Preventing Screen Addiction in Children
Updated: Jul 16
Addiction is a condition that keeps us from making the right choice, resulting in creating and engaging in harmful behavior patterns affecting our mental and physical health. Screen addiction is becoming a prominent issue for adults and children alike. Screens; TV, phone, desktop, laptop, gaming devices, and tablets have become an integral part of our life, more so with COVID-19 situation. Our whole world is on our phone. Avoiding screens or eliminating them is not possible. However, we do have to be mindful about using them.
A word of caution, do not use the word "addiction" lightly. When a person is addicted to something, that external stimulus becomes the most important part of their life. Generally, children are not addicted to screens, they spend too much time on it. In the process, sports, homework, family time gets sidelined.
How do we get attracted to the screen?
An external stimulus activates the reward center in the brain to release dopamine, which creates a sense of joy and pleasure. This motivates the continuation of the activity and/or increasing the frequency of the activity.
Take a simple example. One spoon of ice cream on a hot summer day creates such a pleasurable experience that you can not stop at one. Your brain wakes up with the first thought of having ice cream. It remembers the joyful sensation from the experience. The colorful sight, the cold ice cream on the tongue melting in your mouth providing relief from the heat, and your favorite flavor waking up your senses. All of this experience is lived in a moment and before you know it the ice cream bowl is empty. The same thing happens with screens. You are looking forward to watching the next episode of your favorite show because you are engaged with the plot, involved in the characters, and would love to know what happens next. It applies to children too. They get hooked on a show or a video game. Their reward center gets activated when they reach the next level in the video game or they get thumbs up on their social media post. That keeps them going back for more.
The good news is that the reward center gets activated with other activities and connections such as sports, a loving family connection, painting, singing, reading, or engaging with friends in person. As a parent, you can provide opportunities to engage in these to experience joy.
Recommended Screen Time for Children
Here are the recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP recommends parents watching media with young children to help them make sense of the content and to relate it to their life.
For children younger than 18 months, avoid the use of screen media other than video-chatting for a limited time.
For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs.
For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media
What Can You Do to Prevent Screen Addiction?
It starts from day one for the children. We all have witnessed how infants get mesmerized by screens. Their eyes get fixed on it and they have that dazed look on their face. Start monitoring your screen use in front of your infant. It starts with the innocent face time with grandparents or cousins. Pretty soon it becomes a habit.
Stop using the screen as a babysitter - We are all guilty of this. It is the easiest way to get the child off your back when you have to work from home. Monitor how many times a day and for how long you are using this babysitter. Can you get your kid to help you with cleaning up the room or help with washing the vegetables, setting up the table? Find something they can do on the side. Make it interesting, like playing audio of the music they like on the side. This stimulates their brain, refines motor skills, and creates a habit of helping parents. Yes, it does take more effort, but it is worth it.
Family Media rules - Establish family rules about screen time as early as possible. Be clear about what 'screen' means. Set up 'screen-free' times and areas such as dinner time, no video games before homework is done, or no screens 1 hour before bedtime. Set up the screens in the common area and monitor your kid. That does not mean looking over their shoulder all the time. Be in the area, move around, glance at the screen, if you find any content suspicious; address it. Use parental control software to limit the websites and times on screen.
Follow the rules yourself, be a role model.
Watch your screen habits - Kids are always watching their parents, and learning from them. Monitor and re-examine your screen use. How many times are you touching your phone? How much time is the TV on even though you are not sitting in front of it? What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Are you distracted by the phone when the kids are talking to you? Remember, children are going to mimic your habits so be mindful.
Encourage meaningful screen use - Online resources can be very useful in increasing knowledge, and opportunities. Social media can provide a sense of connectedness, friendship, and belonging. When used appropriately, technology is an effective tool for personality development, academic achievement, encouraging learning and enriched family time. Talk to your children about the right and wrong way of using it.
Engage in varied activities regularly - You can influence your child in a positive way by providing them opportunities to engage in varied nurturing activities. Make them a part of their daily calendar. Activities like reading, playing outside with their friends or siblings, solving puzzles, playing board games, science experiments, going for a bike ride or a walk, going to the park, playing sports, role-play, pretend play, drawing, writing; making storybooks, collecting things like bugs, leaves, rocks. Free time is also very important to stimulate creativity. Maybe, in the beginning, you have to get involved and guide them, but pretty soon that need vanishes. This is a screen-free time and if they ask for the screen, be firm. They will soon learn the perks of getting offline.
Get updated - Multiple new apps and platforms are coming out every day. Learn about popular games, social media platforms, and apps for your child's age group. Get familiar with whatever your kid is using. Increase your knowledge to decide the appropriateness of it. Strike a conversation with your child about their favorite game or a YouTube show. This will help with opening up communication channels, increase the comfort level between you and your child. There is no shame in admitting you are not 'hip'. Your kid already knows it.
If you look at online resources and social media as a tool to enhance your lifestyle rather than a must-have entity, it might help with monitoring its use and controlling it. You know that you have lost control over them when all the screens around you grab and hold your attention at will instead of you summoning them to work for you. Teach the children to be mindful about technology use and become a role model for them.