Children of all ages have access to screen time, whether it’s watching Saturday morning cartoons, Facetiming with relatives, or using social media to talk to their friends. It’s becoming more important than ever to help your children develop healthy screen time management habits and monitor them for red flags that might indicate that they are addicted to technology.
So, we asked 6 experts to share screen time addiction warning signs and screen time management tips for parents.
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1. Kids who lack solid screen time management skills compulsively check their phones
GinaMarie Guarino, Licensed Mental Health Counselor
Screen addiction is a condition that is rising among children and teens in the United States and around the world. With the growth and development of technology, children are becoming addicted to screens and the internet. Nowadays, it is perfectly normal to do at least half of your socializing on a phone, computer, or TV screen. Kids engage with people, games, and social media constantly throughout the day, and are exposed to advertisements that encourage more and more screen time. Parents should be aware of the warning signs that their kids are suffering from unhealthy screen time management.
If your child does not socialize or have interest in face-to-face interaction with friends and siblings, and insists on constantly being on their phone or computer, they are at risk of suffering from screen addiction. If they constantly have their phones out and are disinterested or disengaged with what is going on around them, then they are likely suffering from screen addiction. Kids who suffer from screen addiction will compulsively check their phones and social media accounts. They will feel anxious and possibly distressed if they are not getting instant gratification from social media or games. They will struggle to socialize in real life and will seem lost and agitated if their screen privileges are revoked.
One of the best ways to help your child develop healthy screen time management habits is to minimize their access to screens. Taking away or limiting interaction with any sort of screen from the beginning will prevent your child from becoming dependent or reliant on screen time. If you are beginning to see the warning signs, take immediate steps to reduce their exposure to screens, and redirect their attention to productive after school and social activities.
It can also be helpful to have a conversation with your child about social media safety, and closely monitor their behavior during screen time. No child or preteen should have social media. Having access to social media too young not only puts your child in danger of falling victim to online predators and cyber bullies, but it prevents them from learning critical social skills. Limiting social media access at a young age will reduce the motivation to stay on screens, and your child will seek other means of socializing and making friends as a result.
2. Get your children into the habit of self regulating their own screen time
Josh Ochs, SmartSocial.com
Some signs that parents need to monitor for are:
- Impaired control over screen time (for example: onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context)
- Increasing priority given to screen time to the extent that screen time activities take precedence over other life interests and daily activities
- Continuation or escalation of screen time despite the occurrence of negative consequences
How to develop positive screen time habits:
- Remind yourself that having a cell phone, tablet, or computer is something to use in moderation
- Find offline activities that you would be proud to share on your college resume. Spending time on those activities will give you positive content you can post online
- Prioritize positive offline hobbies, school, social activities, sports, and family time above screen time
- Get in the habit of following your screen time guidelines and self-regulating your screen time
- Find activities you can do digitally while still being productive, like:
- Learning how to program
- Building an online resume
- Monitoring your digital footprint
3. Explain the consequences if your child exhibits poor screen time management
Dr. Catherine Jackson, Licensed Psychologist and Neurotherapist
Screens and modern technology have many benefits. However, too much screen time may cause changes in the brain and can also lead to other problems such as obesity and sleep difficulties. Sleep difficulties, which can be caused by too much screen time, in and of itself leads to an array of other problems. These include brain cells dying, difficulty for brain cells to communicate with each other, attention, focus, and memory issues to name a few. All of these can affect academic performance.
Some of the warning signs that your child may be addicted to screen time and may require some changes be made around its use include:
- They have a difficult time getting off screens even when they are given time warnings. For example, if you tell your child they have 15 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes and now it is time to turn off the screen and they continue its use or you physically have to turn off the screen yourself. This may be a sign changes need to be made around screen time use.
- When screen time is over or turned off your child’s mood changes. They are happy while using screens (video games, watching TV, on a mobile phone, etc.). However, once the use of the device is over, your child becomes very angry, name calling, cursing, hitting others including you and/or has a melt down, this is a major sign your child is likely addicted to screens. Major family conflicts and changes in emotions should not occur because your child can no longer use screens.
- If your child only uses screens and no longer engages in any other activities, or refuses to try non screen-based activities, addiction to screens may be present. Screens to the exclusion of everything else is not a healthy habit.
However, you can teach your child to self regulate themselves and their screen time. Teach your child, as with nearly everything in life, there are limits to screen time. Set boundaries around when screen time can occur and when it cannot, how long your child is able to have screen time, and the consequences when screen time rules are broken or your child exhibits poor behavior as a result of screen time. With limits and regular practice, self regulated screen time becomes a regular part of the day-to-day routine.
So what to do with all that extra time that screen time occupied? Encourage your children to read, play board games, engage in family time, participate in hobbies, volunteer, and join clubs, preferably ones that promote socialization with peers. Parents can also create a visual reward system in which children earn tokens they can later trade in for screen time. The nice thing about this is your child can see their progress and know when they have enough tokens to earn screen time. It also puts the power in the child’s hands as they can see how they control if they earn a token or not by the behaviors and actions they choose. Talk to your child about the expected behaviors that will lead to tokens. You may set times when tokens can be redeemed, such as only on the weekends.
Not all screen time is bad or harmful. For example, your family can watch a movie together at home or at the theater. However, be mindful of it and consciously choose when screen time will and will not occur to help children manage its use and their self regulation of it.
