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Does Your Child Have a Digital Addiction?

New research suggests that unhealthy habits can begin sooner than you think.

There is certainly is no disputing that children are putting in more media time than ever. Along with televisions, smartphones, texting, and video games, many children now have personal computers, digital music players, and the Internet to fill every waking moment. And evidence suggests that even toddlers and preschoolers now joining the digital masses.

Still, despite repeated warnings from public health experts and researchers, actual research looking at how addictive digital media really is remains fairly limited. In fact, up to now, much of that research has focused on video game addiction. Based on available research, the American Psychiatric Association has even proposed a new diagnosis, Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD). Based on other forms of addictive behaviour such as problem gambling, symptoms that might indicate IGD include: spending excessive amounts of time online, inability to control use, loss of interest in other activities, etc.

But can these same symptoms be applied to other kinds of screen media use? And can those symptoms appear differently in children under the age of twelve than they do in adolescents? A new research article published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture attempts to answer both of these questions. In this article, Sarah E. Domoff of Central Michigan University and a team of researchers presented the results of two studies looking at how parents and children often clashed over media use and whether it was related to other childhood problems.

They focused specifically on preadolescent children (aged 4 to 11) since they are more dependent on their parents for access to digital devices. Also, symptoms of addictive behaviour may be easier to detect in preadolescent children since they are usually not as secretive as older children.

To help with their research, Domoff and her colleagues developed a parent-report measure of children's addictive use of screen media, the Problematic Media Use Measure (PMUM). This measure was developed from a pool of 60 items designed to reflect different symptoms of addictive behaviour as seen in the IGD diagnosis. From this pool, they extracted 27 items that formed the test which they administered to the study participants. Items in the PMUM include:

  • It is increasingly difficult to pull my child away from screen media.
  • My child is always thinking about using screen media
  • My child gets upset when he/she cannot use screen media.
  • Problems occur for our family when my child cannot use screen media.
  • The first thing my child asks to do when he/she comes home from school is to use screen media.

The researchers also developed a nine-item version of the same measure to test how useful the short form was when compared to the longer form. This short form, also known as the PMUM-SF, used items such as:

  • It is hard for my child to stop using screen media
  • When my child has had a bad day, screen media seems to be the only thing that helps him/her feel better
  • My child’s screen media use causes problems for the family.
  • The amount of time my child wants to use screen media keeps increasing.
  • My child sneaks using screen media

Using Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform, the researchers recruited 291 mothers of preadolescent children (average age of seven years). They looked at mothers exclusively since previous studies showed that mothers were more likely than fathers to monitor and restrict media use in young children. The participating mothers were then asked to estimate the average screen time their children engaged in each day as well as the nature of that screen time (amount of time spend watching television shows, playing video games, using computers, etc.).

Participants were also asked items such as "“What age did your child first get his/her OWN mobile device, such as a smartphone or tablet (e.g., iPad and Kindle Fire)?”, “How often do you worry about your child’s screen media use (TV, computer, video games, or mobile device)?” and “What type of screen media does your child use the most (not including screen media used for school or homework)?” They then completed a questionnaire looking at their child's psychosocial functioning, including whether they showed conduct problems, emotional symptoms, or trouble socializing with other children.

Results showed that high scores on both measures correlated strongly with total amount of screen time as reported by the mothers in the study as well as predicting psychological and social problems in children. This included hyperactive behaviour, social problems with other children, as well as conduct problems (aggressive acting out, etc.).

As a further test of their new instrument, Domoff and her colleagues recruited a larger sample of participants that included both mothers and fathers as well as grandparents, siblings, aunts, etc. who acted as primary caregiver of a child between the age of 4 and 14. Along with completing the short form of the PMUM, the 632 caregivers also reported on amount of conflict they had with their children over the various media devices the children used on a regular basis. While most of these conflicts centered around watching television, a large percentage of the children examined in the second study also used tablets, smartphones, video game systems, and desktop/laptop computers as well.

Results showed that the PMUM-SF works well for both boys and girls in detecting problem media use in children under the age of twelve. Also, high scores on the PMUM-SF correlated highly with parents reporting conflicts with their children as well as related behaviour problems.

Overall, these results suggest that problems with media addiction can begin much earlier than many parents realize. As for the PMUM-SF, it is the first test of its kind that specifically focuses on problem media use in preadolescent children. Since it can be completed by parents or other caregivers, this test can help detect problem media behaviour in children who might otherwise be too young to talk about their own symptoms.

While Domoff and her colleagues admit to limitations with their research, particularly since this is a one-time study that doesn't look at how problem media use might change over time, these results do highlight how important it is that parents keep an eye how their children are using media.

As it happens, we are still in the early stages of the digital revolution and new media experiences such as virtual and augmented reality are just around the corner. Perhaps now, more than ever, we should consider what this might mean for the children who will at the forefront of this new digital era.


Domoff, S. E., Harrison, K., Gearhardt, A. N., Gentile, D. A., Lumeng, J. C., & Miller, A. L. (2017, November 16). Development and Validation of the Problematic Media Use Measure: A Parent Report Measure of Screen Media “Addiction” in Children. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Advance online publication.

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