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What is Screen Addiction?

Just like alcohol, tobacco and drugs, if not managed carefully, screen time can become an addiction that can damage your health and relationships.

Screen Addiction happens when we use too much technology during our day. This can be watching too much TV, playing video games, constant scrolling through social media, watching YouTube videos or using other Smartphone Apps.

Research shows that pre-pandemic, people spent an average of 3 hrs 15 mins on their mobile devices per day. With screen time ever increasing in our lives, it is important to recognise the signs of addiction and what steps can be taken to take back control of time spent online.

Time spent online can take up such a large part of a person’s waking hours, it is important that we understand how it can impact on a person’s mental health.

Some Statistics: *1

  • People in the UK now check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes of the waking day.
  • Two in five adults (40%) look at their phone within five minutes of waking up, increasing to 65% of those aged under 35.
  • 37% of adults check their phones five minutes before lights out, again increasing to 60% of under-35’
  • One in three Internet users worldwide is under 18yrs of age (UNICEF Report)
  • More than half (54%) admit that connected devices interrupt face-to-face conversations with friends and family.
  • More than two in five (43%) also admit to spending too much time online.
  • Around a third of people say they feel either cut off (34%) or lost (29%) without the internet.
  • 41% of parents of 12-15s find it hard to control their child’s screen time (Ofcom Children and Parents: Media use and attitudes report 2017)

What does Screen Addiction look like?

A loss of interest in other activities: Instead of wanting to read a book or go play sport, you just want to stay near your phone. Even if you are reading a book or having a conversation with someone, you find yourself constantly drawn back to your device.

A lack of control over screen use: Do you know the feeling? When you find yourself passively scrolling through your newsfeed knowing you intended to go to sleep hours ago. What holds you there? What keeps you endlessly clicking your way through that rabbit hole of information, posts and pictures?

It preoccupies your thoughts: Have you ever been in a meeting and found yourself sneakily looking at your phone? Or been on a plane and found yourself getting twitchy that you’re not able to check your new notifications? Perhaps you have arrived at a location to find yourself with no signal and your number one priority is to find out if there is Wi-Fi? Becoming preoccupied with our devices and phones can be a sign we are becoming too reliant of them.

  • It interferes in your interpersonal skills with others and distracts you from face-to-face situations: When you are out with others, how often do you place your phone on the table so that you can keep an eye on the screen? How often do you find yourself ‘just quickly taking this’ when your phone rings, or ‘just briefly replying’ to a message that pings through whilst the other person is speaking? How much focus are you giving to the person in the room with you? Do you even notice you are doing it? Take note of what you do with your phone at your next face to face meeting or interaction.
  • Not being honest about time of usage: This can be a big one. It isn’t just about being dishonest to another about our usage, it can be about being dishonest to ourselves too. When the hours of usage per day comes through, do you believe it? Or do you tell yourself it was work related, justified, or necessary? Being honest with ourselves about the amount of time we spend on our devices is a big step in recognising whether our usage has become unhealthy.

Does your time online affect your mood?

  • Do you feel low after looking at your social media platforms?

Sometimes that passive scroll can bring us down. If you are having a day where you have been feeling a bit down in the dumps and lonely, you assume opening up your phone will spark some joy. Instead, you find yourself scrolling through the best bits of another person’s day. No one mentions the negative parts, the low points, the ‘breaks ups’, do they? It’s all their best bits, their highs and their ‘make ups’ that make the feed. But it can sometimes make us feel worse rather than better. That ‘hit’ we have been looking for, we haven’t found.

  • Do you find yourself feeling like others lead a more interesting life than you?

Comparison can sometimes make it feel as though everyone is leading a far more interesting and exciting life, can’t it? Friends being tagged into events that you weren’t invited to, or a holiday you can’t afford to be on. When your time online becomes about comparison rather than connection, perhaps it’s time to take a step back.

  • Do you feel drained physically or mentally after spending time online?

Our time online can impact us both physically and mentally. It can drain us of energy and make us feel lethargic and low. It can make us feel sleepy or irritable, emotional, and anxious. It’s important to think about how you feel prior to spending time online and then reassessing how you feel after a period spent online. If you do not feel the same or more positive afterwards, perhaps your time online needs to be re – evaluated.

Are you noticing issues with sleep?

Using your device last thing at night can affect sleep patterns. It prevents us having the ‘down time’ we need to relax before bed. Staying constantly connected and accessible to others can also leave us feeling drained and anxious. Access to your device in the night or first thing in the morning can also impact our sleep. Instead of allowing yourself time to rest or allowing your body to decide when it’s ready to wake, you are allowing your screen, and the contacts within it, to do that for you.

Do you feel anxious if you are without your digital devices, or without the ability to connect to social media?

How do you feel when you see ‘no service’ or ‘no Wi-Fi available’? If it makes you feel stressed or anxious, or even irritable, perhaps you need to take another look at why that is and what is causing that feeling.

If the answer to any of the above questions is yes or sound familiar to you then, maybe it is time to look at your use of technology and take some time out to reassess how you are using it, and what changes you need to put in place.

