7 Tips for Parents

Recognizing and Overcoming Technology Addiction in Kids and Teens


COVID-19 and Increased Reliance on Technology

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic upended so many of our normal, day-to-day activities: our workspaces, our commutes, how we socialized, how we attended school, how we shopped for groceries and other essentials (just to name a few!) were all adjusted to slow the spread of the virus. For some, these changes brought silver linings, such as reducing the time spent commuting and increasing the access to therapy through teletherapy appointments. For school-age kids, however, the loss of normal school, recreational, and extracurricular activities, as well as opportunities to socialize with friends was significant. Most were asked to start spending hours at a time at the computer to meet for classes and other activities, while texting, FaceTime, social media, and online gaming became the best way to stay in touch with friends. For many families, normal “screen time” rules were tossed aside to accommodate for the unusual circumstances.

Almost a year and a half later, many families are noticing that their kids and teens are glued to their phones, tablets, and computers more than ever. Social gatherings that were once in person have migrated to group chats and online games, and many kids express a preference for staying home on their devices over attending camps or even dates with friends. With this increase in screen time very often comes an increase in mood symptoms among kids and teens, including anxiety and depression.

A Few Tips and Tricks to Remember:

1. Excessive screen time is highly addictive.

Screen time triggers the release of dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter that activates the brain’s reward system. As with most feel good activities, over time, we seek more and more to achieve that same good feeling. This makes the implementation of healthy boundaries around screen time very important.

2. Excessive screen time is linked to depression and anxiety.

A 2018 study found that kids and teens who spent seven or more hours a day on screens were more than two times as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression than adolescents with more moderate screen use habits (Twenge and Campbell, 2018). In addition, the study found that those with frequent screen time demonstrated less curiosity, self-control, and emotional stability. The authors noted that their results “show a negative association between screen time and psychological well-being among children and adolescents. Across a diverse array of well-being measures, including measures of self-control, relationships with caregivers, emotional stability, diagnoses of anxiety and depression, and mental health treatment, psychological well-being was progressively lower from 1 h a day of screen time to 7 or more hours a day of screen time, particularly among adolescents” (p. 281).

3. There are a few tell tale signs of screen addiction.

Research out of the University of Michigan identified 9 signs of screen media addiction, including difficulty stopping, loss of interest in other activities, and withdrawal (click the link above to see the rest of the list).

4. Avoidance leads to more avoidance.

Many kids and teens use screen time to avoid unpleasant activities, or even pleasant ones that are unfamiliar to them (such as a summer camp or meeting new people). It is important to note that avoidance of activities that challenge us to try something new or a little scary quickly leads to move avoidance: it feels good to stay home when we’re anxious, and given the option, an anxious or depressed child will seek more and more time at home. It can be tempting for parents to give in to these wishes rather than drag an unwilling kid or teen to an activity they have no interest in, but it is very important to encourage kids to engage and try new activities, providing appropriate support while setting boundaries.

5. Boredom is a good thing!

Many parents express worries about their kids feeling bored and often resort to TV and screen time to fill the time. Boredom helps children learn to adapt to less than ideal circumstances (e.g., where the entertainment isn’t provided), helps encourage and teach flexibility, organization, and problem solving, and fosters creativity (The Child Mind Institute, 2018). When kids aren’t able to turn to screen time during unstructured time, they engage their minds to be creative.

6. Work with your child to come up with an appropriate plan for screen use, and stick to it.

It is helpful to work with your child to discuss a plan for screen time use. It’s important to hear from them about the ways they would like to be able to use their screen time usefully, such as for homework assignments, connecting with friends, or taking some time to decompress after school. By opening up a conversation, together you can discuss the importance of allowing some screen time while also setting reasonable limits to keep them healthy and safe.

7. Set limits, and stick to them!

Once you’ve established your ground rules and expectations around screen time, write them down together and keep the rules posted somewhere central for reference as needed. It can be a challenge to stay on top of how much time kids are spending online, but helpful apps can assist with setting limits on time and content.

There are many options for monitoring screen use, blocking age-inappropriate sites and making off-hours for your children on your home WiFi network including apps and routers with parental control features built in. Google Families is a great start for those who use Chrome, Chrome Books and Gmail. But a little research will help you find what works best for your family on all of your devices. Follow-through is the key. Once you implement a system, don’t give up!

Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2018). Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Preventive medicine reports, 12, 271-283.

Author, Dr. Devlin Jackson, is a 1A Wellness Psychologist who specializes in working with kids and teens.


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Note on Health Insurance

1A Wellness is a self-pay out-of-network practice. As such, we do not accept health insurance. But if your healthcare plan includes an out-of-network option, partial reimbursement may be available. See our FAQ section for more information.