Screen Addiction: Teens

Screen-based technologies are ubiquitous these days.  Cell phones, tablets, portable game consoles, portable video players, laptops, smart phones and etcetera ensure that we never have spend a moment fully immersed in reality.  There’s always a screen to escape into.   While these technologies arguably keep us productive and entertained, they have also spawned a number of developmental and emotional disorders–especially among teens.

It’s easy to mistake normal behaviors for healthy behaviors.  Just because everyone is doing something does not mean that it’s without serious consequences.   Problems arising from overuse of screen-based technologies typically stem from excessive use leading to isolation, unhealthy relationships, and social and emotional delays, i.e. immaturity.

The result is a generation of teens many of whom lack age-appropriate social and emotional skills.  In addition, screen addiction can lead to a lost sense of personal control, a tendency to manage anxiety by escaping into fantasy and the inability to form face to face “real” human relationships.  These factors can  create a potential gateway to other addictive disorders.  Screen addiction can also lead to or exacerbate certain personality disorders.  Young women in particular are prone to developing relationships very quickly online and becoming deeply engrossed in potentially unhealthy and artificial relationships.

Like most highly addictive activities, availability and convenience are big causative factors for the proliferation of screen addiction.  Since screen-based technology is replacing written media as the norm for communication, young people have increasingly high levels of access to screen-based activities.  So the technology itself is partly the culprit for this explosion of technology addiction.  Also, adolescents and young adults often struggle developmentally with identity issues; communicating through screen based technology allows them to “try on” new behaviors/identities in a hidden or secretive way before they decide who they are in a face to face relationship.  This can lead to delays in actually developing a stable independent identity.

Because of the hidden, secretive nature of screen-based technology, adolescents and young adults are also able to fulfill their need for thrills and rule breaking, so there is often a high incidence of high-risk or illicit online activity in this population.

Parents may also inadvertently promote the overuse or misuse of technology and should be attentive to this issue.  This is because screen-based technologies provide an incredibly convenient parenting tool.  Busy parents as well as those with their own emotional difficulties or life stresses may overuse this tool to avoid having to deal directly with their children’s difficult behaviors.

By the time a parent suspects that their child’s use of screen-based technology is excessive, it generally is!  At this point, a parent needs to know, believe, and understand they are in charge—even if the child is an adolescent or a young adult living dependently at home.  Parents do not have to allow their children to own a cell phone, iPad, computer and etcetera.  But whether the young person owns their own screen-based tools or just has access to family technology, parents should limit time spent on screen-based technology if their child is not self-regulating effectively.

Putting technology in an easy to monitor place—e.g. the living room, kitchen or somewhere else the family spends time together—is another strategy to help control excessive screen time.  If screen abuse reaches a point where you suspect it is truly out of control and is harming your child’s development, seek professional help.  A therapist or psychologist with experience treating addiction can help assess the situation and offer appropriate guidance and treatment.

Gayle Jensen-Savoie, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and program director for the InnerChange family of treatment centers.  InnerChange provides behavioral-health care for adolescent girls and young women.