Internet addiction disorder, video game addiction, at-risk/problematic internet use, pathological technology use. Whatever you call it, here’s how to know if your child is really a digital addict and what to do about it.
Technology is a part of almost every aspect of a child’s life in today’s digital world and it provides many important benefits. Just like anything that has the potential to make our lives better, however, it can also have a negative side. When children begin to shift from using technology to being dependent on it, that falls in the category of addictive behavior.
While many parents joke about their children being “screen obsessed” or “addicted to devices,” the reality is that digital addiction does exist. Addictive behavior around digital devices and media can be a serious problem for some children. Unlike substance use disorder or other clinically diagnosed conditions, addiction to digital devices and media is not yet a formally-recognized diagnosis. However, in 2013 the American Psychiatric Association did recognize “Internet Gaming Disorder” as a condition recommended for further research in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) used by psychologists and psychiatrists to diagnose mental health conditions.
Many studies have been done in recent years on addictive behavior, technology and children. The terms used for this issue include “internet addiction disorder,” “video game addiction,” “at-risk/problematic internet use,” “pathological technology use”. The crux of the issue is a pattern of device use that interferes with other important activities in one or more areas of the child’s life, and causes emotional distress. Physicians, psychologists, educators, and other professionals have been calling for more awareness around the issue of screen addiction, and the need to help children and teens develop healthy device habits that allow for tech use without it taking over the person’s life.
It is important for parents to understand that excessive device use leads to changes in a child’s brain that can negatively impact all areas of their life. Research has also shown that addictive behavior with devices can lead to serious sleep problems, which are even more problematic for children. And as any parent dealing with their child’s problematic device behavior knows, these issues impact family relationships as well.
How do you know if your child’s relationship with technology is heading into addiction territory?
- Excessive amount of time on devices – Spending an unhealthy amount of time on digital devices and media is a problem for many kids, and by itself doesn’t indicate addiction. However, the following time-related behaviors may indicate addictive behavior: spending almost all of their waking hours on devices; lying about use or sneaking additional time whenever possible; staying on devices during the night; breaking rules to get more time with electronics.
- Reduced interest in other activities – Children should have a range of interests and activities they engage in. If your child has stopped engaging in non-screen time activities, and always chooses digital devices and media over other activity options, this is concerning. This is especially the case if they are avoiding activities with other people, losing sleep, or skipping meals to use tech.
- Concerning behavior when unable to access devices – While most children exhibit some level of frustration or negative response when told to stop device use, this can be excessive for some children. If your child engages in lengthy tantrums, aggressive behavior, or verbal threats when device use is restricted, this is problematic.
- Unable to focus on other things – A child who is constantly thinking and talking about devices, gaming, or other digital media may be experiencing some level of addiction. If it is difficult to shift them to other topics in conversation, or they struggle to maintain mental focus on other activities, this is an issue that needs to be addressed. This can also show up as a constant preoccupation with checking social media accounts
- Experiences withdrawal symptoms – If your child becomes significantly irritable, anxious, depressed, or distressed when separated from technology, that indicates a problem. Notice if they seem to bounce back right away upon being reunited with their devices or media. If so, this indicates an addictive cycle of behavior.
Don’t lose hope
If any of the above symptoms are present for your child, don’t lose hope! There are many things that can be done to support a child in overcoming unhealthy device-related behaviors. In fact, research has shown that parent intervention and control has a very positive impact on reducing addictive device behavior in children and teens. Below are some of the things I recommend to families fighting digital addiction at my clinic.
Recommendations to help families fight digital addiction:
- Communicate – Clear and consistent communication is key to addressing addictive device behavior with children. Share your observations and concerns, and why you feel it is a problem. Children don’t have to agree, but it is important for them to hear how their behavior is impacting themselves and others. Ongoing communication about concerns and improvements is also important, along with talking regularly about rules, restrictions, and what seems to be helpful or not.
- Gradually reduce device time – If your child is exhibiting addictive device-related behavior, dramatically reducing or eliminating screen time is often not the safest or most effective strategy. This is especially the case if the child has a tendency to become aggressive towards themselves, others, or property. It often works best to slowly reduce exposure over time, and to include them in the development of a weaning plan when appropriate.
- Prioritize other activities – Focus on providing other activities and making a plan for non-device ways your child can use time during the day. This could include a list of chores or other tasks, a menu of leisure activities, or even inviting them regularly to do things with you. Most children initially benefit from more structure and adult support when finding other ways to spend their time.
- Content limits – It is critical to set limits on the kinds of content your child can access online in order to help ensure safety as well as reduce the likelihood of developing addiction to things like online pornography. Content restrictions should be in place for all children according to their age. However, children with addictive device patterns may benefit from controls on the types of content they tend to addictively consume. Qustodio is the parent control solution I use and recommend for families.
- Professional support – While there are many steps families can take to address these issues on their own, sometimes professional support is helpful or necessary. It is becoming more common for mental health professionals and general healthcare practitioners to see and address technology addiction issues in children and teens. If you and your child are struggling to get a handle on the issue, reach out to local professionals to find out how they can support you in this area.
It's never too late
If you recognize that your child is struggling with addictive behavior with technology, now is the time to take action. It’s never too late to make changes that support healthier device habits and digital wellbeing. The focus you place on this issue now will not only benefit your child and family now, but into the future as well.
- Internet Gaming (American Psychiatric Association)
- DSM-5 FAQ (American Psychiatric Association)
- View of Screen Dependency Disorders: a new challenge for child neurology (JINCA - Journal of the International Child Neurology Association)
- Internet addiction and sleep problems: A systematic review and meta-analysis (Sleep Medicine Reviews)
- Adolescent internet addiction – role of parental control and adolescent behaviours (International Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine)
Further reading on online safety and digital wellbeing:
- Does your child have a digital addiction? (Maria Guerrero)
- Screen Time - How Much Is Too Much? (Dr. Nicole Beurkens)
- Is Heavy Screen Time Rewiring How Your Children Think and Learn? (Dr. Nicole Beurkens)
- Apps and digital natives: the new normal (Qustodio Report)
- What’s the best way to ask your child to disconnect from screens? (Maria Guerrero)