Screen time. It used to be mostly a teenage problem. But the stats are showing that overuse of devices is becoming more and more of an issue in younger kids. And parents are understandably worried about screen time addiction.
Questions parents commonly ask are:
How much screen time is too much?
And how can I tell if my child is truly addicted?
Before we get into answering these questions, let’s start with the good stuff because – in moderation – there are so many amazing advantages to starting to expose kids to technology from an early age:
Early “Digital Literacy”: Familiarity with devices, apps, and software from an early age offers exposure and confidence in navigating the digital world.
Enhanced Learning (“Cognitive Development”) Opportunities: Interactive and educational apps, games, and programs designed for kids offer so many benefits. Through technology, kids can explore diverse subjects, languages, and concepts. Our daughter is a talented artist, who never took a formal class. She learned from YouTube. She is always showing me cool cooking and household organisational hacks. Gaming teaches kids leadership skills, teamwork, performance under pressure, problem-solving, creative thinking, and visual-spatial skills. The social aspect of online chats and gaming can benefit many kids and young people.
And of course, there is so much fun and entertainment to be had!
Why is gaming addiction a problem?
Despite the many benefits of device use, there are some serious downsides to over-exposure to technology.
The following trends are alarming:
- Only 1 in 4 Australian kids meet the daily guideline of at least 1 hour of active play per day.
- Childhood obesity is on the rise
- Short-sightedness is on the rise
- Gross motor development is on the decline
- Our kids aren’t getting enough sleep
- Some kids are missing out on learning how to build real-life relationships
- Teachers are reporting it being more and more difficult to keep kids engaged in school
- Increase in ADHD, ASD and behavioural disorder symptoms
- Links between screen time use and mental health concerns in young people.
Not to mention the anecdotal stories we hear every day about the tension created in homes all over the world with the continuous fights over moderating technology.
Then, there’s the addictive nature of screens.
In 2020, the World Health Organisation added a new category in their classification of diseases: “Gaming Disorder.”
This is a widespread global problem – you are definitely not alone!
How the addiction cycle works
The addiction cycle is driven by a neurotransmitter called Dopamine. Believe it or not, the process for screen addiction is no different than alcohol or even cocaine or heroin addiction.
Dopamine is released in the brain in anticipation of a reward. It makes us feel good and is an essential hormone to motivate us to do pretty much anything – seeing friends, cleaning the kitchen, eating, going to the gym. It’s essential for all aspects of life.
What happens when a child spends to much time on screens is that these Dopamine releases (or “hits”) happen much more often than in non-screen life.
Scrolling Facebook or Instagram? Hit, hit, hit.
Playing an online game and getting points and uplevelling? Hit, Hit, Hit, Hit, Hit.
You get the picture. What happens to the brain with these additional hits is that it doesn’t respond to each hit in the same way. The threshold of how much dopamine you need to release to get that feel good feeling increases and increases. And before we know it, time away from screens feels increasingly dull, boring – almost painful.
(I know many parents reading this can relate, our reliance on technology to do anything is overwhelming – I consider myself to be quite addicted to picking up my phone most of the time).
Game & App creators deliberately tailor each game for maximum engagement, so it’s a difficult thing to break. But with routine and consistency, good habits and balance can be achieved.
How many hours of gaming is recommended for children?
How much screen time is too much? I hear you ask.
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear cut, it depends on your child, what they’re watching and how they’re responding.
Most Government authorities around the world suggest that:
- Children under 2 should have no exposure to screens;
- from 2-5 no more than 1 hour a day;
- from 5 – 12 no more than 2 hours a day and
- from 13-18 no more than 3 hours per day.
Given kids often use laptops or ipads for school, we believe these numbers are quite unrealistic. The Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2021 reported that 25% of children aged between 5 and 14 use screens more than 20 hours per week. We suspect the actual screen use is much larger than this.
These figures are kind of irrelevant because some kids can tolerate more screen time than others, and it often depends what they’re doing on screens as well.
