A young girl playing with an tablet.

Tech & Media

How To Spot Tech Obsession and Help Your Kids Regulate Screen Time

Feb 2, 2017

There’s a lot of debate about the role technology should be playing in kids’ lives. How often should they be able to use phones or tablets? And for what? And for how long? And when? And under what supervision?

Recognizing tablets and phones can be tools for fun, communication, or creativity, many families are trying to come up with balanced approaches for use. At the same time, many know how addictive those devices are — whether it’s a puzzle app you can’t stop playing, friends you can’t stop messaging, or social media discussions between strangers you can’t stop reading.

Parents who may be in slight denial over their own tech use, are often concerned about what happens if their kids get hooked. Slightly sensationalist newspaper headlines like the New York Post’s It’s Digital Heroin! How Screens Turn Kids into Psychotic Junkies! don’t exactly calm fears.

We asked psychologist, author and parenting expert Sara Dimerman about the dangers of kids developing an unhealthy obsession with tech, and for advice on ways families can reinforce a healthy relationship with computers.

Is tech obsession an actual, recognized concern? How serious or prevalent is it?

Yes, I believe tech obsession is recognized as a concern, especially by parents — many of whom are tech-obsessed too! However, it has also become a societal norm to be obsessed with tech. There’s an attitude of we have to learn to live with it, because it’s here to stay. So while people are seeing problems, there is little desire for change, or the desire wanes because the pull is so great.

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How do you see the difference between a kid loving, say, Minecraft and becoming outright obsessed?

There’s a very blurry grey line between liking a game or using social media, and developing an unhealthy obsession. There are some warning signs though, like an inability to disconnect from the activity, even after repeated requests to do so, or after he has agreed to be off at a specific time. Or even sneaking behaviour to go to the device despite knowing the consequences. Sometimes there may be this desire to put online activity ahead of everything else, including homework, socializing or eating. There can also be this preoccupation — always talking about the game, wanting to continually compete with others or compete against his personal best.

How can parents try to prevent things from getting to this point?

Modelling is key. If parents are checking their phones on a compulsive level, then children are most likely to follow in their footsteps. From a young age, children must be encouraged to self-regulate when using technology. For example, work out a time after which the child will put away the device. Help your child recognize what he is feeling as he tries to pull away, and how he can challenge and resist those feelings.

But how do you do that?

You can share your own experiences. You can say something like, “I’d love to play a game on my computer right now, but I’m going to help you with homework first and then I’ll reward myself with 10 minutes.” Or, “I spent too much time on my iPad yesterday. Today, I’m going to check it for 15 minutes and then put it away so I can enjoy reading my book.” Making changes to your tech use and addressing those thoughts out loud can help children learn what to say to themselves. It’s good to acknowledge to them that technology can be a huge pull, and it’s easy to lose yourself in it.

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When might a parent want to consider professional help, rather than their own corrective methods?

If a child becomes very angry or hostile when you try to separate her from her tech device, or has become more defiant as a result of you setting usage limits, it may be time to get help for developing consequences for this behaviour. Children may benefit from child-centred therapy such as art or play therapy, but I personally would typically work from the parents down.

But what’s the solution? Is it a matter of totally eliminating the device?

It’s as difficult to completely cut out all technology as it is impossible to stop eating all food when trying to lose weight. If a teen recognizes a compulsive need to check social media many times a day, for example, and this is affecting daily life, then he may agree to cut out specific social media pages. In the long run, the goal is to learn how to self-regulate, taking power back and being mindful of balancing one’s time. This is far better than just depriving someone — he or she will just want it even more when it eventually gets added back.

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no hair and works in communications. He and his wife are the proud parents of a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy, both of whom are pretty great. He received his MA in journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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