Screen addiction: When too much screen-time is never enough
‘Screen addiction’ is a term that we are seeing more and more often in the media, and has been used to denote various types of screen-related bad behaviours. With an estimated 94% of Australian teens, 67% of primary school-aged kids, and 36% of preschoolers owning a smartphone (RCHM, 2017), we are in a time of unprecedented technology use. While undoubtedly there are many benefits to smartphone technology (e.g. keeping in touch with family), we must also understand that as yet, we don’t have enough information to know whether this much access to tech is good or bad for our health and wellbeing. The technology is simply too new to know whether there may be long-term implications for child development in the era of the smartphone.
So what is screen addiction, I hear you ask? It’s when screen use becomes so compulsive that it leads to impaired daily functioning in terms of productivity, social relationships, physical health, or emotional well-being (Horwood & Anglim, 2018). That may mean that your or your kids screen use is interfering with work or school, having a negative impact on relationships, encouraging inactivity or less sleep, or generally making you feel sad or unhappy.
Is it really an addiction?
The first thing we should clear up is the term screen addiction. While many of the behaviours that are described as screen addition look a lot like other behavioural addictions, there are currently no clinical diagnostic criteria for a disorder called ‘screen addiction’. What that means is that we need to be aware that the term ‘addiction’ has a particular meaning, as well as implications for treatment approaches. That said, we may reach a point where problematic screen use does become a recognised behavioural addiction. In order to bypass the limitations of using the term addiction, we will call the types of behaviours we are describing as ‘problematic smartphone use’, or PSU. Although smartphones seem to be the main mobile device that kids are using, we extend the definition to tablets and other portable internet-enabled devices.
The term screen addiction has likely come about due to the addiction-like behaviours we see in both adults and kids with respect to their screens. There are three main behaviors that help identify addiction, 1) cravings, 2) tolerance, and 3) withdrawal. Cravings are things we all have from time to time. You may have a craving for chocolate or ice-cream, and you know how hard it is to resist those things if you are experiencing a craving for them! You may recognise some of these signs already. You may notice your child starts to become preoccupied with wanting to spend time on their screen, often at the expense of other activities, even ones they used to enjoy. Tolerance is when the amount something you need to achieve a ‘high’ starts to get bigger. Tolerance is typically thought of in terms of imbibement of substances (e.g. heroin), and is a common cause of drug overdose. It’s not hard to extend the notion of tolerance to screen use though. For example, where once you or your child may have been happy to spend 20 minutes on social media, gradually over time you have found that you, or your child, needs to spend more and more time on it to achieve the same sense of satisfaction or fulfillment. Finally, withdrawal is often associated with feelings such as agitation, anger, depression and other negative symptoms. In kids, you may notice a stark change in mood and behaviour when devices are taken away or switched off. Feelings associated with withdrawal are usually mitigated quickly if the desired object or substance is received. Hence, shortly after the experience of withdrawal, craving may start to emerge. A cycle forms that can be very hard to break. If you have ever tried to give up smoking, eat less unhealthy food, or drink less alcohol, you will know how hard it is to change your behaviour towards something you really enjoy.
What can I do?
If you feel like you don’t know where to start with managing your own or your kids screen time, don’t despair! First, you’re not alone. Many, many parents report not knowing how to manage their kids screen use, and often feel like they don’t have the time to keep on top of what their kids are doing on screens, or they feel they aren’t tech-savvy enough to manage it. A survey by the Royal Childrens Hospital Melbourne found that only 22% of parents rely on technology to manage technology (e.g. parental control software, smart routers). That means that about 80% of parents may be having daily arguments with their kids about turning off their screens, or not setting any restrictions on screen use at all. There are many ways to manage screen time, and importantly there are ways to do it without needing to have a daily argument or tug-of-war over screens with your kids. Click here for help for parents and some quick wins, or here for tips and tricks to help get your screen use under control.