Stepping away from the screen: how screen addiction affects children

If we were forced to step away from our screens for a day, many of us would find it a challenge to get by. Today, we rely on our smartphones, televisions, tablets and computers to help us in almost every aspect of our lives, from work and education to entertainment and socializing.

While digital technologies can empower us and bring us closer to one another, we should be mindful of the risk they pose for dependency. In recent years, mental health professionals have identified screen addiction as a growing issue, and identified certain groups as being particularly at risk, including children.

There are many reasons why a person might develop a screen addiction. Often, people who have digital addictions use technology to escape from daily life, to gain a sense of control within a fantasy gaming world, or because they find it difficult to socialize in person. As children turn to digital technology as a primary source for entertainment and information, they are especially vulnerable to developing a screen addiction.

If we want to address this issue head-on, we need to provide those in need with the resources necessary to overcome their addictions, as well as encourage healthy behaviours for the current and next generations.

When gaming goes wrong

Although screen addiction can manifest in many ways, video game addiction is one of the most common. We might have a specific image in our minds of what the “typical” person who is addicted to video games looks like, or what kind of games they play. But the reality is that people from all walks of life can be affected by a gaming addiction, and the games they use often appear to be particularly benign.

Not everyone with a video game addiction will use immersive, computer-based games that demand significant amounts of time, money and attention from those who play them. Some of the most commonly abused games include popular mobile apps such as Angry Birds, Candy Crush and Pokémon GO.

With the advent of free-to-play mobile gaming, it is easier than ever before to become fixated by “on the go” games while at school or work. These games are designed with a wide audience in mind, including working professionals, older people and most troublingly, children.

If you are concerned that someone you know may be struggling with a gaming addiction, it is important to recognize the warning signs. Nearly three quarters of the population uses video games on some level, but an addiction begins when gaming interferes with daily life.

Some signs of video game addiction may include diminished hygiene, weight gain and decreased performance in school or work. A person may also change their diet, sleep patterns and social habits to accommodate their need for gaming, and be irritated or emotional if unable to play.

Starting good habits young

As with any addiction, screen addiction can affect anyone, says Roland Boutin, MA, CCC, Family Counsellor and Therapist with Project Parent*, which provides counselling services to help parents address a wide range of issues including problematic screen use and its underlying causes. However, with a generation of children who are more plugged in than ever before, it is critical that parents take steps to encourage positive technology use.

Boutin stresses that no amount of screen time is recommended for children under two years old. This is because the human brain is naturally unprepared for high levels of stimulation at such a young age. It is also advised that small children never be left alone with screens, and to never use electronics as “babysitters,” as this can lead to a pattern of overuse.

It is important that parents be aware of addiction signs and keep tabs on mobile apps, games, shows and other content that their children are accessing on their devices.

According to Boutin, getting children active and involved in outdoor activities is another effective way to combat screen addiction. Even if children are allowed a limited period of screen time every day, when they are happily involved in real world activities they are less likely to grow dependent on screens as a source of entertainment.

For parents who are struggling with their children’s behaviors, there is support available. Project Parent, an initiative of FSGV, provides counselling services to help parents address a wide range of issues, including the reduction of child protection concerns, while assisting in the reunification of children with their parents.

*Note: to access the Project Parent program, families must be referred to the program by a Social Worker with the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

To find other FSGV programs available to all families, check out our community events calendar. We run fun programs for adults and kids all year round for free, like this PALS (Parents as Literacy Supporters) Program coming up on September 17, 2018, which helps parents of young children (age 2-6) learn strategies to encourage their child to develop language and literacy skills to help them adapt to their community and prepare them for school.