Digital Safety Alliance | Nicklaus Childrens Hospital

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Why Are Kids So Addicted to Screens?
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Dr. Azaret

By: Dr. Marisa Azaret
February 19th, 2024

Parents, physicians, and mental health professionals are rightly worried that more and more kids of all ages have become addicted to screens. Why isn’t the tech industry doing more to address those fears?
Whether kids are playing video games, spending time on tablets, or using social media on smartphones, there is heightened concern among parents, physicians, mental health professionals, and others that children have become increasingly addicted to screens.
Not only are technology companies doing little to allay those concerns, they’re also doing little to prevent the addiction, and, in at least one case, purposefully engineering their platforms to addict children and allow underage users to hold accounts on their platforms.
Extent of the Problem
Because of the different ways children use screens — including for schoolwork and other positive activities — there is no set number of hours that equates to screen addiction. That said, we are clearly seeing growing numbers of young people who are exhibiting signs of addiction to screens.
A 2016 Common Sense Media survey showed half of teenagers said they felt addicted to their mobile devices, while three quarters said they felt compelled to immediately respond to texts, social media posts, and other notifications.
Another survey by Common Sense Media in 2021 showed a 17 percent increase in screen use among teens and tweens in the previous two years — more than in the four years prior — as well as the fact that kids as young as 8 were using social media more than ever.
Last year, the organization published a study that showed that teens picked up and checked their smartphones a median of 51 times per day, ranging from two to 498 times per day. While younger participants (11- to 12-year-olds) tended to pick up their phones less frequently each day, adolescents (age 13 and older) were more likely to check their phone over 100 times per day. 
The study also found that over two-thirds of 11- to 17-year-olds said they "sometimes" or "often" find it difficult to stop using technology, use technology to escape from sorrow or get relief from negative feelings, and miss sleep due to being on their phone or online late at night.
As the study notes, these impacts may be due to the natural pull that adolescents feel toward their social contacts through their devices, but the engagement-prolonging design of apps and platforms also likely contributes.
Social media giants like Instagram and Facebook parent company Meta know that engagement-prolonging design contributes to screen addiction, yet continue to put profits above safety.

In a recent lawsuit against the company, an internal whistleblower alleged that Meta not only knowingly creates products that are addictive and harmful to children, but that it also intentionally targets children under the age of 18. The whistleblower also revealed that a large number of underage users is an “open secret” within the company, and that while Meta has received millions of complaints about underage users on Instagram, it has only disabled a fraction of those accounts.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on child online safety, Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg apologized to parents who say their children suffered or died as a result of social media.
“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through. No one should go through the things that your families have suffered,” he said, adding that his company is devoted to making “industrywide efforts” to protect children.
Zuckerberg stopped short of taking any responsibility for any tragedies related to social media, however, saying that he believed his platforms (including Facebook and Instagram) are safe for kids and pushing back on any notion that there is a link between social media and young people having worse mental health outcomes.
Causes and Effects of Screen Addiction
Screens offer a continuous stream of stimulation that can be difficult for people — especially young people — to ignore.
Dopamine is the hormone responsible for driving and reinforcing habits. The stimuli produced by screens can activate the dopamine reward system in the brain, creating a dopamine feedback loop similar to those found in the brains of nicotine or cocaine users.
Every post, reward in a game, or piece of entertaining content floods a person’s brain with a strong — but fleeting — dose of dopamine. Almost immediately, the brain longs for another dose of the “drug,” leaving the user with weakened impulse control and a longing for another reward, like, or notification.
Technology companies leverage users’ dopamine loops to make their products more addictive so they can maximize engagement and — more importantly (to them) — revenue. Since these companies make most of their money from advertising, they have an incentive to design platforms that maximize the time users spend on them, regardless of the consequences to their mental health.
This is especially troubling in light of the increased numbers of young users who are addicted to their products.
While adult brains are more developed and able to exercise impulse control, children’s brains are susceptible to significant changes in structure and connectivity which can stunt normal brain development, lead to screen addiction, and contribute to myriad other consequences.

Social media use is connected to an increase in anxiety and depression, as teenagers compare themselves unfavorably to their peers.
Kids who spend two-thirds or more of their free time gaming are at higher risk for negative mental health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, and substance use.
There is also evidence that multitasking — like using social media, texting, and watching TV while doing homework — undermines cognitive function and compromises learning.
Kids who are addicted to screens can suffer from insomnia, back pain, fluctuating weight, vision problems, headaches, anxiety, dishonesty, feelings of guilt, and loneliness. Ultimately, the long-term effects of screen addiction can be as severe as brain damage.
Research has shown that screen-addicted children’s brains shrink or lose tissue in the areas that help them govern planning and organization, suppression of socially unacceptable impulses, and their capacity to develop and practice empathy.
In light of the increasing risk of screen addiction among kids, the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued new recommendations for children’s media use:

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. If you want to introduce digital media, choose high-quality programming and watch it with your kids to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity, and other behaviors essential to health.
  • All children and teens need adequate sleep (8-12 hours, depending on age), physical activity (1 hour), and time away from media.
  • Designate media-free times together (such as during family dinners) and media-free zones (such as bedrooms). Children should not sleep with devices in their bedrooms, including TVs, computers, and smartphones.
  • Maintain a dialogue with your kids by having ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.
Note: It’s important to recognize that your own media use can have a negative effect on children. Consider developing a personalized media use plan for your family. Media plans should take into account each child's age, health, personality, and developmental stage. You can create one here.