can be fun (share positive ways you use your screen media).
  • Acknowledge how screen media is a part of socializing and connecting with their peers (show them how you positively use screen media to connect with your friends).
  • Let them know your interest in their screen time comes from a place of wanting them to develop in a healthy and positive way.
2. Set Screen-time Limits:
  Here are suggested screen times by age:
  • No screen time for children younger than 2 years (except for video-calling with friends and family).
  • Less than 1 hour per day of routine or regular screen time for children 2 to 5 years old.
  • For children 5 and older screen time should be monitored and balanced with other activities (media time at school and in childcare is addressed below).
  • Avoid all screens for at least 1 hour before bedtime.
3. Develop a Family Media Plan
  • Each family media plan will be unique but should include the following:
  • Individualized time and content limits.
  • Utilization of parental controls and privacy settings.
  • Co-viewing and talking about content with your children to discourage the use of multiple devices at the same time.
  • Obtain all passwords and log-in information for their devices.
  • Discuss appropriate online behaviors.
4. Encourage Meaningful Screen Time
  • As stated earlier, you should communicate how screen time can be fun. You can also show them how screen time can be beneficial.
  • Work with your children to choose age-appropriate content and recognize problematic content or behaviors together.
  • Become part of your children’s media lives (work with their schools and child-care to help them consider developing their own plans screen use).
  • Usher your children toward educational apps (reading, puzzles, reasoning games) rather than apps that promote activities involving violent games, excessive social media engagement, or selfie-driven interactions.
5. Be a Strong Example
  • Remember, your children look to you for guidance. Changing your screen behavior will be a good way to direct theirs.
  • Review your own media habits and plan time for alternative play and activities.
  • Encourage daily “screen-free” times for the whole family.
  • Turn off your screens when they aren’t in use (this includes TVs).
  •  Avoid your screen at least 1 hour before bedtime.
6. Monitor for Signs of Problematic Use (Prevention) Signs include:
  • Complaints about boredom and sadness in the absence of screen media.
  • Excessive talk about online experiences.
  • Use that interferes with sleep, school, personal interactions, offline play, and physical activity.
  • Emotional outbursts around the removal of screen media.

Screens are here to stay. Finding ways to help your child(ren) understand how to use these tools in moderation will not only help them interact with technology in a healthy way, it may also encourage greater family connection.

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