With the ongoing evolution of technology and smartphones, some parents feel they are in a never-ending battle with their children and screen time. How do we know if our children are at risk of developing a “screen addiction”? And what is that exactly? For this, we turn to Dr. Dustin Weissman, PsyD.
Dr. Weissman specializes in internet addictions. His dissertation on online gaming and social factors has been downloaded globally from 75 countries. Dr. Weissman is the founder of the subfield of psychology, Cyberneuropsychology. He also hosts a free podcast, CyberSense Power Up, available on most podcast platforms.
Can you begin by describing what screen addiction is?
Screen addiction is synonymous with digital addiction, internet addiction, and technology addiction.
Six Traits of Screen Addiction
In my dissertation, I illustrate six factors present in an internet or screen addiction.
- Salience: refers to when the activity becomes the most important part of their life; it governs their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
- Mood change (euphoria): refers to the particular way that the person experiences the activity through ongoing involvement.
- Tolerance: occurs when the user requires progressive lengths of time or involvement.
- Withdrawal symptoms: occur when there is some perceived detriment when the full or desired internet use is not met.
- Interpersonal or intrapersonal conflict that can be caused by continual application of the activity.
- Relapse, the act of reengaging the addictive behavior after demonstrating control over it.
Essentially, screen addiction occurs when one is excessively using their mobile device to the point where it impacts their real-world functioning in school, at work, with their interpersonal relationships, and/or overall functioning. This would also include an increase in mental health-related symptoms such as anxiety, depression, attention, and sleep disturbances.
Can you share how you’ve seen it evolve in your practice, and how did you come to focus on this as a specialty?
I started working in the field one year after the first iPhone was released. It was an inpatient psychiatric hospital, so they would not have had their phones anyway. As my growth in clinical psychology manifested, so did the evolution of the smartphone and other mobile devices. I started my area of interest looking at online gaming. Social factors are a huge component of what makes them addictive. I was also introduced to online chat rooms and other means of social engagement.
As I approached the culmination of my doctoral education, I published my dissertation on online gaming and social factors. That was just the start for me. From then on, I began learning more and more about internet-related addictions. I love working in this field because I can see humanity taking a detour in evolution. We are having some growing pains and I am trying to educate myself and everyone around to make the transition into the future with the digital age smoother, more ethical, and safer.
I am getting many more referrals for online gaming addictions. Then there is pornography addiction and the occasional outlier internet-related addiction. Social media addictions are coming up more as well. I think these issues are becoming more prevalent in therapy as we recognize the addictive nature of mobile devices. I imagine my practice expanding from primarily individual therapy to more groups and an increase in referrals for my residential treatment center, Digital Addiction Recovery Center.
Do you often see cases where the child is being referred for screen addiction, but the parents are struggling with it themselves and are unaware?
I do think that many parents are unaware. This is a quiet addiction. It presents itself as if everything is fine. For younger children (ages 0-11), their exposure to these devices is altering their cognitive development. We often refer to their brains as being “sticky,” in that they latch on to certain concepts in their development of schemas or the way they view the world.
I believe this is often the case that many parents struggle with their screen time in the presence of their children. Even I do sometimes. We live in a climate of constant connectedness. There is no easy separation from the outside world when we interact with them via our smart devices that are always within arm’s reach. The applications we use are designed to maintain our attention. The combination of certain apps tapping into the reward centers of our brain and the social components makes it difficult to not constantly check and use our smart devices. For those who work remotely, even checking and responding to email can be an ongoing task that deters attention to loved ones.
Moreover, children see their parents exhibit these behaviors and are likely to replicate it for two reasons. First, social learning dictates that they are likely to act in a way that is similar to their models/parents. Second, as parents use their devices they are establishing cultural norms within their family system. Essentially, they are expressing to their children that this behavior is both acceptable and expected.
Screen Addiction and ADHD
Where are some special challenges with screen addiction and children who have ADHD?
Those who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) tend to take in a lot of stimuli. They are very sensitive to their environments. Devices offer them an environment that requires little focused attention and a lot of variety. They can shift between apps quickly if they lose focus on one or they can find variety within each app they use. With social media, they can enjoy the continuous scroll of their feed (all of the posts by other people and companies they follow).
With gaming, they are able to shift attention from task to task or amongst varying aspects of each such as scanning the background of a battle royale for potential danger. In the various streaming apps such as YouTube and Tik Toc, they are able to watch short videos that can hold their attention just long enough they don’t fatigue.