We prefer to talk about what a healthy relationship with screens looks like.
Is your child:
- Getting enough sleep
- Able to socialise IRL, including family time.
- Keeping up with school tasks
- Able to function without screens for any period of time
- Contributing to the home environment
- Eager to participate in sports or other activities that might take them away from gaming.
Warning signs – Prevention is better than cure
If you have answered “no” to some of the points about a healthy life-balance for your child, or you suspect that screen time is becoming an issue for your child or causing undue tension in the home, then it’s time to take action.
The earlier you can put the following strategies into place, the better. I suspect you are reading this article because you’re concerned, so start with #1 right away and work through the remaining steps.
Strategies and ways to manage unhelpful patterns of gaming or addictions
Become interested in what they’re doing.
The first thing you need to do (if you haven’t already) is to take some interest in what they’re doing on their screens. Ask them what their favourite games are, who they’re chatting with online. Ask them to show you and explain what they’re doing. Keep it friendly and be interested. You are much more likely to be able to connect with your child in the next point if you have first taken an interest in them. This might take a couple of weeks, but is a critical step.
Have a connected conversation with your child.
Explain to them how much you hate the conflict around screen time and how you’re concerned that they think about nothing else but their screens. Talk about how you notice that they’re moodier when they’ve been playing too much and they never want to be around their family. Empathise with them – you know how much they love their screen time and share your own struggles with it too. Avoid preaching, lecturing or getting upset – it will only end in tears and more defiance!
Tell them that you would like to start a new screen time routine and you want them to help you create it.
Getting their “buy in” is critical to this process. Ask them how much screen time they think is reasonable, and what tasks and chores they should be doing in order to have a healthy balance. Write the routine & guidelines up on the fridge or somewhere you can all see them to make it easier to stick to.
You might want to do a complete screen detox to reset your child completely (note: this should not be done if your child is truly addicted – see below).
Instructions for “How to have a complete screen detox and keep your sanity intact” can be found here. https://www.myscreencoach.com/post/how-to-do-a-screen-detox-and-keep-your-sanity-intact/
Consider using an App such as ScreenCoach to support you in your screen time management and rewards system.
(Full disclosure – the author is a founder of ScreenCoach, it was created from their own experience with their screen-loving kids.)
When to seek help for gaming addiction in children
True screen addiction is no joke and should be treated very seriously. Taking devices away from addicted kids is akin to taking heroin away from an addict – they need professional support from a psychologist or mental health practitioner. Speaking to your child’s school is often a great place to start, they may be able to recommend someone.
If your child is completely obsessed with their devices, gets violent if you try and take them away, has lost interest in other activities, or won’t allow you to connect with them at all in conversation, you definitely need to seek help. If these behaviours are just beginning, then you may want to seek professional guidance or parent coaching for yourself to help you connect to your child.
I recommend two books which have been written by experienced professionals. I have found them both very informative with practical, step-by-step guidance for parents.
“The Tech Diet for your Child & Teen” by Brad Marshall, https://unpluggedpsychologist.com/books/
And if you love geeking out on Neuroscience, “Reset Your Child’s Brain” by Victoria L Dunkley is a fantastic resource with a 4-week screen detox plan.
About the expert: Stephanie Kakris
Stephanie is a Mum of two teens, has a Masters in Psychology, and is a published parenting author. Along with her husband, Stephanie co-founded ScreenCoach to manage kids’ screen time. ScreenCoach is designed to make life easier for parents and restore home harmony.
It blocks the devices when the kids’ time is up, and they can go and do tasks to earn more screen time. You can block or allow certain Apps at certain times (eg. for School work), set up daily total allowed time and multiple time slots across the day they’re allowed on their devices. It works across iPhone, iPad, Androids, PC’s and Macs so if your child’s time is up on one device, they can’t simply pick up another. The optional ScreenCoach hardware box manages the TV and anything connected to it such as an XBox or Playstation.
Read Stephanie’s blog and sign up to ScreenCoach at myscreencoach.com