August 01, 2019
Mindfully balance your kid’s screen time, so it hovers on the healthy side of the spectrum.
Gaming for hours on end, texting into the night, the inability to hold a conversation without checking Instagram or TikTok. Is it normal teen behavior or cause for parental concern?
What is “normal,” anyway? What’s harmful? And where’s the line between more screen time than you’d like and so-called digital addiction?
What Is Digital Addiction?
The terms digital addiction or technology addiction have been buzzing around headlines in recent years. Examples include media addiction, smartphone addiction, Internet addiction, and online gaming addiction. They all refer to similar issues: regularly spending an unhealthy amount of time on devices, especially when you’re unable to stop.
Yet researchers and doctors are still grappling with whether these behaviors count as an actual disorder. Digital addiction isn’t in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the official guidebook recognized by most experts. But if technology disrupts your child’s life, it’s still cause for concern.
“I like to think our use of digital media operates, like most things, along a spectrum,” says Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
That spectrum ranges from healthy usage, which has its benefits, to compulsive, which can be problematic, to addiction. The final phase leaves kids feeling disengaged from other activities and unable to control themselves when it comes to their devices.
In fact, research shows that certain types of digital media—like video games or the notifications from social networking—release dopamine similar to online gambling or substance use. And adolescents and young adults have a higher chance of developing a digital addiction due to their age, access to media, and other risk factors.
The Impacts of Too Much Digital Media
Connecting with friends on social media, FaceTiming with out-of-state grandparents, and researching on Google are all healthy. But when your child falls down that digital rabbit hole—when a three-minute video turns into an hour that displaces playing outside, sleeping, doing homework, or bonding with family—parents are left with a much bigger problem on their hands.
Research has associated adverse effects with too much time on devices or Internet use, even when it might not be categorized as a behavioral addiction. For most parents, the biggest problem with digital addiction is that other activities fall by the wayside. When kids or teens neglect daily life or a good night’s sleep to give in to their cravings for online gaming, social media use, or other digital technology, it can be a problem.
The effects can extend to other areas as well. Internet addiction disorder has been associated with impulse control, social isolation, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms. It’s linked to mental health disorders including depression and anxiety. And it’s also correlated with poorer physical well-being, including weight gain and, in some cases, carpal tunnel syndrome.
So where do you draw the line between well-earned game playing time and a gaming disorder?
Where Do Your Kids Fall on the Spectrum?
How do parents know where our kids fall on that spectrum? Dr. Christakis suggests asking yourself these questions:
- How much time is your child spending on the device?
- If you set the recommended three hours a day of unplugged time outside of school hours, are they able to do it, or does it create anxiety, friction, stress, or agitation?
- Are you noticing that they prefer to spend time with their device rather than real people?
- Do you notice that their device intrudes on real-world situations?
If most of your answers to this short questionnaire are yes, you may want to talk to your child’s pediatrician.
Either way, don’t panic. Only a low percentage of kids likely fall into the addiction category. (Dr. Christakis estimates that digital addiction has a prevalence of somewhere between five and eight percent of kids and young adults.) Dr. Christakis recommends mindfully balancing your child’s screen time so it hovers on the healthy side of the spectrum.
What To Do When Digital Media Gets Out of Hand
You can work with a therapist if you strongly believe your child uses media compulsively. Psychiatry treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or family therapy can help.
But most kids aren’t in need of these professional interventions.
“As a pediatrician, I always like to think in terms of prevention,” says Dr. Christakis. “It’s so much easier to try and prevent compulsive media use, which can then lead to addiction, rather than try to treat it.”
First order of prevention: Come up with a media plan with set rules that works for your family, like no devices at the dinner table or screen time only on weekends. Need help? The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a handy and free tool to help you figure out a doable plan for your crew.
Second order: Monitor and set limits that help you stick to the plan. “That’s where I think that products like Circle really have the potential to add a lot of value, because it’s not easy to track how much time you spend on a particular site or on a particular app,” says Dr. Christakis. “In fact, most people tend to underestimate it because you don’t spend it in one sitting.”
How Much Should You Limit Kids’ Media?
There’s no right or wrong answer to how much you should oversee or limit your kids’ screen time. It’s a personal decision for every parent.
But if you’re looking to better understand how your kids spend their time online, Circle can help. Set healthy boundaries, limit or restrict sites or apps, set bedtime, and even Pause the Internet®.
Most parents today struggle with questions, concerns, and strategies about their kids’ media usage. You’re not alone. For more help, check out Want to Limit Online Distractions Like Games or Social Media.