“Gaming disorder” was introduced into the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases, by the World Health Organization in 2018.

Recently, my family and I were out to dinner when I noticed a well-behaved toddler at the table next to us. Needless to say, I was impressed! But upon closer inspection, I saw that she was playing on an iPad.

Looking around the restaurant, I saw yet another table with a well-behaved 18-month-old. The young parents were pleasantly enjoying conversation and I found myself impressed at their ability to eat out with a baby, remembering when my own children were babies and the near impossibility of doing that! But once again, a closer look revealed that the baby was swiping a cell phone screen with his little finger. Even when his dad fed him a spoon of ice cream, the baby did not take his eyes off the phone. And I thought silently to myself: Are we creating screen addicted children?

The number of devices and types of digital media has exploded over the past 20 years and continues to grow. Parents and professionals have many questions and concerns about the impact these devices have on children, and the best ways to manage them to keep kids safe and healthy.While electronic devices and digital media have certainly improved our lives in many ways, research has shown that many problems can result from overexposure. As both a clinician and a parent, I see firsthand the numerous mental and physical health issues that can happen to children, teens, and young adults when they spend too much time in front of screens, and too little time engaged with the people and activities around them. There are many areas of health and function that can be negatively impacted, and parents need to be aware of these problems in order to set expectations and boundaries that help kids develop healthy device habits.

Consider the dangers of screen addiction and how it can hurt your child

In the book Screens and Teens, Kathy Koch warns parents about the dangers of too much screen time. And while most of her research is on teens, screen addiction might be even more harmful developmentally to young children.

Habits are things we choose to do repeatedly. They can either be healthy and wise or unhealthy and unwise. If you start paying attention to your habits, you’ll find they usually fall into one of two categories: good and bad. If a bad habit drives our behavior, we can, with some intentionality, choose to stop it in time. Of course, our good habits like praying with our children, playing with them, and patiently answering their questions are habits we don’t want to stop!

Addictions are not limited to drugs

The term addiction is often characterized by a recurring desire to continue to take a substance despite harmful consequences.

While the term addiction has traditionally been used in relation to substances such as alcohol and drugs, non-substance addictions — including behavioural addictions such as sex, gambling and “video gaming” — are now recognized.

Screen addiction is complex

According to the World Health Organization and many independent clinical scientists, human beings can be addicted to screens. “Gaming disorder” was introduced into the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases, in 2018.

Other prominent researchers have argued that digital addiction is a myth. However, as clinicians it is our ethical obligation to take parents’ and children’s concerns seriously when they present at the clinic with worries about problematic media use.

The issue of being addicted to screens is complicated. First, the term “addiction” is loaded and is off-putting for some. There are also many sources of screens (smartphone, tablet, laptop, television), many types of media (social media, TV shows, games) and many ways to use them (active or passive, solitary or social).

Addiction is also an extreme form of dependence and the term should not be used lightly. A comprehensive understanding of an individual’s context, behaviours and the consequences of their actions is needed.

Research into what makes some people more susceptible to addictions shows there are many possible pathways, including genetic and socio-relational factors such as stress. It is important to remember, however, that an increased risk for addiction does not mean that one is destined to become addicted. Many individual, social and environmental factors can protect an individual from developing an addiction.

  • No screen time for children younger than two years (except for video-calling with friends and family).
  • Less than one hour per day of routine or regular screen time for children two to five years old.
  • Avoid screens for at least one hour before bedtime.
  • Maintain daily “screen-free” times, especially for family meals and reading books.

What you can do as a parent?

1. Manage screen use. You can achieve this by creating a family media plan with individualized time and content limits and learning about parental controls and privacy settings. Other tips include co-viewing and talking about content with your children, discouraging use of multiple devices at once, obtaining all passwords and log-in information and discussing appropriate online behaviours.

2. Encourage meaningful screen use. This involves prioritizing daily (non-screen) routines over screen use and helping children and teens to choose age-appropriate content and to recognize problematic content or behaviours. You can become part of your children’s media lives and advocate for schools and child-care programs to consider developing their own plan for digital literacy and screen use.

3. Model healthy screen use. Review your own media habits and plan time for alternative play and activities. Encourage daily “screen-free” times. Turn off your own screens when they are not in use (including background TV). Avoid screens at least one hour before bedtime and discourage recreational screen use in bedrooms.

4. Monitor for signs of problematic use. These signs include: complaints about being bored or unhappy without access to technology and oppositional behaviour in response to screen-time limits. Screen use that interferes with sleep, school, face-to-face interactions, offline play and physical activities is also problematic, as are negative emotions following online interactions.

Integrate screens mindfully

We are fortunate to live in a time of such rapid technological innovation. These technologies open up tremendous opportunities for most (if not all) domains of life, including new and different opportunities for families to connect, engage and bond.

But we do need to be mindful of how we integrate these technologies into our lives and of the consequences they have on ourselves, our relationships and our children.

- By our guest author Abhinav Mukerji

Abhinav Mukerji