Last Updated: January 2021
If you are the caregiver or parent of a teen, you know how important technology is and the role that it plays in the life of today’s teenagers. Not an hour goes by that most teens don’t click, post or swipe.
Recent studies show that the average teen spends 7.5 hours a day using some type of digital technology. That number jumps up to 9-11 hours a day when you factor in multi-tasking and the many screens that teens find themselves in front of at the same time.
In fact, 45% of teenagers in one recent study admitted they are online “almost constantly” and a full 9 out of 10 teens felt that spending too much time with technology is a serious problem facing their generation.
So, is your teen daughter or son’s technology use just the latest thing to be concerned about or is it really an addiction?
Learn more about technology addiction in teenagers and how to find help or treatment for your child and family.
Technology Addiction in Teens
Technology addiction (also called internet addiction or internet use disorder, among other names) is a broad term used to describe any obsessive tech-related behavior – be that gaming, online shopping, social media, video watching or anything else involving digital technology.
Although “Internet gaming disorder” was classified as a mental health condition by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018 and may soon be included by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the international behavioral and mental health community doesn’t yet recognize technology overuse as an official clinical addiction.
The obsessive use of technology does, in fact, have similarities with substance abuse and other addictions, including activating the reward centers of the brain and can affect the brain’s white matter, such as disrupting neural pathways related to executive functioning.
However, technology addiction in teens is significantly different from drug addiction in other ways. As Dr. Matthew Cruger, a neuropsychologist and the Director of the Child Mind Institute explained, “With addiction, you have a chemical that changes the way we respond that leads us to be reliant on it for our level of functioning. That’s not what‘s happening here. We don’t develop higher levels of tolerance. We don’t need more and more screen time in order to be able to function.”
More than likely, when we say we say “tech addiction” what we’re really talking about is the feeling that teenagers have, of not being able to do without a favorite game or their phone, and the negative behaviors that can come when teens are made to do without them.
In fact, in another study, half of teens themselves admitted they feel addicted to their mobile device, and three-quarters feel compelled to check their likes on social media posts, “level up” on their favorite games and/or immediately respond to texts.
Tech addiction doesn’t have to be clinically classified as an addiction to be a serious problem, however. Along with comparing tech addiction to “digital cocaine,” others have linked increased screen time to the shocking increase in ADHD, adolescent anxiety, depression and the rise in suicide.
Clearly, there’s a problem.
5 Steps to Take to Treat Technology Addiction
What it really comes down to, is if the technology is interfering negatively with your child’s or family’s daily life.
- Do you find your child denying there is a problem?
- Does being without a phone or Wi-Fi cause irritability or panic?
- Does your teen sleep less now or has their weight fluctuated?
- Have your daughter or son’s grades or friendships suffered?
All of these are signs that the use of technology may be getting out of control.
Here are five tips to help your child break their tech addiction:
1. Get out.
Building some technology-free diversions into the day can help. Get outside with your daughter or son and encourage them to join a club, volunteer at an animal shelter or local food bank, or create art or work with pottery. Anything that (1) occupies their time in a constructive way and (2) uses no technology is acceptable.
2. Get real.
One of the first signs that technology is a problem is denying it is one. So first, take a brutally-honest inventory of your child’s technology habits. If they’re a gamer, for instance, set a timer and keep a journal of how often and how long he or she plays.
Tracking phone usage is easy; for Android and iPhones, simply use the Screen Time app, included with the phone. Screen Time gives a detailed view of the time spent on the device, as well as what apps and websites were used, how many times the device was picked up, and other details of their smartphone usage. There are lots of other phone apps, extensions and tools that can help your teen get realistic about their technology use, and the first step is having the information needed to manage it.
3. Make a plan.
Don’t have your child rely on their willpower alone. You’ll be going against the high-tech giants and the world’s smartest minds, all fighting for your daughter or son’s attention. Instead, make a plan.
Create a routine that adds other things into their schedule. For example, when your teen wakes up, have them get a glass of water, open their windows, stretch, look at the sun and sky (corny as it sounds), all before checking their phone. When they come home from school or work, repeat with new tasks, such as taking the dog out, making a snack, etc. Whatever they decide, have them pick a few tasks to do before logging into their gaming, social media or other tech accounts.
4. Start small.
Once your child is aware of their average daily technology use, they can start thinking about how to reduce it. Plan to start small, such as having them take a break during meal times, or reducing their tech use by one hour per week. You can set limits through the Screen Time app or whatever app/tool you choose to use. You can also set alarms and notifications to remind them when to take a break and to keep them honest.
5. Recognize when to seek help.
Sometimes even with the best intentions, plans and tools, tech addiction is too much of a challenge to conquer alone. Often, a serious addiction to technology is a symptom of an underlying issue that needs to be addressed, such as ADHD, depression, low self-esteem, obsessive-compulsive disorder or unresolved trauma. If struggles with excessive gaming, smartphone use or social media addiction are affecting your child’s health, home, school performance, sleep or social life, maybe it’s time to talk to a professional.
At Embark Behavioral Health, we have specialists who can help struggling families and teenagers to find balance and put technology back in its place.
Embark addresses any underlying issues, teaches positive coping skills, and gives teens the confidence and tools needed to succeed.