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How to Tell if Your Child Has a Problem With Screens

A new study gives parents key questions to ask.

A lot of parents are stressing out about their children’s relationship to screens. Television is nothing new, and home video game systems have been common for 30 years. There’s debate over whether total screen time has actually grown over the generations. But the enticements of mobile devices really seem to be ratcheting up the appeal for many kids. As a kid in the 1980s, I had to wait for my favorite TV shows to come on and watched the same battered VHS tapes over and over again. Video and interactive entertainment is now anytime, anywhere, and on-demand.

However, until recently both parents and clinicians have lacked a common vocabulary for talking about screen media use and the problems that can come with it. Time can’t be the only measure of screen problems, in part because we are all using a lot of media: hours every day, in fact, including at school for kids. And, it’s important to note, many if not most children seem to be resilient to it. They can enjoy their favorite TV show or video game and may grumble a bit when it’s time to turn it off, but they see few issues in other areas of their lives.

A new study released in November introduces a new way of looking at the problem. It’s titled “Development and Validation of the Problematic Media Use Measure: A Parent Report Measure of Screen Media 'Addiction' in Children.” It might also be called a handy list of red flags to watch out for.

Chris Parfitt/Child Using Laptop/Flickr
Source: Chris Parfitt/Child Using Laptop/Flickr

The researchers based their measure on the criteria for “Internet Gaming Disorder” included in the DSM-5. This is listed as a condition for further study, not an official diagnosis. By the same token, the title of the new study puts the term addiction in quotes, because there is not yet a consensus that interactions with screen media constitute a standalone addiction for children, adolescents, or adults. Whether you call it addiction or “problematic use,” the framework is important because it focuses on the larger emotional and behavioral context: the role that screens play in a child’s life.

  • Has your child lost interest in activities other than screens?
  • Do they have trouble stopping?
  • Do they seem to think about their preferred activity all the time?
  • Is it the only thing that puts them in a good mood, and are they angry or otherwise unhappy when forced to cut back or unplug?
  • Is their use increasing over time?
  • Do they sneak around to use screens?
  • Does it interfere with family activities?
  • Does it cause problems for others in the family?

In the first of two studies reported here, the researchers asked 291 mothers to answer versions of these questions, plus measures of screen time, and of psychosocial functioning. The “problematic media use measure” seemed to be validated, insofar as it predicted children’s problems in other areas of their lives. In a second study, the researchers validated the measure as applying to both boys and girls from ages 4 to 11.

Since I started researching The Art of Screen Time, I have heard from parents who worry because their kids seem to be “obsessed” with a certain type of media activity. Answering these questions is a good place to go with that anxiety. Loving video games is not a crime, but some children need help to find a healthy pattern of use.