How to tell if your child is addicted to screens

How much is too much?
How much is too much? Photo: Shutterstock

Too much screen time is terrible for kids – we hear this all the time. But how much is too much, and what sort of content is appropriate?

As parents, we struggle to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of internet threats and devices we didn't grow up using. The issue of screen addiction is something we fear but don't understand ourselves.

new study now says we can tell if our children are addicted to screens by doing one simple thing: observing how our children behave without a screen in front of them.

The University of Michigan study measured screen addiction in children aged four to 11, and researchers were able to determine that how the children used their tablets and phones – rather than the amount of time they spent on them – was the most important indicator of emotional problems with screen attachment.

"Our study has demonstrated that there is more to it than number of hours," the study's lead researcher Sarah Dumoff explained. "What matters most is whether screen use causes other problems in life or has become an all-consuming activity."

Kids' screen time is at an all-time high, and while parents are right to be concerned about how much time their kids are spending on their devices, this study shows we should also be looking closely at what they are doing with those screens.

Quality content that is educational or useful in some way can be of benefit to children, while social media is "not a healthy environment for kids" and there is such a thing as "Facebook depression" according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Other studies (and many parents) have found that spending too much time on social media can trigger feelings of unhappiness and jealousy – which are difficult emotions for children to process, and can lead to behavioural problems.

When children become addicted to their screens, these problems can be amplified. Studies have found devices affect the brain's frontal cortex and raise dopamine levels, which causes kids (and adults) to form a real attachment to their screen.

When screens feel so good, it's hard to break away from them. But with the possibility of a major impact on children's mental health, it's up to parents to keep an eye on the time they're spending online, and check for possible signs of addiction.

A 2014 study by the University of California found that kids who spent just five days without screen time became better at reading emotions than kids who had regular access to phones, televisions and computers. A 2010 study found kids who spend more than two hours on screens each day have higher psychological difficulty, and a 2017 study found toddlers who have prolonged screen time are slower to speak.

With all of this frightening data, how are parents supposed to battle the lure of the screens? The University of Michigan study found there are warning signs of addiction parents can look out for. If screen time is interfering with daily activities, causing conflict in the family, or is the only thing that brings your child joy, they might be addicted.

Most parents know to keep an eye on screen time and social media activity, but now we also need to be paying attention to our children's behaviour when they use screens. If they're too attached, it could be time to seek professional help.