Social media, video games, cellphones... all were concerns for parents even before tech was required for educating at home. As kids continue to remote learn for the immediate future, there's growing concern about digital dependency and normalizing tech behavior that is more necessity than healthy.
"People start doing things out of habit, they're not even tuned into their enjoyment anymore...this is just something I do and it becomes a mindless activity," said Dr. Keith Humphreys, Stanford Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
Research shows children's screen time doubled overall in May of 2020 compared to the previous year. And it's not just teens. An app called Roblox, popular for kids 9-12, saw an 82% increase in 2020 compared to 2019. But tech time isn't all bad; much of what kids do online, socializing or finding something that interests them, is a reflection of how they engage with peer groups relevant to them.
"It's part and parcel of what life is like today...it's a question of do we do it in a healthy way? Do we do it to excess?" said Humphreys.
Tech addiction isn't a medical diagnosis... but warning signs can be very similar to addictive behavior. Lack of interest in other activities: Does your child choose screen time over all other activities? Even breaking rules they set for themselves? Technology is constantly a distraction: Are they fixated or obsessed even when NOT using the device? Do conversations center on what they've experienced online?
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Problematic behavior when unable to access digital devices: Are they irritable or frustrated... do they show signs of withdrawal when not on their device?
How parents address their concerns is important according to addiction expert and author Joshua Andrus.
"You can start to key in with where they're getting their worth and that's a huge warning sign cause that's not going to end with them being a teenager, that's going to extend longer if there's not an intervention," said Andrus.
Start by changing content, rather than usage: going cold turkey becomes more difficult and can seem like punishment.
"There's good, better, best strategies... the best strategies are the ones that you're engaging and filling that void that they could be seeking from their video games or from the social media," said Andrus. "You're now giving them the attention that they are craving through those devices that just end up leaving them feeling more empty."
Make a screen time hierarchy: communal, interactive screen time takes precedence over individual play... some families have their kids earn time online through chores or other activities.
"One has piano, one has guitar...they need to do all those practices and then we give them... if they practice one hour of piano... he gets half an hour of play time," said Siranoush Diradoorian/Parents.
Replace screen time with other fun activities: think of what you can do, instead of what your children shouldn't do. Share time outside, play games together... and remember, your concern about unhealthy behavior is actually a good thing.
"If you're aware and you're tuning into this, then you know that this is something you are... you're winning... you're winning because of your awareness," said Andrus.
Some of the warning signs are simply normal teen behavior... but be aware, what might seem like a tech addiction, could be signs of an underlying mental like depression or ADHD.