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9 Warning Signs Your Child May Be Lost in Cyberspace

New study identifies nine signs of screen media addiction in children ages 4-11.

This post is in response to
The Neurochemistry of Smartphone Addiction
 Kylie Walls/Shutterstock
Source: Kylie Walls/Shutterstock

As the father of a 10-year-old, it was with a sense of urgency that I printed out a new checklist from the University of Michigan Center for Human Growth & Development that helps parents of children ages 4-11 identify if their kids are suffering from what experts call “screen media addiction.” The U-M paper, “Development and Validation of the Problematic Media Use Measure: A Parent Report Measure of Screen Media ‘Addiction’ in Children,” was recently published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

This study was spearheaded by lead author Sarah Domoff, who conducted the pioneering research when she was a postdoctoral fellow at U-M Human Growth & Development.

Most parents assume that more screen time is bad, and less is good. But, Dornoff et al. found that how many hours per day a child spends interfacing with some type of digital device isn’t automatically the best predictor of potential emotional or social problems connected with screen media addiction.

"Typically, researchers and clinicians quantify or consider the amount of screen time as of paramount importance in determining what is normal or not normal or healthy or unhealthy," Dornoff said in a statement. "Our study has demonstrated that there is more to it than number of hours. What matters most is whether screen use causes problems in other areas of life or has become an all-consuming activity."

There is a growing body of research focusing on problematic habits of adolescents and teenagers surrounding excessive screen time and social media use. For example, in a recent Psychology Today blog post, "The Neurochemistry of Smartphone Addiction," I reported on state-of-the-art brain imaging which found that teens with screen media addiction displayed neurochemical imbalances in the brain. Another study, from March 2017, found that excessive social media usage exacerbates perceived social isolation among young adults in the United States.

However, until recently, there has been a dearth of clinical research on screen media addiction in pre-teens. In fact, to the best of her knowledge, Sarah Dornoff believes the latest UMCHGD study is the first in the U.S. to pinpoint the warning signs of screen media addiction in children aged 4 through 11. She's optimistic that honing in on the nine specific warning signs of screen media addiction listed below will be a valuable tool for parents, clinicians, and researchers.

Nine Warning Signs of Screen Media Addiction

  1. Unsuccessful Control: It is hard for my child to stop using screen media.
  2. Loss of Interest: Screen media is the only thing that seems to motivate my child.
  3. Preoccupation: Screen media is all my child seems to think about.
  4. Psychosocial Consequences: My child's screen media use interferes with family activities.
  5. Serious Problems Due to Use: My child's screen media use causes problems for the family.
  6. Withdrawal: My child becomes frustrated when he/she cannot use screen media.
  7. Tolerance: The amount of time my child wants to use screen media keeps increasing.
  8. Deception: My child sneaks using screen media.
  9. Escape/Relieve Mood: When my child has had a bad day, screen media seems to be the only thing that helps him/her feel better.

Across the board, kids who use screen media in unhealthy ways or appear to be "lost in cyberspace" tend to have problems with interpersonal relationships and other emotional symptoms.

Lastly, there is one important caveat regarding correlation and causation: This study did not examine or establish causality between the emotional and behavioral problems correlated with screen media addiction, or determine which came first.

Domoff is currently an assistant professor of psychology at Central Michigan University. Other co-authors of this study include University of Michigan's Kristen Harrison, Ashley Gearhardt, Julie Lumeng, and Alison Miller; along with Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University.


Domoff, Sarah E., Kristen Harrison, Ashley N. Gearhardt, Douglas A. Gentile, Julie C. Lumeng, Alison L. Miller. "Development and Validation of the Problematic Media Use Measure: A Parent Report Measure of Screen Media “Addiction” in Children." Psychology of Popular Media Culture (Published online: November 16, 2017) DOI: 10.1037/ppm0000163

Bányai, Fanni, Ágnes Zsila, Orsolya Király, Aniko Maraz, Zsuzsanna Elekes, Mark D. Griffiths, Cecilie Schou Andreassen, and Zsolt Demetrovics. "Problematic Social Media Use: Results from a Large-Scale Nationally Representative Adolescent Sample." PloS One (Published: January 9, 2017) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0169839

Primack, Brian A., Ariel Shensa, Jaime E. Sidani, Erin O. Whaite, Liu yi Lin, Daniel Rosen, Jason B. Colditz, Ana Radovic, Elizabeth Miller. "Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S." American Journal of Preventive Medicine (Published online: March 5, 2017) DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.010

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