4. Do one healthy thing together as a family that doesn’t involve screens
Dr. J Paul Rand, Education Leader
Medical centers across the nation are inundated with young adults struggling to overcome years of anxiety, depression, and other concerning issues at rates our nation never encountered prior to unrestricted screen time.
Signs of screen time addiction:
- Social withdrawal. When your child sits on a couch for hours on their tablet or phone, this is not normal behavior. Most MDs suggest 1 hour of screen time a day.
- When a child struggles to hold pens at a young age but can operate a smartphone better than you; or when a child’s sleep habits are outside of an 7-8am rise 8-9pm sleep routine.
- When neither you nor your child can finish reading a children’s book due to a lack of attention.
- When a child’s outbursts are so extreme when a tech device is taken, the focus shifts to ensuring they do not hurt themselves.
- Or, when a child can not complete a statement without checking their phone; or when a child cannot participate in a hands on event without recording.
Tips for developing positive screen time management skills and helping students who are struggling:
- Interact: Get down at your child’s level, crawl around, and play games on the floor.
- Lead by example: Spend 30 minutes daily writing in a journal and be sure your children see it. Encourage them to follow suit by buying them a really nice pen and a really nice paper journal.
- Do one healthy thing together: Does not matter their age whether they’re 17 months or 17 years old. Take time for a brisk walk, some light stretching. Talk and listen to your children.
- Read and let them see you doing so: Read physical books, not an electronic device, and read stories to your kids.
5. Students should be open to activities that are not screen related
Reuben Yonatan, GetVOIP
If your child gets irritable at even the mention of an activity that doesn’t involve a phone, that’s a huge red flag that they have not developed healthy screen time management habits! That isn’t to say that every time you suggest taking their phone away when they’re actively engaged in something means that they are addicted – none of us like being interrupted. However, your child should be open to activities that are not phone-related. If you are having trouble with separating your child from screens, I highly suggest having them spend more time outside.
Be sure to lead by example. We all know the saying, “do as I say, not as I do”. That exists for a reason – children watch their parents and other adults, so it’s time we model positive screen time management behaviors and start leading by example.
If you are a busy professional, do your best to finish all work-related communications before you get home, and turn your phone off before even entering the house. If you simply can’t draw that line, at least keep your phone out of sight. It may feel a bit deceptive, but you are trying to model positive behavior for your developing child.
6. Make an effort to understand how your child is spending their screen time
Ana Jovanovic, Parenting Pod
Some screen addiction warning signs are:
- Screen time is taking most of their free time.
- Taking their electronics away causes frustration, anger, or anxiety.
- They find it hard to organize their play without electronics
- They tend to neglect their other interests because of electronics
- They lose track of time when they’re playing video games or watching TV shows.
- Screen time is distracting them from their responsibilities.
- Screen time is not necessarily as enjoyable, as much as it gives them something to do.
- They tend to play on their own (and not make it a social activity, with friends or family).
- It’s difficult for them to focus on anything but electronics.
- They find most things to be boring.
How can parents help their children develop healthy screen time management habits?
- Walk the talk
Don’t tell your child how damaging screen time is, and then spend the whole evening on social media. As a parent, make sure you practice what you preach.
- Establish family rules and agreements
Having family rules around using electronics can help manage the amount of time spent with screens. One example is not to use electronics when you’re all eating together. Or, no phones after bedtime. It’s important that the rules apply to all family members and that together, you hold each other accountable. However, just taking away electronics doesn’t make much difference if the time is not filled with other equally entertaining activities. This is why it is a good idea to organize family movie or game nights, visit places, or volunteer together.
- Make an effort to understand what your kids are spending time on
Before you judge the amount of time your child spends with screens, make sure you make an effort to understand how it is spent. If you are on their case about screen time without showing any interest in what they are playing, watching, or listening to, they are likely to think that you don’t really get why it is necessary for them to spend so much time next to the screens. Have them show you how a game is played or what youtube videos make them laugh. Sit with them through an episode of their favorite TV show and try to get to know the characters.
- Introduce them to fun and useful ways to use technology
The solution is not to take away their phones or stop them from binge-watching new TV series. Instead, show them interesting ways to use technology that relates to their interests. Do they love gaming? Have them take an introductory course in game design. Do they spend too much time watching TV? Watch a show, movie, or a documentary that is educational and fun and that is connected to their interests.
- Help them explore ways to organize their free time
I have worked with many kids who don’t know what to do with their free time other than play games, or watch videos and TV shows. Logging in to play a game or turning on the TV requires minimal effort and is stimulating most of the time. Helping them understand the ways in which they can organize their time better can help decrease the amount of screen time. Variations of DIY projects, extracurriculars, sports and clubs at school, legos, puzzles, books, time with friends and family – support them in figuring out what they enjoy doing when they are not using the screen.
There are several warning signs that your child may be addicted to screens. When you monitor your children for a change in their moods brought on by screen time (or by limiting screen time) it will be easier for you to intervene and keep your kids safe. While the goal shouldn’t be to ban social media entirely, instead parents should teach their kids to develop a healthy relationship with screen time.
What are some red flags that a child might be addicted to screens and how do you help them build healthy screen time management habits? Let us know in the comments below!