When to worry?

When to worry about your teen’s screen use

By the PAUSE team, in collaboration with Dr. Magali Dufour, Ph.D. (Psychology)

Quand s’inquiéter de l’utilisation des écrans de son ado?

The term “cyberaddiction” is currently used, freely and often without distinction, to describe many online behaviours, from temporary overuse to persistent loss of control. Of course, seeing your teen spend hours with their eyes glued to the screen may be cause for concern, but this type of behaviour does not necessarily indicate the presence of dependence in the clinical sense.

It’s important to know that, to date, there is no scientific consensus on the term or its definition. Generally speaking, cyberaddiction refers to situations where excessive Internet and screen use causes a person distress and negatively affects different areas of their life (family, friends, school, work).

According to Magali Dufour, psychologist and cyberaddiction expert, “Despite the risks associated with hyperconnectivity, the majority of young people use the internet and screens in a way that does not lead to dependence. In fact, the most recent data obtained from a sample of about 4,000 Quebec adolescents indicated that approximately 1.32% of teens in high school have an Internet dependence, whereas more than 17% present online behaviours considered at risk. Yet, you must not jump to the worst conclusions if your teen occasionally shows excessive use: rather, it is the association of several elements and negative repercussions in all their spheres of life that should sound the alarm.”

As parents, we can have difficulty distinguishing between a hobby, a compulsion, and problematic use. In order to correctly assess your teen’s situation, try determining whether their use of the Internet leads to significant negative consequences on their overall lifestyle habits (for example, physical activity, diet, sleep, social life, etc.). Here are a few statements that can help you make this assessment:

  • Your teenager becomes increasingly tolerant to the stimulation provided by screens. They spend more time online than before, watch more than one screen at a time, are not as interested in the content, etc. They are able to remain in front of a screen for several hours without moving or eating!
  • You notice a loss of interest in other activities that they used to enjoy, such as sports, outings with friends, music, family activities, etc. The only thing they are interested in is spending time in front of screens.
  • Your teen is unable to control their screen use, and this loss of control is unusual. Even if you have repeatedly tried to limit use, they are no longer able to respect the rules you established together. It is stronger than them.
  • Screens and online activities occupy their thoughts. When your teen is not in front of a screen, they are constantly thinking about the next time they can be online. They seem “obsessed” by their online activities.
  • Their Internet use interferes with their relationships and social interactions. Your teen doesn’t go anywhere without their cell phone or tablet, eyes always glued to the screen, and doesn’t want to put down the screen to do other activities. Even their friends worry about their screen use.
  • Your teenager lies about their screen use. You catch them using their cell phone after bedtime, the school notifies you that they are using the phone during class in spite of school policy, they find ways around your rules, etc.
  • Their screen use causes important family problems. You often have discussions with your teen about the time spent in front of screens and their use at inappropriate times. The Internet has truly become a topic that creates tension and leads to confrontation at home.
  • You notice that your teen’s excessive screen use leads to more serious consequences such as a persistent obsession, an increase in anxiety, aggressive behaviour, disrupted sleep, significant weight gain, etc.

If you recognize your teenager in several of these statements, if these situations persist, and if you believe that their screen use is significantly negatively impacting their health and well-being, don’t hesitate to talk to a professional to obtain a clinical evaluation and help to support them.

Dr. Magali Dufour, Ph. D. (psychology), is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, UQAM and President of the PAUSE committee of experts.