Is Too Much Screen Time Causing Kids To Become Digital “Zombies”?

Concerned about how much time your kid is spending with screens? Here's what you need to know about the risks of technology dependence.

September 1, 2017

In a way, modern parents have it easier than any generation of parents before them. Thanks to advancing technology, we can keep track of our kids, schedule our responsibilities, and even get our groceries delivered to our front doors.

At the same time, we have more to worry about than ever before. Thanks to the internet, just like most parents my age I have access to more information than any previous generation of parents—helpful things like the dangers my children could be exposed to or how I could totally screw up their childhood with one bad decision.

With just a few minutes spent on social media, I can learn about the risks of letting my child sleep on his belly, I can read the statistics on window blind–related injuries, and I can discover that screen time might be turning my kids into digital addicts.

I try not to get sucked into alarmist articles related to how I raise my kids. I don’t need anything more to worry about, to be perfectly honest. But when I read a recent New York Post article claiming that the amount of time our kids spend looking at screens is turning them into addicts, I couldn’t help but feel concerned.

We limit screen time in our home, but we definitely don’t avoid it altogether. If I need to get a few things done, I often fall back on a little screen time as a “digital babysitter.” My kids hang out with Daniel Tiger while I get dinner ready or catch up on email; it is one of the conveniences I employ to make my mom life a little simpler.

After I read this article, which likened screen dependence to a substance addiction, I couldn’t help but feel like I have made terrible mistakes exposing my kids to technology so early on and allowing them to use it so regularly.

At the same time, I found myself wondering if this article was extreme, blowing the dangers associated with screen use out of proportion. So I decided to do some research on my own.

Here’s what I found out.

The risks are real.

An article like this is written with a very specific purpose. With its shocking headline and bold claims, the publishers are trying their hardest to get more clicks from internet users. Although he acknowledges that the New York Post used a clickbait headline to grab readers’ attention, Dr. Adam Pletter, a licensed psychologist specializing in screen addiction in children, is clear that the risks associated with overexposure to devices are very real for today’s children.

“Kids are truly at risk for significant impairment due to the pull of electronic devices in their lives,” he says. “Screen-based activities feel good, releasing dopamine in very similar ways to many other addictive substances and [they] reward us in a compulsive loop.”

According to Pletter, children who use devices too frequently are at risk for experiencing a number of consequences. In general, the most common effects of screen addiction are being highly distractible, experiencing sleep deprivation, or becoming obsessed with thoughts of what they could be missing when they are not using a device.

Some children will begin to use devices compulsively, checking their phone excessively or posting above and beyond what is considered normal.

Screen use is now the norm in many public schools, and teachers see a wide range of consequences from this change. Jace Alphin, an art teacher at Reeds Spring Middle School in Branson, Missouri, tells HealthyWay he has mixed feelings about teaching in a school that provides laptops or tablets to each of their students.

“I don’t believe it is that aggressive of an addiction or a problem where I am teaching,” Alphin says. “However, I do think parents need to be aware of the issues it can cause. …Most students will respect the teacher enough to put away the device when asked even when they don’t want to (even if they pull it out as soon as the bell rings). On the flip side, there are those students who, with a sense of entitlement will not let go of their device.”

Addiction isn’t the right word…yet.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, is the go-to handbook for diagnosing mental illnesses, including all forms of addiction. At this time, screen addiction has not been added to this manual, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future.

Although the risks of overuse of devices are very concerning, calling it an addiction isn’t technically accurate. According to Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization “dedicated to helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology,” the truth is that psychologists are still working to agree on a definition of screen addiction.

Many experts believe that what parents are experiencing in their homes may not be addiction but instead is excessive use that can be expected in an age group known for struggling with self-regulation.

Others believe it is only a matter of time before current research allows for an official designation of screen addiction along with more revealing information about the relationships that both adults and children have with their screens.

“The symptoms of feeling uneasy or anxious when apart from the device (withdrawal) and requiring a higher involvement in the digital world to feel satisfied (tolerance) certainly sounds like an addiction profile,” Pletter notes.

The Symptoms That Should Alarm Parents

Whether it is an addiction or simply problematic behavior, we know that excessive use of screens can keep children from devoting time to the things in their life that matter most. It is important for parents to be on the lookout early on so they can address problematic screen use when it arises.

Pletter says that it is developmentally typical for children and teens to crave experiences that make them feel included and connected with the world around them, so becoming hooked on screens is a high risk when social media is so readily available.

At the most basic level, parents should be concerned when time with a screen becomes a replacement for other childhood experiences, according to Pletter. If your child or teen prefers to be online instead of being physically active, interacting with their peers or spending time outside in nature, this is a red flag that something is out of balance.

Aside from this, the symptoms of screen dependence can vary from child to child. Some children may become obsessed, ignoring the boundaries their parents have set for them, according to Common Sense Media.

Additionally, the way children think about sex and gender can be heavily influenced by the media they watch. Kids who are prone to rigid gender stereotyping or mimicking problematic behavior such as aggression may be consuming an excessive amount of media that reinforces these harmful ideas about what it means to be a man or woman in our society.

If your child is struggling to focus or irritable when they cannot watch screens, these are also symptoms that your child is a little too attached to their devices.

Avoiding Screen Addiction in Children of All Ages

When it comes down to it, kids of all ages struggle with self-regulation, and parents should see it as their responsibility to help them maintain a healthy relationship with their devices. Although many parents may choose to eliminate screens entirely for younger children, as they grow older a more balanced approach is what experts suggest. The best method, according to Pletter, is one that doesn’t just provide rigid rules but actually trains children to practice self-control.

“By [parents] having clear guidelines and limits and then mentoring their child to learn and practice better regulation skills, the child will be motivated to earn more digital access as he or she demonstrates more appropriate, controlled behavior,” he says. “Parents should use the tools available, such as [parental control device] Circle, to turn the internet or specific apps on remotely when the child demonstrates better control over their own screen usage, therefore encouraging and reinforcing better regulation and less ‘addiction.’”

Use of screens at school can leave some parents feeling discouraged, since they may not feel they have control over the choices their children make while they are apart. But many teachers are eager to work with parents to encourage healthy and appropriate screen use during school hours.

“It’s these kinds of situations, as far as the classroom goes, that takes the parent and teacher alike to control the technology addiction,” suggests Alphin. “Overall, I truly believe if parents and teachers both realize the potential problems that technology can bring early on in a child’s life, both can work together to make it less of an issue.”

Here’s what to do if your child is already hooked.

If you suspect your child is hooked on devices, you can take steps to help them create healthier boundaries with screens.

Beginning with a discussion about the new family guidelines for screen use is a good start, according to Pletter, who suggests that parents create very clear expectations that are realistic and easily enforced. Additionally parents should remain involved in their child’s online life, getting to know the apps and social media platforms their child is using so they can have regular discussions with their child about their digital life.

Once expectations are clear, parents can automate enforcement of the rules, which really makes it easier for both parents and children.

“I use Circle in my home,” shares Pletter, who is a child psychologist and identifies as a Digital Parenting Pioneer. “Circle is brilliant as it allows parents to easily regulate their child’s digital diet and even set time limits for apps.”

Having clear rules automated by a device like Circle, which controls internet use on all family devices through an app, doesn’t just make it easy to enforce the rules. It gives parents the chance to teach their child to learn how to self-regulate media use by slowly increasing screen time limits as the child begins to exhibit more appropriate use of their devices.

Of course, parents who are struggling to make changes to the way their children use technology should never be afraid to bring up their concerns with their pediatrician, who can connect them with a specialist if it seems the child (and family) needs extra support while learning to regulate their relationship with technology.