5 Signs Your Child Could Be Screen Addicted

My child interacts with a screen for no more than the two daily hours permitted by the American Academy of Pediatrics. He’s OK. I’m OK. We’re OK! you tell yourself.  Tech isn’t going away. It will be a major part of his future. You don’t want him left behind (STEM!). Plus, if you deprive him, he’ll just binge on Fortnite the second he’s out of your sight. It’s all about balance, right?

But what are you supposed to do when you go to turn off the Minecraft or pull away the iPad in the middle of a Sofia the First episode, and your kid reacts with feral-animal rage? Is this screen addiction? Is this the new normal? And if so, is it a status quo we’re willing to accept?

You’re not the only parent experiencing low-level panic. Some are hiring coaches or “screen consultants”—and paying $250 an hour on the high end—to help reprogram their kids. Dr. Colleen Carroll, founder of the Screen Freedom Center, wrote a book called Hooked on Screens: How to Get Your 5-14 Year Old to Put Down the Phones, Video Games and Electronic Devices and Pick Up a Book. She offers a free quiz to determine where on the continuum of screen addiction your kid may fall and a guide to digital detoxing. But before you begin to address the problem, the first step is admitting you (they…we…) have one.

Here are five signs of screen addiction in kids, and suggestions for how to shut it down.  

little girl in bed with laptop

1. Quantity Of Time

The red flag: Researchers studying the psychology of digital addiction developed something called a “Problematic Media Use Measure.” Among their diagnostic criteria? Parents were asked to report on whether “My child is always thinking about using screen media” and “The first thing my child asks to do when s/he comes home is to use screen media.” Does your child spend what seems like an excessive amount of time discussing, planning, negotiating for or fantasizing about when she can next be on a screen? Does she stay up too late scrolling or chatting on social media? Is she spending more hours zoned out in front of YouTube than she is playing outdoors?

The remedy: Keep her busy—without overscheduling her. Create tech-free family zones like the dinner table, the car or the bedrooms. Some experts suggest requiring an hour of outdoor or analog play for every hour spent online. But in general, it helps to plan family outings, playdates with friends, volunteer, read aloud together, shop and cook for meals, garden, bring her in on household chores, spend time caring for a pet and/or pick up a new hobby together. Positively reinforce any pro-social or physical activity that keeps her mind offline. Show her that fun can be had and connection found in the real world. And don’t forget to model a healthy relationship with screens yourself. That means you can’t whip out your phone to take pics of her while she’s engaged in any of the above activities. In this case, sharenting is not care-ent-ing.

little boy crying
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2. Emotional Outbursts

The red flag: Let’s call them tech tantrums. According to the AAP, indicators of problematic screen use or gaming disorder (a mental illness recognized by the DSM V) can include a preoccupation with the activity, decreased interest in offline or “real life” relationships, unsuccessful attempts to decrease use, and withdrawal symptoms. Does your kid overreact, become aggressive, anxious or depressed when you attempt to take away his device, forbid him from using it or reduce his allowance of screen time?

The remedy: Design a family media plan and set clear, enforceable limits. It may seem counterintuitive, but this tip comes from a family therapist: Designate a consistent time of day when your child CAN be on a screen, then allow him to finish out the game or the episode he began. You may be ready for him to be done, but snatching the device away in the middle of a story arc or winning streak is extremely irritating. The therapist likened it to someone coming along and grabbing the cup of coffee out of your hand and dumping it before you were finished. So not cool. Setting appropriate boundaries around screen use (as in, We get to watch one—and only one—episode of Boss Baby on weeknights, but only after we clear the dinner table and finish our homework) is a realistic approach that works for some families.

little girl looking at phone
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3. Pressing On In Spite Of Consequences

The red flag: Does your child prioritize screen time over essential functions like sleep, regular meals and good hygiene? Does he play on, keep watching or continue to engage with social media even when doing so causes family conflict and/or results in fallout like poor grades due to lack of shut-eye, study time or preparation? Does he choose to socialize online over being with other kids IRL? 

The remedy: Engage with screens as a family. Instead of retreating to your respective digital rabbit holes in isolation, watch a movie or read an article online together, then discuss. Give all family devices a curfew—meaning everyone’s phones and tablets get charged overnight in the kitchen from 9 p.m. on. If these types of countermeasures fail, your child could be a candidate for a digital detox—a cold turkey quitting of all screen activity for a given period of time (some experts recommend up to eight weeks). But here’s the catch. The entire family must commit. Parents have to practice what they preach. You can’t forbid your kid from using screens then check work email in front of him. As Oprah says, it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle. Also, once screens are reincorporated back into your lives, you need to set—and adhere to—clear limits from the outset.

gril on phone under blanket
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4. Secrecy

The red flag: The scenario: Your daughter promises you she’ll dock her phone for the night and get some sleep, but then you get up to use the bathroom at 2 a.m. and find her wide awake and scrolling. Lying, sneaking, deception or covering up are classic symptoms of addiction—not to mention surefire ways to erode trust.  

The remedy: Stay calm. Amp up communication. The worst thing you can do when you catch your kid red-handed is pile on the criticism. “Don’t blame the victim,” Dr. Steven Cowan, a developmental pediatrician, has said. Consider that video games and social media “are designed to be addictive.” Tell your kid you understand how hard it is to scale back on screen use, encourage her to come to you for help with any social issues weighing her down online (15 percent of bullying now takes place electronically), and reassure her she has your full, judgement-free support. Shame thrives in silence. Let the (non-blue) light in.  

boy on bed in headphones
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5. Escapism Or Self-soothing

The red flag: As Dr. Carroll asks in her quiz, does your kid use screens “to escape from social pressures, personal issues, responsibilities, reality or to relieve guilt, anxiety or depression?” Those researchers who developed the Problematic Media Use Measure also asked parents to identify with this statement: “When my child has had a bad day, screen media seems to be the only thing that helps him/her feel better.” Sound familiar?  

The remedy:  Replace one pacifier with another, healthier one. If your kid reaches for the screen when he’s feeling upset, angry or anxious, help him find another source of relief. Go for a walk together. Shoot hoops on the driveway á la Father of the Bride. By talking it through, you can teach him how to reframe whatever is causing his anxiety. When all else fails, try empathy.