Screen Time Addiction in Your Child: How To Tell

Mother distressed by her female child with tablet or phone addiction, i.e. screen time addiction

Have you ever worried that your child has a screen time addiction? Screens are everywhere now and have become harder and harder for parents to control. In this post we’ll review how to determine whether your child is addicted to screen time. Then we’ll look at next steps to help.

Recently I polled parents in our Should-Free Parenting group on Facebook, asking if they were worried their child might have a screen time addiction. Of the eleven parents who responded, 72% thought their child might be addicted to screen time.

I thought that number was surprisingly high, so I did a quick online search. In one 2023 study, published in JAMA Open Network, over a thousand parents were surveyed. Twice as many parents reported specific concerns about internet addiction than drug addiction.

What does a child with screen time addiction act like?

Timmy was a bright-eyed boy, with a mop of unruly curls and a grin that could light up the room. But Timmy’s days revolved around the glow of screens—whether it was the flicker of a television, the glow of a tablet, or the luminance of a video game console.

As family dinners turned into silent gatherings with Timmy lost in a world of pixels, his parents couldn’t help but feel a sense of disconnect. His parents tried to engage him in outdoor activities or board games, but he resisted. Timmy’s mind seemed permanently fixated on his digital companions.

It was a pattern they couldn’t ignore. Even on his worst days, when tears stained his cheeks and frustration clouded his young mind, it was the allure of screen media that offered solace. With each passing day, Timmy’s longing for more screen time grew stronger, and his parents did their best to intervene by limiting his screen time and hiding his devices.

Mother trying to take tablet away from boy who is holding it away from her. Screen time addiction. Tablet addiction.
Tablet addiction or screen time addiction creates conflict between parents and kids. Image by
@poiarkovaalfira via Canva

In response, Timmy began sneaking screens, outsmarting his parents and finding their hiding places every time. Next, his parents tried using screen time lockouts, so his devices wouldn’t work at all. But Timmy’s extreme and prolonged outbursts when his screens were cut off left his parents at a loss. They blamed themselves, feeling sure that their own parenting was at fault. Reaching out to their pediatrician felt impossible because they expected to be blamed.

How can you tell if your child is addicted to screen time?

Since screen time addiction is fairly new, researchers who are trying to understand the problem use the term “problematic media use” for research purposes. In one study of the issue, researchers were able to identify nine factors that clarified whether a child or adolescent’s screen time use was problematic. I’ve adapted those factors into these nine questions:

1. Is it hard for your child to stop using screen media?

2. Is screen media the only thing that seems to motivate my child?

3. Is screen media all my child seems to think about?

4. Does my child’s screen media use interfere with family activities?

5. Does my child’s screen media cause problems for the family?

6. Does my child become frustrated when he/she cannot use screen media?

7. Does the amount of time my child wants to use screen media keep increasing?

8. Does my child sneak using screen media?

9. When my child has a bad day, does screen media seem to be the only thing that helps him/her feel better?

If you answered yes to all or most of these questions, your child may have problematic screen use, what most people would call a screen time addiction.

Challenges parents face in limiting screen time.

Many parents try to avoid giving screens to their kids’ when they are young. However, schools undermine parents when they put devices into kid’s hands and younger and younger ages. One of my own kids was in the first group to do the majority of his learning on a Chromebook by second grade, going against a large body of evidence on how children that young learn. It’s easy to see the connection between early all day use of screens in school and the rising rates of screen time addiction.

Bar graph listing "most powerful stimulants for teenage boys" coffee, energy drink, and new Xbox game, AKA pure adrenaline. What can parents do about screen time addiction?

In older kids who spend hours in their room working on homework, all on computers, parents pleas to schools to allow some way to place limits on youtube or online games on school devices have fallen on deaf ears. This means that even in households where parents have set electronic limits on their kids’ other devices, the school Chromebook allows their child a constant avenue for screen time addiction.

Steps parents can take if they suspect a problem

In general, setting clear limits around screen time is a good idea for all parents. In the blog post “How Do I Limit My Child’s Screen Time?” I outlined how to use Sigh, See, Start to work on this as a family. The AAP also offers a media use plan that families can use to work with their kids. Sometimes parents feel overwhelmed when it comes to setting limits with teenagers, and that’s where referring to Chapter 8 of my book, Sigh, See, Start shows parents how to use collaborative problem solving with their kids. When kids have input on family expectations, they are more likely to accept them.

On the other hand, kids with a truly problematic media use (screen time addiction), can become emotionally distraught when separated from screens. Just like in Timmy’s story above, when one child has a screen time addiction it disrupts not only that child’s development, but all of family life. While it’s normal for kids to challenge their parents for two or three days on new screen time limits, they typically adjust. But kids like Timmy don’t adjust, and that’s when parents cannot expect to be able to solve the problem alone.

Talking with your child’s doctor

When a child’s screen use has created disruption in the life of the child or the family and is not corrected by some of the advice above, it is time to seek help. Pediatricians are increasingly aware of the this issue and can guide parents toward additional help. While “screen time addiction” is not a recognized diagnosis, your doctor might use terms like problematic smartphone use, problematic internet use, internet gaming disorder, or social media use disorder.

Your child’s doctor may refer you to a therapist or psychologist. Therapists who are well-versed in addictive behaviors can help. Additionally, if counseling alone is not effective, a child may benefit from seeing a psychiatrist to discuss medication. Sometimes kids are using screens too much to deal with an underlying depression or anxiety disorder. Finally, many kids with problematic media use have sensory or emotional regulation challenges. For these kids, working with a pediatric occupational therapist can be very helpful.

Don’t ignore screen time addiction

Sometimes parents are tempted to ignore problematic media use, especially when children become emotionally distressed without screens. “Maybe it will just go away,” parents tell themselves. Unfortunately, screen time addiction, like any addictive behavior, takes over a child’s life and gets in the way of healthy child development. And that’s a problem that tends to get worse over time if left alone.

Parental guilt, shame or burnout can also get in the way. In that case, try reading Sigh, See, Start: How To Be the Parent Your Child Needs in a World That Won’t Stop Pushing.

Spread the love

Author: Alison Escalante MD

Alison Escalante MD is a Pediatrician, TEDx Speaker, Writer and Mother on a mission to help parents caught in the culture of criticism.

Verified by ExactMetrics