Tablet- and video game-addiction among children

When to Seek Help

In today’s world, looking at screens has become the norm for adults – and consequently, it is becoming the norm for children as well. To some degree, this shift is unavoidable, but it is still a valid cause for concern if the screen time takes up the majority of the child’s free time and it is causing undesired negative effects – such as sleep problems, headaches, reduced interest in social activities in real life and so on.

Why do children spend so much time on their devices nowadays?

There are several reasons why a child may choose to spend time on their device. Some of these include:

  • Escaping into a fantasy world

    Using games, playing or watching YouTube videos as an escape or temporary stress relief.

  • Connecting with friends

    Some may talk to their friends through the game or app they are using, so they are socialising from a distance.

  • Playing for the sake of it

    Playing is inherently enjoyable and rewarding. Human beings are playful and inquisitive by nature, so they will be attracted to any game that challenges them.

  • Listening to stories

    Traditional storytelling, which in the past usually involved reading fairy-tales or other traditional children’s stories (either by an adult or by the child themselves) has largely been replaced by watching children’s tv shows and movies. A lot of this content is also readily available online, on platforms such as YouTube and Instagram.

  • Curiosity

    Children are innately curious – they want to explore the world! Just like our generation explored the back garden, today’s children are out exploring the world – not just in real life, but online as well. Children are looking for answers to their questions. These questions may range from innocuous ones such as: „How to make an origami unicorn?” to serious questions, such as „Why do adults get divorced?”. Children learn how to use search engines such as Google very quickly, and may use it to do ‘research’.

Picture of two young girls immersed into a tablet pc.
Children may use their tablet to play with friends or to share their interests and hobbies

Why is excessive screen time problematic?

There are many reasons why spending long stretches of time on a smart phone, tablet or in a video game may become problematic. To list a few examples:

  • Lack of real-life interactions

    Children may come to prefer online interactions as opposed to real life interactions – such as spending time with family and friends.

  • Misinformation

    Children may learn information that isn’t true – but there is no ‘reality checking' tool on the internet. While there is a lot of good and genuine information on the internet, a large chunk of online content is only partially true, if at all. As an example, 5-Minute Crafts and other similar YouTube creator giants have been exposed for creating arts and crafts tutorials that were not only unrealistic (as in, they did not work) but also unsafe and unsuited for children.

  • Sleep issues

    Excessive screen time has a potential to disturb the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which may result in sleep problems, such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.

  • Tiredness and irritability

    As a result of lack of sleep (and strain on the neck muscles), children may become irritable, misbehave and underperform in school.

  • Danger of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE), or being ‘groomed’

    Online presence has a potential to attract ‘predators’; individuals who are looking to exploit the inherent naivity of children by befriending them, masquerading as peers on online platforms.

In general, like any ‘addiction’, spending a lot of time online often signifies that something isn’t right in a child’s life. Perhaps they are being bullied at school or they are feeling lonely. Or maybe they are struggling at school, so they are putting their energy into becoming ‘good’ at video games instead. There are many reasons why a child or adolescent may become engrossed in an online world instead of focusing on the real world.

Ways to manage tablet, video game and smart phone addiction

Here are some general guidelines that may help decrease screen time at home.

  • Create rules and reasonable limits

    Be clear and fair. Rules should be as simple as possible and should be realistic and age-appropriate. For example: no screen time after 10pm. Or: no video games before homework is done. Adhering to reasonable boundaries may help children to develop the ability to self-regulate.

  • Overly restrictive rules will lead to rule-breaking

    For example, a complete ban on video games is highly unlikely to be effective on a child who used to play video games almost every day until now. This will only prompt the child into learning to trick the parents: they will get up at night, steal the controller – they will do anything to get what they want. Setting realistic rules and limitations is more likely to be effective.

  • Talk to your child and try to understand what motivates them to play/use their device

    Is the child playing video games because they are missing their friends from school (and this is a way they can interact with them), or are they playing video games because they enjoy the story? Or perhaps because they want to ‘fit in’ and feel pressured? These are all very different motivations for the same activity, and they should be tackled accordingly.

  • Give your child alternatives

    For example, if your child is playing video games because “there is nothing else to do”, offer them alternative activities. From after school clubs, sport and leisure activities to board games or arts and crafts projects, there are many activities you can offer to your child. Think about your own childhood – what did you enjoy doing as a child? Provide them the same opportunities.

If the problem persists, consider consulting a child counsellor/psychotherapist who can provide therapy to help your child express and understand their problems which may be contributing to their screen addiction.

Read more about how child therapy works.