Is Screen Addiction Real?

Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC

Published 12/09/2020

Since smartphones have made their way into our lives, it seems impossible to be without a screen in some capacity or another. The fact that real conversations and relationships are being ignored in favor of these devices is a grim sign of the times. The truth is that screen addiction is real. While the term is used loosely, it implies a wide variety of bad practices related to screening usage.

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There’s no denying our digital world. Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, even more of our daily interactions have shifted online, with parents working from home and children taking online Zoom classes for school. Nearly everyone uses screens daily. There is no escaping our screens.

Needless to say, as with everything else of necessity, once these devices begin to be abused or used in a harmful pattern, we activate our risks for what is referred to as screen addiction - a very real scenario. The lack of conclusive proof by way of research only makes this risk more aggravated. The true, long-term implications for the brain's healthy development is still a question not properly answered.

What Is Screen Addiction?

In short, screen addiction can be understood as a compulsive behavior involving the screen, that impairs normal functioning daily. The impact of screen addiction can be felt in all areas of life, including your relationships with family and friends, work productivity, your physical well-being, as well as your emotional health. If you are speaking in terms of children, you may begin to observe impairment in completing schoolwork, mood disorders, a reduced inclination to get active or stay active, poor quality of sleep, and a general sense of irritability or sadness.

Is Screen Addiction Like Any Other Kind of Addiction? 

Unfortunately, the APA has yet to take action, failing to include screen addiction in its latest DSM manual. This means there are no criteria to diagnose this condition. However, a simple observation of a screen addiction reveals that it quickly starts to look like traditional behavioral addictions in terms of how it manifests itself.

An official declaration of screen addiction as a disorder may take some time. Once this declaration is made, scientists need to have particular treatment approaches outlined, and those implications can be complicated. The writing on the wall is that we need to take interpersonal action and step in to keep the problem from intensifying. For now, the scientific community likes to refer to screen addiction as “problematic smartphone use” or PSU in short. Of course, that definition includes other gadgets such as tablets, iPads, laptops, etc.

How to Recognize Screen Addiction or Technology Addiction?

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Unfortunately, screen addiction or technology addiction is quick to change shape, given how prevalent these devices are today. It’s more than the stereotypical wayward young man sitting in the darkness staring at a screen. Screen addiction occurs inside our living rooms, amongst our near and dear ones, young and old, well to do and those struggling because everyone is on some kind of social media. This excess time spent comes at the cost of other wholesome activities, which are often the first thing to be sacrificed in favor of technology. For example, instead of spending time in nature, reading, or meditating, we’d rather be scrolling on social media, playing a game, etc. Despite the problem being ubiquitous, it may help to watch out for certain signs.

  1. It Is Impacting Daily Activities

Someone suffering from screen addiction will sacrifice the quality and the number of daily chores that must be completed to live a healthy, normal life. A survey of over 1100 parents of children under 18 revealed that screen time directly interferes with meal scheduling, bedtime, family communication, and of course, schoolwork.

  1. You Choose Virtual Connections Over Real Connections

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Some people would tell you that just since the advent of Facebook, the same friends they were supposed to be forever connected to seem more distant than ever before. Others will find that they are supposedly socially connected online, only to reflect such connections in real life. The emotional and physical advantages of millions of years of real-world social interactions are hardcoded in our systems. To give you an example, we may react more strongly and with more emotions online because we feel that the repercussions are contained. Simply unfriending somebody in a fit may never allow you to get to the bottom of the issue. Plus, you’ve perhaps lost a relationship forever. So, if virtual connections begin to overwhelm real-world connections, you should start to wonder if other dots are aligning, and the problem is rasterizing.

  1. You Associate the Screen with Happiness

If you feel that you need to be using a screen to feel happy. There’s a strong chance that you could be suffering from screen addiction. For example, you could be looking forward and experience joy at the thought of going home to use your home computer with three ultrawide monitors at the end of a workday (where you spent all day staring at screens as well). It may not even matter what lies behind those screens: maybe a video game, an online chat community that you’re part of, or your favorite kind of content - the common denominator for all of these excesses manifests itself on screens and the virtual world it transports you to. Therefore, the identification of the problem should be straightforward.

  1. Your Screen Time Causes Conflict

Your screen basically serves as a portal to a virtual world. This world consumes your energy, and depending on what you are doing, it can trigger your body’s “fight or flight” stress response. When there is less to share with others, there is going to be conflict. Think about it right now, as hard as it may be: Do arguments in your house have a recurrent theme in screen time or usage?

An average American spends 11-12 hours every day consuming some kind of screen content. That number is only increasing as everyone starts to work remotely, and even the simplest of exchanges would need a screen. Accessibility and Internet plans are also getting more affordable the whole world over, but this question is best answered personally because there are no research guidelines. Be as frugal with your screen time as you are with any prized possession.

  1. Your Productivity Is Suffering

When it comes to using the screen, it is exceedingly easy to get distracted and sucked into something you never imagined would come up. There is even a term for losing productivity online: cyberloafing. This practice already causes losses of up to $100 billion every year, just in the United States!

  1. Your Physical Activity Has Gone Down

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Oftentimes, when we use a screen for prolonged times, we are sedentary. The more screen we use, the less we want to or feel like moving. If you find you are suddenly more averse to taking on a heavily physical project, stop and evaluate how much screen time you’ve been having. It’s even possible that screen addiction could be blamed for your precipitated health issues, including hypertension, obesity, etc. Sedentary behaviors take a much bigger toll in the end, and it could be the gadget in your pocket that could be causing you problems.

Don’t Stop Fighting Screen Addiction

Even if you have recognized technology addiction for what it really is and have failed in your efforts to curb this habit, it’s time to try again. Battling addiction can be difficult, but it’s important to keep trying. Sometimes it’s just about finding the right healthy alternative to overcome the desire to check your screen just one more time.

The good news is that like other types of addiction, you don’t have to battle screen addiction by yourself. Working with a licensed counselor can help you get to the bottom of why you feel a compulsion to use the screen and how to tackle your existing behaviors and habits so that you can successfully overcome your addiction.

Screen time addiction is an entirely human creation, and you have the power to be victorious over the addiction. If you think you might have screen addiction, this free test for internet addiction can help you assess the severity and help guide you in the right direction.