Knowing When Technology Has Become a Problem for Your Child

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services

Technology is ubiquitous; computers, tablets, gaming systems, smartphones — wherever we are or go these days, it seems that some sort of screen is right there with us. While there are plenty of advantages to having become a technology-driven world, our children are also at risk for its misuse and overuse.

According to research on screen and media time use, teens spend as much as 9 hours a day on media, and tweens around 6 hours a day. And findings have shown that technology problems for children can start very early in life. Before their first birthday, one in seven babies is on a mobile device for at least an hour a day. Most concerning are the developmental research findings that have shown that exposure to certain types of technology (e.g., overstimulating media) for infants and toddlers can lead to later intellectual/cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems.

As a child psychologist, I frequently meet with parents and their children or teens to help them better manage screen and media time use. In my work, there is very often a relationship between a child or teen’s screen and media time overuse and the emotional struggles, social struggles, academic struggles, and/or health struggles (e.g., weight gain and sleep problems) they are experiencing.

So, does your child or teen have a problem with technology? I invite you to take a look at the following questions to help you find your answer:

• Does your child or teen have a compulsive or addictive relationship with technology?

• Is your child or teen more comfortable in virtual reality than reality; is being with technology more attractive for your child or teen than being in real-time?

• Does your child or teen dysregulate or become upset when he or she does not have access to technology or when technology limitations are put in place?

• Has your child or teen talked about how he or she will have a career as a gamer, game designer, or YouTube personality?

• Does your child or teen isolate themselves for long periods of time with technology?

• Does your child or teen constantly talk about or become distracted by technology?

• Has your child or teen told you that he or she does not have problems with socializing because he or she is socializing during video games or online in different ways?

• Has your child or teen’s functioning suffered due to technology use (e.g., withdrawing socially, an increase in poor grades, gaining weight, exhibiting symptoms of depression or anxiety, or having mood swings and/or behavior problems in relation to technology)?

• Have your child or teen’s sleeping patterns, hygiene, and eating patterns been negatively impacted by technology use?

• Has your child experienced observable withdrawal symptoms when they cannot game or get online?

• Has your child or teen engaged in lying or devious behavior due to technology use?

• Has technology use led to a decrease in activities that were once enjoyable to your child or teen?

An affirmative answer to any one of these questions should be a red flag for you as a parent or parents. If you answered yes to two or three of the above questions, your child or teen likely has a very real problem with technology. So, what do you do? I offer the following tips to help parents with screen and media time management:

• Block adult contact with parent controls on all devices.

• Know what your child or teen is watching and doing.

• Set limits — if your child or teen is disagreeable with you setting limits, then there are programs available now that you can set to blocks of time for usage or that can turn off your child’s technology at a specific time each day or evening.

• Designate screen-free moments and zones in the house — no technology at meals or at other times or in certain spaces.

• Technology use should be in public, monitored areas of the Home — do not allow TVs, gaming systems, or computers in your child or teen’s rooms.

• Strive for balance in your child or teen’s day, and keep them busy — if your child or teen is outside of the house engaging in structured or unstructured activities, he or she is not at home over engaging in technology.

• Periodically check the browser history of your child or teen’s computer and monitor or check other devices.

• Show an interest in your child or teen’s technology — from video games to YouTube or social media, your child or teen will likely feel respected by you and closer to you if they experience you as an ally with technology and not just the rule enforcer.

• The quality of the content is just as important as the time spent engaging in it, so encourage positive and productive content whenever you can (e.g., helping your child or teen with organization or time management with an online calendar).

• Teach your child or teen appropriate behaviors that apply in both the real and online worlds.

• Lead by example — limit your own media use and model online etiquette.

By implementing the above tips, and with some time, screen and media time management can be achieved. Remember, technology should be a positive thing for our children and teens, and when used in moderation and appropriately, it can complement and enhance their lives. But if your child or teen’s technology problems have become too big to correct alone as parents, I recommend that you seek out the assistance of a child psychologist with training and experience in this area.