We sat down with David Rettew, MD, pediatric psychiatrist, and Logan Hegg, PsyD, pediatric psychologist to discuss digital addiction in youth.

What we learned is that digital distraction is not unique to youth. In fact, adults play a significant role in demonstrating good behavior for children to model.

What are we talking about?

In an age where thumbs are our most useful tools — with a smartphone held between them — “digital addiction” has gained momentum, and notoriety, as comparable to diseases like alcohol or drug addiction. But, Hegg and Rettew suggest shifting language away from addictive behavior to compulsive behavior.

Is addiction the right word?

Hegg and Rettew agreed addiction isn’t the right word. The differentiation is important, both explain, because though habit-forming, screens provide a very core element to a child’s psychological development.

We see this especially through youth desire to be accepted or included amongst their peers. Hegg explained: “I would define digital compulsion as the need to be stimulated through interpersonal relationships and entertainment.”

Tips and tricks to get away from the screen

So how, exactly, does a caregiver get their adolescent away from the screens? Rettew and Hegg say there’s a lot to learn about screen use distractions in adolescents. Additionally, they don’t believe the modern world has all the answers yet. Instead, screen use can be at least limited a couple different ways.

Monkey see, monkey do

First, it’s important for adults to be the models in adolescents’ lives. Rettew says: “You can be a good model. It’s important for kids to see us doing non-screen things.”

Hegg suggests lighthearted games, like stacking the phones in the center of the dinner table and making it a competition to see who can ignore their phone the longest.

Alternatively, caregivers can create a “parking spot” in the house where phones go. He went on to say that small steps matter, too, like practicing eye contact and talking with your child.

Rettew stresses, though, that we do not villainize screens. “We don’t want to demonize screens. We live in a digital world and so rather than seeing screens as an evil that we should be limiting, we need to see it as something that has some real uses, and some potential downsides.”

The importance of boundaries

Compulsivity is not a new, learned behavior. It is, however, the first time the device that promotes compulsiveness can sit in our hands. Both healthcare professionals believe that caregivers modelling boundaries is incredibly important, and screen use is no exception.

Hegg said: “Kids are smart; they see us. If we can’t model the ability to set and maintain boundaries, we’re going to fail in asking our kids to do the same.”

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