New research shows that parents may be thinking about screen time all wrong

Is your kid addicted to technology?

Several studies have demonstrated the harmful effects that too much screen time can have on children, including one study that found toddlers who use touch screens sleep less and another that showed screen time can interfere with speech development.

Up until now, parents’ concerns about screen time have centered on how much time children spend using digital devices. But a new study from the University of Michigan suggests that instead of prescribing a set amount of screen time for their children, parents should instead look for warning signs of screen addiction.

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

The research suggests that how children use digital devices is the strongest predictor of emotional or social problems linked to screen addiction.

“Our study has demonstrated that there is more to it than number of hours,” Sarah Domoff, who did the research while she was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development, said in a press release.

Domoff said screen time becomes dangerous for kids when it “causes problems in other areas of life or has become an all-consuming activity.”

To help parents decipher whether their children might be addicted to screens, Domoff developed a series of warning signs. She believes this is the first tool in the United States that can be used to measure screen-media addiction in children ages 4 to 11, as much of the previous research focuses on adolescents and screen use.

Signs Your Child May Suffer From Screen Addiction

  • Unsuccessful Control: It is hard for the child to stop using screen media.
  • Loss of Interest: Screen media is the only thing that seems to motivate the child.
  • Preoccupation: Screen media is all the child seems to think about.
  • Psychosocial Consequences: The child’s screen-media use interferes with family activities.
  • Serious Problems Due to Use: The child’s screen-media use causes problems for the family.
  • Withdrawal: The child becomes frustrated when he or she cannot use screen media.
  • Tolerance: The amount of time the child wants to use screen media keeps increasing.
  • Deception: The child sneaks using screen media.
  • Escape/Relieve Mood: When a child has had a bad day, screen media seems to be the only thing that helps him or her feel better.

If you notice warning signs of screen addiction, you may want to talk to your pediatrician.

If you want to curb the amount of time your children use screens, or you sense screen time is starting to become excessive, Consumer Reports has some tips. For example, try out a “phone-free Friday” or distraction-free dinnertime, when everyone—adults included—places their phone in a drawer or box.