The effects of screen time on children and young people

Like most things, there are positive and negatives to screen time. While we are concerned that too much screen time can negatively affect children and young people and lead to possible addiction, of course, there are benefits to using the Internet too. According to Internet Matters:

Benefits of screen time

  • Online games and activities can enhance teamwork and creativity
  • The internet gives children access to a wealth of information to help build their knowledge
  • Interacting with computers improves both visual intelligence and hand-eye coordination
  • Technology takes away physical barriers to social connections – which is important for children who find it hard to make friends or have special interests or special needs
  • Children in households with computers perform better academically than peers who do not have ready access to computers
  • Outcomes for children are better if they benefit from connected technology

Risks of too much screen time:

If you think your child might be addicted to watching YouTube videos or playing video games, here are some things to look out for:

  1. Loss of interest in other activities: An obvious sign of screen addiction is a loss of interest in other activities. During the pandemic, this may have been harder to spot as all ‘other activities’ ground to a halt. However, these activities don’t have to be ‘outside activities, they could include, family movie night, going for walks, or playing with the family pet. If your child is showing a lack of interest in anything else, it may be time to remove their deviceand help them reconnect with the ‘non digital’ world.
  2. Interferes with Socialising: If your child constantly chooses to stay in and use technology, rather than socialise with friends/family, this could be a sign of screen addiction. Of course, it could be due to shyness or feeling poorly. You know your child best and will be able to judge this. Again, if it is that they have chosen technology over socialising, remove their device during mealtimes or when friends come over so there is no distraction.
  3. Withdrawal Symptoms: When it’s time to turn off the TV or put the device away, how does your child react? Do they get anxious or frustrated? If the answer is yes, they may be suffering from withdrawal symptoms. We would recommend seeking medical help if you feel it is serious and supporting your child to reintegrate with the people around them.
  4. Deceptive Behaviour: Similarly, to other addictions, one symptom is deception. For example, perhaps your child tells you they only use their device for school, but you find it is used for social media or gaming. Perhaps they have set up ways to get around the parental controls, or, maybe they have found the place where you hide their device and they take it when they shouldn’t have it. All of these are symptoms of addiction and need to be responded to with the removal of the device. After a period of detox, it can then be reintroduced, perhaps supervised, and trust can be rebuilt. Why not introduce our Digital Detox Journal to them. Do it together and make it fun rather than a ‘task’.

Becoming someone with a screen addiction can have devastating effects. According to Family Life and Child Development specialist and Early Childhood Education consultant Claudette Avelino-Tandoc, a screen addiction may lead to insomnia, back pain, weight gain or loss, vision problems, headaches, anxiety, dishonesty, feelings of guilt, and loneliness.

How to utilise your devices in a more positive way:

Below are some suggestions on how you and your child can utilise your devices in a more positive way.

  • Setting time limits and being involved with your child’s screen use will enable you to teach them what is and isn’t appropriate and what to avoid.
  • Have you ever noticed how easy it is to feel negative simply by scrolling through your social media platforms? This can happen to our children too. Try not to do this and encourage them to only use social media to be proactive. Use the time you are on there to post something positive to a friend or suggest a catch-up.
  • Alter your perspective and that of your child. Another person’s posts or positivity shouldn’t make you feel low or left out. Talk to them about feelings and how much better they will feel if they turn the negative into something positive by injecting some proactivity into their social media use. By doing this on your platform you will be setting a positive example.
  • Change your internal narrative. Instead of feeling envious about another’s successes, try to feel happy for them. Add a positive comment and see how it makes you feel. See how it then makes them feel and what it then does to your relationship with them. Use your time online to make positive interactions and that in turn will lead to positivity in your mood afterwards.
  • Set a time limit to your time spent online. Never be afraid to take a time out from it. Put down your devices and get outdoors. Go for a walk, take some photos (using a camera if you have one, not a phone. If not, only use your phone to take the photos), have a coffee and pick up a paperback or a magazine. Some self-care and a ‘time out’ can make a big difference to you and your family.
  • For children younger than 18 months: avoid use of devices and screen time, other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 yrs of age: screen use should be limited to around one hour per day of high-quality, relevant programmes. Parents should view the media with children to help them understand what they are seeing.
  • For children age 6yrs and older: place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media. Make sure the media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other activities essential to positive emotional and physical wellbeing.
  • Set ground rules early and enforce them: by designating media-free times together, such as dinner or family time as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms and the dinner table.
  • Stay in the conversation: by having ongoing communication about online behaviour and safety, including treating others with respect both online and offline.

How to check your time online:

  • On most smart phones and digital devices, you can check screen time and usage. It will even break it down into what times of the day you most frequently use your phone and what percentage of that time you spend on the varying apps. Monitoring usage per day and per week can give a unique insight into how your device is used.
  • We now live in an age where our usage of devices has moved on from being something we use to make a call or send a text. Nowadays, we utilise the app function on our smart phones far more and instead of a phone call we may WhatsApp or leave a voice note instead. As our usage develops and adapts, it has never been more important to keep track of what times of the day we use our phone most, what functions we use it for and which of those functions add value to our day.

Children may not be honest to you about their time spent online to be allowed more and more access. Checking usage via the device itself can be a good way to gauge, in both cases, accurate usage time.

Stepping back and looking at research, the impact of screen time on children’s well-being is still being debated, however, more and more experts suggest that we should focus more on what children are doing online and less on how long they are online (Internet Matters).



Photo by Emily Wade on Unsplash

Photo by Ludovic Toinel on Unsplash

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