Kids won’t drop the games console? Glued to their phone and social media accounts or chatGPT? The children and technology relationship is one both psychologists and parents are concerned by.
Author and parent Liat Hughes Joshi explores.
The modern parenting challenge?
Screen overload is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges modern mums and dads face with their families.
Whether it’s a toddler who throws tantrums when you take your iPhone back, a primary schooler who is glued to Fortnite, or a teen obsessed with Instagramming their every move? When it comes to children and technology it’s easy to declare, ‘they’re addicted’. But are they?
It’s true that the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared ‘gaming disorder’ a recognised condition in 2018.
But reality is that most children are not addicted, just more enthusiastic than we’d like. If your child maintains other hobbies like sports, has a social life, is in good health, and is doing well at school, then they are unlikely to be addicted.
How can I tell if my child has an actual screen addiction?
Screen addiction is like any addiction. The hallmark sign is that it impacts all areas of life.
This is made clear in the WHO description of gaming disorder, which they explain is “characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming…to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.’
Observe your child or teen’s behaviour and look out for the following signs:
1.Preferring screens to people or activities they previously enjoyed. This would of course be beyond the normal teen temperamental behaviour, or the flightiness of some younger children.
2. Responding disproportionately when you ask them to switch off their tech activity. This could mean meltdowns, sullenness, or aggressive comments.
3. Exhibiting classic withdrawal symptoms. Notice your child’s behaviour when they using technology. Anxiety is a key withdrawal symptom. Also look for mood swings, snappiness, and listlessness.
4. A significant decline in school performance. They might be less interested in school, or unable to pay attention.
5. Sleep problems. This could be having trouble sleeping, or staying up very late or even all night to use their gadget.
6. Increasing secrecy. Talking less with you, being dishonest and hiding things. This is of course also part of adolescence, but in this case the secrecy would be around tech use, such as buying a game you’d banned, or saying they were doing homework when they were on their devices.
How to manage children and technology
Child not addicted, but veering in that direction? It’s still worth taking seriously. As the Royal College of Psychiatrists states about children and technology,
“when screen time displaces…activities [such as eating, sleeping, socialising], the evidence suggests there is a risk to child wellbeing.”
Take steps now to manage your child’s technology habit.
1. Determine your family screen rules.
Every family’s rules will be different, but having set time limits appeals to a lot of parents. For younger children you could stick with an hour a day – this is plenty when they don’t need to be online.
For older children who need tech for homework tasks, it can work better to split screen activities and have separate time limits for recreation (e.g. gaming/ social media) versus functional purposes, such as reading on a Kindle or (genuine) homework research.
Think too about whether there are there are times of day or situations when you’d like to ban screen use altogether. Perhaps during meals, or when relatives visit.
Another option is to only allow gadgets after certain other requirements are met, such as homework, or certain chores.
A ban on phone and tablets in bedrooms at night is certainly wise for most children. By insisting they are left downstairs, you remove the option to log in after lights out.
Once you’ve got an initial idea of the rules you’d like to introduce, sit down as a family and discuss them. Are there any reasonable ones that you or the kids might want to suggest for the grown-ups? Print or write out your new family rules and stick them up on the fridge or similar.
2. Have clear consequences for breaking the rules.
Most effective is simply reducing their screen access further if they can’t stick with what’s been agreed. You’ll need to be prepared to follow through with this though, even if it means much whining and being told ‘I hate you’ by your child.
Remember that parenting is about doing the right thing for your kids, not being popular.
3. Use tech to manage tech.
New ‘parental control’ services and apps are launching all the time, designed to help manage family screen usage and enhance online safety. Check what parental control options are available on both the gadgets themselves and via your broadband provider.
For example, Apple’s new ‘Screen Time’ tool lets you check how kids are spending their online time, and means you can block usage of particular functions for set periods.
4. Go in for a digital detox.
A digital detox can make a significant difference to your child’s experience of tech, reminding them of what they could be doing instead of staring at a screen, and helping wean them off that feeling of wanting to go online all the time.
It doesn’t have to be for a long time. Your detox could be on a particular day/ afternoon every week, with only occasional longer periods, such as a holiday somewhere with no wifi and poor mobile coverage that forces a detox.
If your children need phones to contact you when going out independently, ‘dumb phones’ can be purchased for as little as £15 online and used for calls only.
Suspect your child has an actual screen addiction?
Addiction is not a cut and dry situation, and would be more involved than just tech itself. It is very helpful to offer your child the chance to talk to someone unbiased and outside the family, such as a counsellor or child psychologist.
Addiction is connected to family dynamics, so another option is to consider family counselling, where you can together look at communication patterns and unresolved past issues that might be causing your child or teen to act out.
Harley Therapy connects you with highly experienced child psychologists and family therapists in central London. Or use our booking platform to find therapists UK-wide and online therapy you can access from anywhere.
Have another question about children and technology? Or want to share your own tips with other readers? Comment below. Not all comments are moderated and we do not allow inflammatory content or advertisements.
photo by Andrew Crowley
Liat Hughes Joshi is a London-based journalist, author and commentator. She has written five parenting books including “How to Unplug Your Child” (Summersdale). Find her at @liathughesjoshi on Twitter and Instagram.