Addiction. It's a strong word. Yet you hear, "Kids are so addicted to screens" often. But are they? Are screens a real addiction or just an excessive hobby? The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) notes that addiction is characterized by an inability to abstain from something that may cause, "Impairment in behavioral control or cravings" plus may cause significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships. ASAM also says that addiction is a chronic brain disorder, not simply a behavioral problem. The American Psychological Association (APA) says that an addicted individual may experience physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms when the addiction is taken away. APA states that dependence is the first stage while later tolerance comes into play, forcing someone to consume larger doses of their addiction of choice to get the same effect. This is some pretty hefty stuff, which begs the question, how can screen time be a true addiction for kids? It's not like kids are buying screens on street corners -- and thus far there's some, but not much research showing that you have an actual brain disorder if you check Facebook too often. Still, anyone who has met kids who are really, really into screens, knows that these kids do exhibit some key signs of addiction. Keep reading to see some startling statistics and learn why screens may be a real addiction for your child, as well as some red flags related to excessive screen time.
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Do Screens Affect Your Child’s Daily Life?
Most people I know don’t believe screens are addictive and research shows that most parents are only mildly concerned that their kids may be using too much technology. I’d guess this is because technology, and even excessive screen time, aren’t widely recognized as being harmful, like say drugs or alcohol. Excessive screen time is considered socially acceptable by many, if not most people. However, in college (about a million years ago) I majored in nursing and during psych clinicals my professors would say that addiction becomes a true problem when it affects your day-to-day life and the lives of those around you. It’s a good point, because I see this continually with screens. One family member is upset because everyone is staring at their phones; relationships bust up over too much tech time; and tech even gets folks in trouble at work and school. If screens are affecting every segment of your child’s life plus your kid’s interactions with others, it’s clearly not just a free time activity, it’s a problem. If you look at any basic Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Gambling Anonymous or Alcohol Anonymous pamphlet, you’ll see some parallels between drug addiction and screen addiction. For example, if you take this NA brochure (pdf) and insert “screens” or “tech” where you see the word “drugs” here’s what you end up with:
- Have you ever manipulated or lied to obtain screen time?
- Do you regularly use screens when you wake up or when you go to bed?
- Do you avoid people or places that do not approve of you using screens?
- Has your job or school performance ever suffered from the effects of your screen use?
- Have you ever lied about how much you use?
- Do you put the purchase of tech ahead of your other financial responsibilities?
- Have you ever tried to stop or control your using?
- Does using tech interfere with your sleeping or eating?
- Does the thought of running out of tech terrify you?
- Do you feel it is impossible for you to live without screens?
- Do you ever question your own sanity?
- Is your screen use making life at home unhappy?
- Have you ever thought you couldn’t fit in or have a good time without tech?
- Have you ever felt defensive, guilty, or ashamed about your using?
- Do you think a lot about tech?
- Have you ever used screens because of emotional pain or stress?
- Do you continue to use despite negative consequences?
- Do you think you might have a tech problem?
Does it seem extreme to compare screens to narcotics? Maybe. But maybe not. Head to the next section of this post to see what some youth say about their tech use and you’ll quickly see that screens and tech do affect many people’s lives in an addictive way.
Image via The World Unplugged – See the full infographic here
How Screen Time Mimics Addiction
First of all, consider that a majority of kids and teens spend about 75% of their waking lives attached to a screen of some sort. Then consider these startling research facts gathered by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA). This study asked 1,000 students in ten countries on five continents to quit using technology and media for just ONE day. When that day was over, the researchers asked the students what happened and how they felt, and here’s what they said:
- Students in the study repeatedly used the term ‘addiction’ when describing their dependence on media. One student from the USA noted: “I was itching, like a crackhead, because I could not use my phone,” while another student from Argentina said, “Sometimes I felt ‘dead,‘” and a student from Slovakia noted, “I felt sad, lonely and depressed.”
- A vast majority of students failed to unplug for even one day, admitting to the researchers that they gave in to tech before 24 hours had passed.
- Students reported that media, and especially their mobile phones, were an extension of themselves.
- Most students said they felt lost, alone and excessively lonely when their screens were taken from them.
- Students had zero ideas about how to fill up their empty hours without media and screens which resulted in many of the students telling the researchers how desperately bored they were during their one unplugged day. Most students noted that without tech, it took just a few hours, only a half an hour, only fifteen minutes, or even less before they ran out of ideas of what to do with themselves. One youth from China stated, “After 15 minutes without using media, my sole feeling about this can be expressed in one word: boring.”
- Students said that their phones offered connection, security and comfort to an excess, as one U.S. youth noted, “My phone is my only source of comfort.”
- Tech is an escape mechanism more so than an enjoyment. Most students said they don’t watch regular television shows, but simply use TV to feel like there’s another presence in the house or will look for a show, just to have something to watch. In fact, the most frequently used words that youth used to describe their TV use were ‘routine,’ ‘habit,’ and ‘instinctively.’
- Students realized how distracted they’d been while staring at screens. One student in Mexico said, “I interacted with my parents more than the usual. I fully heard what they said to me without being distracted with my BlackBerry.” Another student from the U.S. noted, “I’ve lived with the same people for three years now and I think that this is one of the best days we’ve spent with together. I was able to really see them, without any distractions, and we were able to revert to simple pleasures.”