Does your child have a digital addiction?

How psychologists identify the problem and how to prevent this unhealthy habit

Technology is everywhere and it has become a fundamental part of how we work, communicate, and play. Children grow up with it. They are digital natives. It’s now normal to see a child as young as two years old using their parents’ phone to scroll through photos and play videos.

Skype with grandma is great, but all this technology, if not used correctly, can become a problem. More and more, I see children with serious addictions to new technologies and their parents who feel helpless at handling the situation.

How do you know when normal digital use becomes excessive?

As a psychologist, I define excessive as when you notice that a child has become depressed, irritable, anxious, or angry whenever they can’t be online. They are unable to control the amount of time they are connected and they start to let other tasks or obligations slide.

This is also the point when you as a parent probably start to feel frustrated because you are increasingly having arguments with your child. Your home might start to feel more like a battlefield. Fortunately, with a bit of patience and planning, and with the help of technology itself, there are ways to find peace and balance.

Guidelines to help children use their mobile devices responsibly:

1. First, it’s vital to remember that cell phones are not the enemy. The problem is not technology itself but rather its content and how it is used.

2. Remember children always want what they can’t have. The more we forbid a child from doing something they see others enjoying, the more they want it. And when they finally get it, they are more likely to get hooked. Completely banning technology does not work at all because our children are constantly going to be asked to go online for their studies, to keep in touch with their peers, etc. Besides, learning to live without technology is not realistic. By imposing a total ban on something, we prevent our children from learning to establish a good relationship with it, which usually creates bigger problems over the long term.

3. It’s vital to set rules and limits so children can learn to control their own actions. This is true for all areas of their lives. For example, the family must control and limit how much time they spend online, as well as the kind of pages they visit. If we don’t let children run around outside alone when they are small, then we shouldn’t let them surf the internet unsupervised either. Children need rules and limits. Even though they might not want to accept them at first, in the end it gives them assurance and confidence. Parents need to set those limits to be responsible but also to have greater peace of mind that their children are not seeing anything inappropriate.

4. Set rules in a more positive and digestible way. It’s a good idea to set small goals or targets for the amount of time they can use each device. For example, allow smaller children 30 minutes a day, and then, based on good behavior and age, increase the limit to a maximum of 1 hour per day.

5. Come to an agreement together with your child about where and how they can use technology. For example, the device may only be used during certain time periods to consult information for homework. Chatting with friends online is only allowed in the living room. And, no mobile phones are allowed at the table during mealtimes. Set these rules together and you’ll be surprised how much more willing your children are to abide by them.

Fortunately technology is also our ally in all of this. Parental control software can help you take care of setting limits and blocking unwanted sites. But it should not replace face-to-face open conversations with your children. 

Finally, like any addiction that becomes too hard to break, don’t hesitate to get professional help for your child. In the end, you will be able to find the balance that works for your child and the whole family. Bye bye battlefield.

Maria Guerrero Moya
Maria Guerrero, LPC, is a licensed psychologist with over 20 years of experience helping children, couples, and families. She is also the proud mother of two.
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