During the development of the DSM 5 the idea of addiction to internet gaming and/or the internet in general was closely examined. Is an addiction to the internet a distinct illness deserving of its own diagnostic criteria and description, or is it simply one possible symptom of other underlying disorders or co-morbid social issues? Is our dependence on media and the internet an addiction at all? At this time the DSM 5 does not identify internet addiction as a separate mental disorder; however, it does list Internet Gaming Disorder as a condition that should be researched further.

But beyond clinical diagnoses, how can a parent or teacher tell when a child or teen has crossed over a line when it comes to media/internet/gaming use?  Some general warning signs:

  • Declining academic performance.
  • Unhealthy sleeping and eating habits, connected to excessive gaming
  • Intense emotional responses to not being able to game or access the internet.
  • Declines in overall physical health.
  • Isolation and intentional social withdrawal (While it’s normal for teens to develop peer relationships online, it’s not normal to see them completely detach from all in-person social relationships.)

If you notice these warning signs in a child’s life, you should reach out for help from professionals in that child’s school, a doctor or therapist, a trusted religious leader or someone in a position that could provide you and the child with support.

Tips on managing your child’s “Screen Time”

There are strategies that parents, teachers and other caring adults can use to manage media use for children. Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its guidelines for children’s media use to reflect the reality that screen technology is a fully integrated aspect of American life.

  • Keep in mind that screen media is just another environment in which children inte They will do the same things in the media environment that they do in everyday life (play, talk, have fun, compete, etc.).
  • Play with kids. Co-engage with children as you are playing with them (both media and non-media play), and use opportunities to teach appropriate social skills.
  • Be a good role model. Set limits on your own use of technology regarding time, content, etc. Take time to talk face-to-face with children.
  • Monitor and choose content wisely. Think about HOW your child is spending time with media and WHAT content they are viewing/using, rather than only monitoring a time limit.
  • Don’t abandon traditional unstructured playtime. Prioritize daily unplugged playtime, especially for the very young.
  • Set limits and follow up. Focus less on amount of time spent and more on integrating the use of technology in meaningful ways that do not interfere with daily activities and important relationships.
  • Understand the importance of online relationships. The use of social media is a major tool of adolescents to foster peer relationships in today’s world. Teach teens how to navigate potential pitfalls of social media rather than avoid it all together.

The most important thing that caring adults can do to help prevent overuse of media is to foster a life of balance for children. Even though media and the internet are here to stay as part of our culture and must be understood and used by children, we can all still benefit from a balanced life.

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Jodi S.W. Whitcomb, MSW

Jodi S.W. Whitcomb, MSW

Jodi S.W. Whitcomb, MS, is Director of Organizational Development and Training, Leader of the KidsPeace Critical Incident Response Team, Master LSCI Trainer at KidsPeace.