cartoon depicting screen addictiion
Adults, Child Therapy, Parent Coaching

Let’s Talk About Screen Addiction

Ok, you see the title and you roll your eyes.  You’ve heard this one before.  “Look up from your phone once in a while!”  “Go outside and play!” “Get off my lawn!” Don’t worry, this isn’t another blog post about how screen usage is bad. Or that video games are corrupting our youth or that Facebook is the devil. Blah Blah Blah. 

I’m not here to preach! However, we live in strange times. Technology is a bigger part of our lives than ever before. And so it’s natural to wonder if too much time in front of our phones, computers, and video games can be too much of a good thing.  

But wait!  My classes are online!  My job is on Zoom!  It’s my only source of entertainment! Hey, can’t I do therapy online, too? I need my screens!

That may be true, but our screen time isn’t always productive.  In fact, how often have you “mindlessly” scrolled through Instagram or “mindlessly” browsed Amazon? Maybe you’ve seen your kids “mindlessly” watch video after video. This could be to the point that they’ve fallen deep into the rabbit hole of their Youtube queue. Or played Fortnite until the sun comes up.  

In a world where the average teenager spends more time in front of a screen than asleep, the way to prevent screen addiction is to go from “mindless” to “mindful.”  

The need to limit our screen time is real. Even prior to the pandemic, mental health professionals have recognizing that children, teens, and even adults are increasingly at risk of becoming addicted to their screens. So, it leads us to wonder, how many hours per day are acceptable?  How do we separate work and school screen time from entertainment?  What devices should my kid be allowed to use before bed?

The frustrating answer is… it’s not that simple. Wouldn’t we all love it if all the experts could agree on a simple guide that told us exactly what type of screen usage is “healthy” and in what amount?  Of course!  However, since research is constantly evolving and all of our individual circumstances are different, there’s no one-size-fits-all rule. Nonetheless, there are warning signs to look out for that might indicate that you or child are getting a bit too hooked. 

back of a young boy's head facing a tv depicting his screen addiction

How to know if you may be developing screen addiction

These are some of the signs to look for

  • You’ve tried to reduce your screen time and can’t
  • You struggle to control your emotions when your access is taken away
  • You find yourself becoming secretive about your technology use
  • You find difficulty enjoying other activities away from your phone or computer
  • You lose track of your bodily cues (tiredness, hunger, full bladder etc) while using your screen
  • You sacrifice other needs, such as sleeping or working, to spend more time in front of the TV, playing video games, or scrolling till your hand is sore.
  • Using screens, in whatever form, is the only way you’re able to unwind, calm yourself down, or remain calm

So, what if you read this list and think, “I’m looking at a screen all day, but I’m not addicted…. am I?” You may not be.  When we use the term addiction, we are describing a nearly physiological dependency for consumption in order to feel pleasure or to function. 

However, even if it’s not a screen addiction, technology overuse can still be problematic.  In younger people, excessive screen usage can interfere with the development of social skills and contribute to aggression and even violence.  Adults are at heightened risk for obesity, vision problems, and attention deficits as a result of overuse.  Other physical and psychological impacts to overuse include:

Even if you don’t have a screen addiction, there are still physical and psychological impacts to overuse.

These include:

woman with a screen addiction holding her phone in bed
  • Eye strain
  • Decreased physical activity and time outdoors
  • Muscle and joint soreness
  • Difficulty interacting with others in person
  • Feeling constantly distracted when present with family and friends
  • Decreasing self-confidence
  • Relationship distress with spouses, parents, or friends.

A common counter-argument in favor of more screen time is that we’re increasing our connectedness to others, whether it’s by texting, gaming, or any other means. Dr. Christine Carter of UC Berkeley says not so fast.  According to their study, teens who are “connected” all day are more lonely than ever before.  It seems like a paradox, but with increased exposure comes increased comparison to others and materialism.  Even more so, with every party or bonfire posted on Snapchat, people are hyper-aware of when they are not being included, which can contribute to feelings of depression and low self-esteem.

With all these warning signs, we might forget that in general, access to technology is a good thing!  As digital natives, we rely on the internet or our phones in more ways than we could possibly think of.  By making sure that we are being mindful with our screen time, we can cut down on the negative impacts of overuse and make sure that we are always remaining in control of our actions.

If either the more severe signs or the more mild signs sound like they apply to you or someone in your family, consider rethinking your relationship with your screen. Bringing awareness to your screen use is essential for preventing and/or treating a screen addiction.

Tips for Mindful Screen Usage

Know what you’re doing.

Go in with a plan before switching on your device.  Instead of mindlessly doom scrolling or searching for random videos, go in with a set purpose of what you want to play, who you want to talk to, or what you’re going to watch.

Reframe screen time to screen sessions

Dr. Clifford Sussman, a psychiatrist who specializes in screen addiction, says you should think of your screen usage less in terms of how much time you’re spending and more in terms of how many “sessions” you’re having.  So instead of saying you’re going to play video games for two hours a day, try playing in two one-hour-long sessions. Make sure to take at least a one hour break in between screen sessions.

Set a schedule for yourself or your kids.

There’s nothing like the ol’ tried and true schedule.  Schedules can be hard to enforce, whether it’s self-imposed or used as a parenting tool. Consider using an incentive-based rewards system for sticking to the schedule. But try to avoid using extra video game time or a later bedtime as the reward for sticking to your screen schedule. Try floating a fun physical activity instead.

Set an example for your children with your own screen usage

You can help yourself and your kids by setting a good example.  Studies show that children as young as two can notice when you’ve become distracted by your phone and will increasingly act out to battle for your attention.  Once the toddler has learned that acting out will get your attention, that becomes an increasingly difficult behavior to break.

Limit exposure to screen use in your bedroom.

Screens can be disruptive to our sleep hygiene.  Have you ever gotten into bed at 9:00 with your laptop only to look up and notice it’s midnight?  Try putting the phone down before bed and focus on getting some rest. 

Don’t think of it as less time to use your screens, think of it as more time to do something else!

Think of how glad you’ll be to have built in time to enjoy the outdoors, write in a journal, or cook a nice meal. The opportunities are endless! If there is nothing else that you are excited about, brainstorm with a friend, parent, or therapist.

Think outside the box.

Sure, you’ve been told to delete Facebook from your phone a million times, but it’s just not gonna happen. Fair enough. But have you thought about downloading another app that will help manage your screen time? I personally love Freedom and Our Pact to help get this done!

Still having a hard time managing your screen usage?  Worried that it’s truly becoming an addiction?

It’s not easy, but you’ve come to the right place! Therapy can be a helpful way of tackling the task at hand. It can also help with the issues that lie under the surface of screen addiction. Working on any co-occurring symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, or social distress is vital to overcoming screen addition. We can work together to assess the cause of the over-usage or addiction, increase your motivation to change, and strategize collaboratively on both practical and emotional interventions that will work for you. It’s as easy as 1,2,3.

  1. Contact Montgomery County Counseling Center 
  2. Schedule an intake with me to discuss your screen addiction concerns
  3. Start helping yourself or your kid now!

About the Author

Alex Bleweis, therapist who specializes in gambling problems

Alex Bleiweis, LMSW is a licensed social worker and Therapist at Montgomery County Counseling Center in Rockville and Olney, MD. He earned his Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Maryland School of Social Work in 2021, where he was named student of the Year. He training is rooted in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Among his many strengths, Alex specializes in treating young adults and professionals, career concerns, and process addictions such as gambling problems and technology addictions.

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