Family health

9 signs of screen addiction in kids

Think your child might be addicted to watching YouTube videos or playing video games? It's possible. Here's what you should watch for.

9 signs of screen addiction in kids

Photo: iStockphoto

Almost every parent stresses about how many hours their kids log on their tablet, smartphone or TV each day. But according to a 2017 study, the amount of time a kid spends on a screen isn't actually as important as how dependent the kid is on the screen.

The dangers of too much screen time

Spending too much time in front of a screen has been linked to a lack of sleep, speech delays and poor social skills. But research out of the University of Michigan has found that the bigger issue "is whether screen use causes problems in other areas of life or has become an all-consuming activity," says the study's lead author Sarah Domoff, assistant professor of psychology at Central Michigan University. When this happens, it's considered screen addiction in kids.

The researchers developed a tool to measure screen addiction in kids ages four to 11. Classic signs of addiction include things like an inability to stop using the substance or when the use of that substance begins to interfere with your life and relationships. When it comes to kids and screens, the symptoms aren't all that different. Here are the red flags to watch for that suggest a screen addiction in kids.

 boy using smart phone in the living room AzmanJaka/ Getty Images

Your child can't control their screen use

The researchers call this "unsuccessful control," when kids have trouble stopping using devices. If you've tried to impose limits on screen time, but your kiddo just couldn't deal, this could be an issue. Your child may not even realize that they're spending so much time staring at screens.

After a while, the action of looking at a phone or other device becomes involuntary because the brain has formed a connection between the device and instantaneous, engaging content.

Brothers relaxing on sofa in living room at home The Good Brigade/ Getty Images


Loss of interest in other activities

If "tablet time" is the only thing that motivates your child (books, toys and sports don't get them nearly as excited), they might be too invested in screen use. This may not even seem obvious at first.

It could begin with something as little as your child saying they're bored when doing anything that doesn't involve a screen. They might also start cutting out other hobbies or interests just so they can game more or spend their time watching content creators.

Daughter operating a smartphone and mother worried Hakase_/ Getty Images

It preoccupies their thoughts

If, even when your kid isn't playing video games, he's talking about Minecraft, wondering what his favourite YouTuber will post next, or acting out scenes from Angry Birds, this could be a sign of addiction.

It's worth noting that children will often bond with each other over whatever is popular at the moment. For kids nowadays, games, YouTubers and big movie releases are going to dominate their social spheres. As a caregiver, it's up to you to determine whether it's at a healthy level.

Mother and daughter laying on a couch at home using a smartphone ljubaphoto/ Getty Images

It interferes with socializing

Devices can be great for encouraging socialization, thanks to online gaming and social media. However, it can also limit social interaction. Is your child bringing a phone to the dinner table? Sneaking peeks at his tablet while his grandmother tries to make conversation?

When screens interfere with family activities, they could be problematic. Some kids may even refuse to hang out with friends they've had for years just so they can put in a few more hours into their favorite game.

Low angle view of boy looking at digital tablet while lying with sisters using mobile phone on bed at home Maskot/ Getty Images


Screen use causes serious family problems

Have you had any blowout arguments incited by screen use? Or behavioral problems related to something they're watching? This could be a sign of an unhealthy relationship with screens. These outbursts are extremely common with any form of addiction.

If you tried to host an intervention for someone with a poor relationship with alcohol, they would likely become emotional. The same thing could happen to your children when trying to set screen time limits.

Little girl with curly hair sitting on sofa using smart phone at home mixetto/ Getty Images

Your kid shows signs of withdrawal

When it's time to turn off the TV for bedtime or put mobile devices away for screen-free family time and your kid gets frustrated, they may actually be experiencing withdrawal. Some of the more common signs of screen time withdrawal include:

  • Irritability
  • Changes in mood
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Headaches
  • Depression and anxiety

Remember, you're dealing with a very real addiction, and the brain is a complex organ. While some of these symptoms may seem extreme, that is the nature of addiction.

 brother and sister using smart phone on sofa. kohei_hara/ Getty Images

Their tolerance is increasing

If your child used to watch 30 minutes of YouTube after school each day, but now she's even watching it on a phone on the way home from school, her tolerance is on the rise. The internet constantly bombards us with quick, easy-to-consume content and algorithms designed to keep us glued to the screen.

Keep a watchful eye out on your kid's internet habits to stop any problems before they become worse.

brother and sister anandaBGD/ Getty Images


They're deceptive about it

If your kiddo is sneaking a tablet into bed at night or lying about how long they've been playing a video game, this is a red flag. You can try charging phones and other devices in another room at night to help limit their usage. Some parents even set limits on their children's internet usage so their devices literally can't connect after a certain time.

Additionally, the dishonesty warrants a major discussion about screens and the potential risk they pose.

Girl lying on bed at night and using a mobile phone Elva Etienne/ Getty Images

A screen is their mood booster

If your child comes home after a bad day at school and needs a TV show or game to make him feel better or offer an escape, researchers say it could be a sign of screen addiction.

The study doesn't specify how many of these warning signs your kid has to exhibit to have an addiction—or what to do if they do, in fact, appear to have an addiction. But if your kid checks off more than a few of these boxes, then it might be time to re-evaluate how screens are being used at home and to make an effort to wean your little ones off of screens before the dependency does damage.

Two teenage boys with gadgets on couch at home zeljkosantrac/ Getty Images
This article was originally published on May 01, 2020

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