By Patti Richards
On a typical Friday night in America, a family gathers at a local restaurant to eat before a movie, a game or as a treat after a long week. Work, sports practice, homework, clubs, meetings and networking pull the parents, brothers and sisters in many different directions. But when mom, dad and siblings sit down for dinner, it’s time to catch up, check in and unpack from all the busyness.
Or at least it was 20 years ago.
Now, instead of talking, those same family members sit down, pull out their devices and check email, news sources, social media and everything in between. The only eye contact between the kids and their parents happens while ordering drinks or food, and that is minimal. This constant need for electronic interaction may seem like an innocent diversion, but studies show more and more teens are becoming addicted to screen time.
A recent report issued by Common Sense Media found that 50 percent of all teens feel addicted to their mobile devices, and 59 percent of their parents agree that their children are addicted. There is also concern from both parents and children as to how mobile devices impact their daily lives. One-third of the families interviewed admitted to arguing about the subject on a regular basis.1 But more than regular arguing about the use of mobile devices is the danger and reality of screen addiction.
What Is Screen Addiction?
Screen addiction is a type of behavioral addiction. Like addiction to drugs or alcohol, behavioral addictions are motivated by the feelings that the behaviors produce. Behavioral addictions — excessive internet use, gambling, shopping, eating disorders — produce the same kind of brain response seen in substance addictions. Screen addiction stimulates the brain’s reward system, resulting in a release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. Although there is no foreign substance entering the body, the person becomes addicted to the feelings the behavior produces. Recent brain imaging research also shows that too much screen time affects the brain’s frontal cortex in exactly the same way as cocaine.2
Those who struggle with behavioral addictions need to repeat the activity over and over again to feel “normal” no matter how the behavior is adversely affecting their lives. Behavioral addictions also result in withdrawals when the activity is stopped. Withdrawal symptoms from a screen addiction can cause agitation, insomnia, extreme personality changes and irritability.3 In some cases, screen addictions can lead to clinical depression and even thoughts of suicide.
Pros and Cons of Screen Time
As society becomes increasingly digital, it’s difficult to know how much is too much when it comes to teens and screen time. Tablets for school work, cell phones, computer games, gaming systems and television all add up to teens and children spending the majority of their time connected to a device. But screen time isn’t all bad, and understanding the reasons behind the technology can help parents make informed choices about what devices and programs their kids use. Common Sense Media places the different types of uses into the following four categories:
- Passive consumption: watching TV, reading and listening to music
- Interactive consumption: playing games and browsing the internet
- Communication: video-chatting and using social media
- Content creation: using devices to make digital art or music4
Clearly, certain types of screen time are more productive and educational than others. But spending too many hours on social media sites, video chatting, browsing the internet, texting and certain types of gaming can lead to reduced face time with friends and family, self-image issues, the inability to interact well with others and bullying.5
New Screen Time Guidelines
Given the varying types of screen time and the reasons teens are more digitally engaged than ever before, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recently modified their screen time guidelines. Past limits were set based entirely on the age of a child and his or her stage of development. New guidelines are meant to empower parents to make healthy choices for their children and families.6 Along with developing a family media plan that considers the health, education and entertainment needs of each child and the family as a whole, the AAP created the following guidelines for setting screen limits for children and teens:
- Children younger than 18 months- Avoid use of screen media other than video chatting.
- Children 18 to 24 months- Parents of this age group who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
- Children ages 2 to 5 years- Limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
- Children and teens ages 6 and older- Place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
- Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
- Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.7
Finding Help for Addiction
If you suspect your teen is struggling with screen addiction or other behavioral addictions, the proper treatment can help. Through detox, diagnosis, psychotherapy and family therapy, your teen can return to a life free from the control of addiction.
1 “New Report Finds Teens Feel Addicted to Their Phones, Causing Tension at Home | Common Sense Media.” Common Sense Media: Ratings, reviews, and advice, Common Sense Media. May 3 2016.
2 Kardaras, Dr. Nicholas. “It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies.” New York Post, New York Post. August 29 2016.
3 Grant, Jon E. “What Is a Behavioral Addiction?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers. June 27, 2016.
4 “How much screen time is OK for my kid(s)?” Common Sense Media: Ratings, reviews, and advice, www.commonsensemedia.org. Accessed 23 Aug. 2017.
5 Dunckley, Victoria L. “Screentime and Arrested Social Development.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers. June 30, 2016.
6 Hill, David L. “Keeping Technology in Check: Mindful Technology Use DOs for Parents.” HealthyChildren.org. June 14, 2017.
7 “American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Childrens Media Use.” aap.org. October 21, 2016.