The devices that they use act as virtual playgrounds that contain their attention, interest, and focus with lots of short clips, vibrant stimuli, and abundant variety. For many people with ADHD, their smart devices offer this assortment more than the real world does and thus draw more of their attention.
What are preventative measures you can put in place to prevent screen addiction before cell phones are even given to kids?
The first preventative measure is to wait until the second semester of 8th grade. It is a campaign that encourages parents to wait until 8th grade to get them smartphones (https://www.waituntil8th.org). I suggest the second semester of 8th grade. If you want them to have a cell phone before then, consider getting them a “dumb phone,” or non-smartphone, that only allows calls and text messages.
The next best preventative measure would be to create a smartphone contract. A good place to start is with Janell Burley Hoffman’s book, iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know about Selfies, Sexting, Gaming, and Growing up.
Have the Conversation About Screen Addiction
Another measure is talking to kids about their smartphone use. Really immerse yourself in what they are doing online. Try to understand which apps they use and how they use them. I suggest letting them teach you rather than trying to do espionage. If they become secretive about their tech use, that would warrant a red flag worthy of further discussion.
Lead By Example
Also, be open about your smartphone use. Let them know what you are doing on your smartphone and why. Even if you are playing a mobile game, let them know you are doing it for fun. If appropriate, you can let them have a turn too. Remember that you are modeling behavior. The more transparent you are with your tech use, the more likely they will be with theirs. Additionally, try not to judge, but rather be curious as to how they find enjoyment in their tech use. You can express this by asking open-ended questions starting with, “what” and “how.”
What are the first steps you tell clients do implement when they need to drastically reduce their screen time?
Set small achievable goals. I will sit with them and look at their smartphone analytics of how they are using their screen time (which apps and how often). I will also ask about time on other devices with screens such as tablets and TVs. It’s easier to track the phone time because it does it for you. Furthermore, you can now set daily limits of use on individual apps. With other screen time, such as watching a streaming service on their TV, it is more challenging and may require documenting start and stop times with a journal.
It will be important to reallocate that time to another activity. I’ll ask my clients what they want to spend more time doing that is not screen-based. I’ll then help foster the transition from screen time to the desired activity. There are other simple adjustments that they can make early on such as putting the phone on the charger an hour before bed, having that charger outside the bedroom (and yes, buying an alarm clock to replace that function), and not having devices at family meals or at least having one night a week where everyone has a device-free dinner.
With so many schools issuing iPads and laptops to kids these days, are there ways you coach around moderation?
I am not as concerned about the school-issued iPads and laptops. Children need to learn how to use computers to thrive in the modern world. These school-issued devices are not as mobile as a smartphone in the sense that they do not fit into a pocket. I believe it is imperative that schools have discussions and provide education about safe technology use before issuing these devices. Such topics need to include unsafe web browsing, data collection, digital footprint, cyber safety, and cyberbullying. My experience with school-issued devices has been mostly academic in that kids are using them for homework. They often use their personal mobile devices for recreation.
Set Personal Boundaries
My own children are not allowed to use their tablets during the school week. We allow a certain amount of time on the weekends to use them. It is important and helpful to give kids warnings before taking devices away.
For example, “Johnny, you have 10 minutes left with your tablet. Please finish up what you’re doing and return it to me.” You can then give them a final warning that their time is wrapping up. If they do not turn it in, let them know they will not get to use it the next day.
The most important factor here is whatever boundary you establish, stick to it. Do not waiver. If you say 10 minutes, at 10 minutes and 1 second the device needs to be in your hands. This might result in arguments and fighting, but they will learn that you mean what you say. Remain vigilant.
What are words of encouragement you tell parents who feel like this is a lost cause in their home?
There is hope. This is not a lost cause. No child, adolescent, young adult, or even adult is beyond this issue or recovering from it. They may need extra help to get started, such as a therapist, psychologist, or a more intensive program such as Digital Addiction Recovery Center. Regardless of the level of care they need, this is a problem that can be overcome. Digital detoxes are helpful, but not a cure. They need to buy into wanting to change. There are many professionals out there, such as myself, who can help. If you meet with any form of aggression in response to making a change it is okay to get your local authorities involved. The first three days are the hardest when making a change from a screen addiction. With love, support, and guidance from family, friends, and professionals, this is an addiction that can be overcome.