Kids and Screen Time: Could Your Child Be Addicted?

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When researchers recently delved deeper into the issue they found a connection between a child’s amount of screen time and their social and emotional health.

Texting, gaming, tweeting, blogging—the online world today can be overwhelming. And while these options can make life a bit more convenient, one recent study reveals they may also have a negative effect on today’s children.

When University of Michigan researchers recently delved deeper into the issue they found a connection between a child’s amount of screen time and their social and emotional health. "Typically, researchers and clinicians quantify or consider the amount of screen time as of paramount importance in determining what is normal or not normal or healthy or unhealthy," said lead author Sarah Domoff, research fellow at University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development.

"Our study has demonstrated that there is more to it than number of hours. What matters most is whether screen use causes problems in other areas of life or has become an all-consuming activity." Much research exists on adolescents and screen use, but Domoff said that to her knowledge this is the first tool in the United States that measures screen media addiction in children ages 4-11. Some of the warning signs include: if screen time interferes with daily activities, causes conflict for the child or in the family, or is the only activity that brings the child joy (see infographic above for complete list of warning signs of screen media addiction).

Kids who use media in unhealthy ways have problems with relationships, conduct and other emotional symptoms, Domoff said. However, the study didn't examine whether the emotional and behavior problems or the media addiction came first.

What do our IU Health experts have to say?

“While a causal relationship remains unclear, we do know, as clinicians, that excessive screen time can get in the way of a child’s healthy socialization,” explains Dr. Melissa Butler, pediatric psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children. “If I’m working with a depressed child who likes to isolate himself, screen time may be the strategy he uses for that, and that ultimately needs to be addressed from a treatment angle.”

That said, Dr. Butler does agree that digital devices and experiences have their time and place—and can even be helpful when promoted in a healthful way. “From an educational and clinical framework, we use apps and programs to help children and more and more schools are integrating technologies into their classes to help children get ahead academically.”

Indeed, some experts believe the uptick in schools using screens is likely to alter formal screen guidelines in the future. “By the time kids come home from school, they already have had an hour or so of screen time logged for the day, so they’ve already had a solid share,” maintains Rebecca Dixon, pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children.

So, where does this leave parents and how can they head off addiction and other unhealthful situations?

“As parents, we all want our children to live well-rounded lives,” says Dr. Dixon, “so we need to think more about the time, place and purpose for screen time. And be proactive.”

Being present and positioning oneself as a healthy role model is also key, says Dr. Butler. “Don’t just tell, show your child what’s appropriate when it comes to screen time. So, put your phone down at family dinner, be attentive when your child wants to show or share something with you,” she says. “The digital world isn’t going away anytime soon, which makes it even more imperative for parents to learn how to navigate this new realm.”

-- By Sarah Burns

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