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Most parents are understandably worried about the amount of time their children spend in front of their electronic devices. The average American child spends 7 hours a day in front of the TV, computer, phone, tablet, and other electronic devices.
Technology has become a normal part of growing up and is omnipresent in most kids’ lives. According to a recent survey, 53 percent of children own a cell phone by their seventh birthday. For children between the ages of 11 and 16, 96 percent had their own cell phones, 75 percent had a tablet, and 51 percent had an Xbox or Playstation.
For older children, smartphones and tablets are an important way to stay connected with friends, to fit in socially, and are even required in a lot of classrooms.
So how do parents maintain a healthy balance? How do you know if your child’s technology usage has become a problem?
We joke about being addicted to things that we love, but can we really be addicted to technology? Although there is no universally agreed upon definition of technology addiction, studies have found that technology use triggers the release of dopamine the same way things like gambling, food, cigarettes, and drugs do. Every time we get a new follower on Instagram, reach a new level on a video game, or receive a text, we get a little jolt of dopamine. Over time our brains become accustomed to this level of stimulation and we start to crave it. The pace of ordinary life becomes boring and we become less and less interested in the “real” world.
Although spending several hours a day in front of a screen is not healthy, not all heavy technology users are addicted. Even children who use technology for several hours a day are not addicted if they still enjoy everyday activities and don’t feel distress when separated from their devices. Parents should become concerned if their child’s technology habit is having negative social, emotional, or educational consequences. The same is true for parents. It is as easy for a parent to develop a technology addiction as their child.
The following questions can help parents and children assess whether or not they may be addicted to technology. These questions can be answered on behalf of your child, together with your child, or for yourself.
1. Do you feel upset when you have to turn off your device? (Note: Most children will make a fuss when asked to turn off a device, but parents should be concerned if their child gets very upset or throws a temper tantrum on a regular basis.)
2. Do you suffer from withdrawal symptoms when separated from technology that then go away once you are using your device again? For example, do you feel upset, restless, agitated, moody, or anxious? Do these feelings cause you to act up during everyday activities or when interacting with others?
3. Do you have problems paying attention to things in the “real” world?
4. Are your grades, relationships, or work suffering because you spend too much time in front of a screen?
5. Are you always talking about what you did online or what you will do once you are online again?
6. Do you always seem to crave more screen time?
7. Do you try to conceal how much time you spend on your device or get defensive when others talk to you about it?
8. Do you loss track of time while in front of a screen?
9. Are you withdrawing from others or prefer to spend time on a device rather than interacting with others?
10. Do you want to skip family activities, fun outings, or mealtimes in order to fit in more screen time? Does playing online sound more fun than going to the movies or doing something active outside?
11. Do you get anxious at the thought of leaving on a trip or outing without your device?
Like any addiction, breaking the habit takes courage, persistence, self-control, and lots of help from others. If you believe that you or your child has a technology addiction, try some of these steps. If your child is threatening to become violent or repeatedly breaks screen time rules, ask your pediatrician for help.
Even children or adults who don’t currently have a technology addiction can be at risk for developing one. And beyond addiction, there are other serious consequences from overusing technology. For example, excessive technology use has been linked with things like weight gain, problems sleeping, depression, and anxiety.
And remember that just because your child knows how to use her smart phone better than you do, doesn’t mean that she knows the rules on how to use it respectfully. It is easy to guide our children through real-life situations because we are usually with them, but not so with online behavior. Children often spend large amounts of time online totally unsupervised.
Teach your children not to use technology or social media to spread rumors, to bully others, to share inappropriate texts or photos, or to communicate with strangers. Teach them the difference between what is online and reality. For example, somebody posing as a child might actually be an adult predator or the lives we see portrayed by our friends or celebrities on social media are not always accurate.