Guide Your Kids Through Issues That May Underlie Tech Overuse

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Highlights:

  • Tech addiction is a real fear for parents, but might not be a real disorder.
  • Although tech overuse shares some similarities with addiction, many experts don’t consider it an addiction in the medical sense of the word.
  • Parents can mistake ordinary activities for tech overuse.
  • Tech overuse can also mask real disorders like depression and anxiety.

Oh, no, the teens are addicted to their phones, gaming systems, and tablets! Or are they? Fears about tech addiction have grown along with the increase in availability and accessibility of the internet and different kinds of technology, and many parents find themselves torn. They know there’s a wide variety of reasons for kids and teens to use technology, but they’re also concerned about overuse. But is internet addiction or tech addiction a real problem, or are fears of it masking a concern for different problems?

Is Tech Addiction Real?

There are a couple of reasons why people talk about tech addiction and internet addiction where teens are concerned. One is that parents see some of the behaviors that are associated with addiction in their teens who seem attached to their smartphones or other devices. They may get angry when the devices are taken away, for example. Or they may always seem to be wanting more screen time and planning how to get it. 

Another reason for the worry is that parents may be aware that some tech, like social media sites, triggers the same pleasure centers of the brain that are also triggered with substance abuse. In fact, sites like Facebook are specifically calibrated to have that effect. 

But does that make it a real addiction? Maybe not. In the medical definition of the word, addiction requires that the sufferer develop a higher and higher tolerance for the substance and become dependent on it to function normally in the world. So someone with an internet addiction would need more and more time online in order to be functional. And that’s not what happens with tech and the internet.

So If It’s Not Addiction, What Is It?

Teenager looking at their laptop screen.
Is your teen addicted, or are they just being a teenager?

Of course, a parent would know if they’re seeing behavior from their child that worries them. So if addiction isn’t the problem, what is?

Part of it may simply be overblown concerns based on a cultural change. The reality of it is that many children now do things online that used to be done in person. Ever pass notes in class as a kid? Your kids text or IM instead. Did you get together with the neighborhood kids to play sports or board games? Your kids connect with players on gaming consoles instead. Did you draw a lot? Kids do it on a tablet with a stylus. Read a lot? They use an e-reader app. Meet your friends at the mall? Teens have virtual shopping and virtual apps for just hanging with their friends. 

You get the idea. Quite a lot of developmentally normal activities for children or teens can be fit onto a smartphone or a couple of devices, and are therefore maybe not as big a worry as they’re made out to be.

It’s possible that what you really want is the same thing that your parents probably wanted – your kids to clean their room before playing games or avoid talking to their friends during family time, for example. It’s just that when your kids do it, it all looks like playing on their phones. 

But there are also legitimate worries. While internet addiction might not be real in the strictest sense, tech can definitely be used in an unhealthy way and mask real conditions. For instance, teens may use tech to avoid interacting with people because they’re feeling sad, apathetic, or anxious about social interaction. 

These can be symptoms of real disorders, like depression or anxiety, that need to be addressed and treated. Or, a teen who is constantly checking notifications on their phone, planning their next stretch of time on the internet, or thinking about their device instead of whatever they’re currently doing, might be suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

What Parents Should Do

Too much tech can signal a real problem. But it may not be the tech use itself that’s causing the problem.

The thing that parents should recognize is that even if the tech is related to unhealthy behaviors, if the tech is not the root cause of those behaviors, then taking the tech away won’t fix them. It may be appropriate to limit the technology access of some teens, while others may use it as a coping mechanism that is healthier than other alternatives they have available. 

It’s also worth acknowledging that your children and teens live in a world where tech, internet, and apps are likely to be an integral part of their lives as working adults, so restricting tech may not do much to help them in the long run. It could put them at a disadvantage with their peers.

Instead, parents need to look for root causes. Does your teen exhibit signs of depression? Disinterest in activity, weight loss, irritability? Are they searching online for things that seem worrisome, like self-harm or suicide-related topics? 

If you see signs like these, or other signs of distress, mental illness, or even just unexplained change, you need to get your teen help. Your teen’s pediatrician or health insurance company may be able to refer them to a mental health professional, and the guidance counselor at your teen’s school may also have helpful resources for your teen and your family. 

While tech may not be the root cause of a teen’s problem, it can provide helpful insight into their mindset and information about what’s going on with them.  

WebWatcher can help you keep an eye on what your teen is doing online and how much of it they’re doing, so you can distinguish between normal use and unhealthy behaviors. To find out more, get our free trial.

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