What is problematic tech use?

Bend Health
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Using a phone, computer, tablet, or other device is a daily, even hourly, occurrence for many children and teens in today’s world. But there’s a difference between using your phone for a couple of hours and being on your phone every second of the day. But what’s normal? And when does tech usage become a problem? We’re here to offer a judgment-free look at tech usage so that you can build your best habits as a family. 

Understanding problematic tech use

Problematic tech usage Is defined as the excessive use of technology that leads to problems and distress and it’s a growing issue for children and teens. One study found that U.S. teens spend more than eight hours a day on screens, and there's growing concern over how social media may be affecting their mental health (including an increase in self-harm). These problematic behaviors can cause them to neglect homework or other responsibilities and to spend less time building rewarding connections in real life. 

One study reported a link between screen time and higher rates of obsessive-compulsive disorder diagnoses among preteens. While another study found that using electronic devices to calm young children when they’re upset may inhibit their ability to learn to soothe themselves, leading to more frequent, intense emotional outbursts. And then, there are findings on how tech usage can negatively affect a young person’s sleep cycle and lead to depressive symptoms.

While these findings can be overwhelming to hear, rest assured that you can begin to develop strategies for screen use that are balanced and healthy.

Possible health impacts of tech usage 

Over long periods of time, excessive tech use can affect a child’s physical and mental health leading to problems such as: 

  • Insomnia
  • Vision problems  
  • Making it more difficult to concentrate or control impulses
  • Depression, anxiety, and social isolation
  • Obsessive thinking and actions

Why is technology so problematic? 

Although sometimes referred to as ‘tech addiction’ we know that problematic tech use is really an impulse control disorder involving the obsessive use of mobile devices, the internet, or video games. But why are those devices so difficult for children and teens to put down? 

For starters, they fulfill a natural human need for connection, interaction, and stimulation. When someone is feeling stressed, rejected, or lonely, the internet can feel like a wave of relief. A lot of people spend a great deal of time online because tech impacts the same pleasure systems of your brain the way substances like alcohol can, so they want to keep experiencing that same good feeling on repeat. Others use it as a boredom buster, need to relieve stress, or want to escape from reality. 

Know the signs of problematic tech use

The best thing you can do as a parent is be aware of the signs that tech use has become a problem,and seek help if you notice them in your child or teen. Remember that every child  is different, but here are some common signs of problematic tech usage:

  • Consistently have trouble spending time without access to technology. They may complain that they are unhappy or bored. 
  • Screen time disrupts sleep, performance at school, and interpersonal relationships
  • Accessing inappropriate or dangerous content online 
  • They consistently have trouble spending time without access to video games 
  • They are deceptive with their use, such as sneaking around to use technology or lying about this use
  • It is difficult to get them to disconnect — they may become combative or defensive  
  • They use technology as a tool to boost their mood 
  • Needing to spend increasingly more time in front of screens to feel satisfied 
  • Changes in mood and emotions such as irritability, feelings of emptiness, sudden outbursts of anger, emotional numbness, or a lack of motivation
  • Withdrawal from social interactions or isolation from friends and family 
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities

Find support

If you spot some of these signs in your child or teen, consider reaching out for support from a mental health professional. With the help of mental health coaching and therapy, your child can connect with the emotions that tech use (and reducing tech use)  brings up, set goals to improve their screen time, and learn tools for disconnecting.  

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