How to differentiate between screen addiction and abusive use in children and adolescents


We are about to start a new decade and, without a doubt, our relationship with technologies has changed a lot compared to 2010. At that time, 6 out of 10 Americans connected wirelessly using a laptop or smartphone and did so mostly to take pictures (76%) or to send or receive text messages (73%). However, things as essential for us today as playing music barely reached 34% use by then.

The numbers after almost ten years have changed, and much. There are more than 54 million mobile lines in Spain, representing 117% of the total population.

Our favorite technological activities

Among the favorite technological activities in Spain today, the main protagonist is multimedia content: the viewing of videos (with 93%) and streaming content on the Internet, VOD, (with 52%), as reflected in the latest Digital report in 2019 – Spain .

But now let’s go to the figures that most concern socially. In general, we dedicate more than an hour and a half a day to the use of social networks or messaging services, something that, although considerable, falls short if we wonder how much time our children spend connected to the internet.

Sherry Turkle already predicted it in her talk TEDx Coneted, but alone? In 2012, when, being an advocate of technology since 1996, she said: “We have become accustomed to being accompanied when we are alone and to be alone when we are accompanied.”

A matter of age

The age at which adolescents and young people use the internet and begin to have their own mobile is ahead year after year , according to the National Institute of Statistics. With 10 years, 86.7% already have their first device, and this percentage amounts to 98% at 15 years.

89.7% of children have a computer, and data with the internet connection increases (92.9%). 87.7% connect at least once a week, 77.6% daily and 74.9% several times a day.

And how do they use it? Only 32% of adolescents would make adequate use of the internet, while 31.5% would already show signs of risk. 23.3% would maintain abusive use behavior and 13.2% would show a clear behavioral dependence on the use of the network.

These are the conclusions of the report made by the Camilo José Cela University and the Institute of Addictions of Madrid Health Use and abuse of Information and Communication Technologies by adolescents. A representative study of the City of Madrid .

And the online players ?

If we now talk about the data around the world of the game, according to the figures that we can see in the last macro survey Ages 2017-2918 , which the Government of the National Plan on Drugs biennially prepares, young people between 15 and 24 years old they already represent 5.1% of frequent players in online games .

As for the game with face-to-face money, the percentage rises to 59.5%, with the majority profile of male players between the ages of 15 and 64.

Alarming headlines

Given all this data, families are worried. Many times they go to Google to consult, read or try to learn immediately everything they need to supervise and protect their children, but they find headlines like these: Fortnite receives demand for being more addictive than cocaine , Mobile addiction It alters the brain just like opiates or giving a cell phone to a child is like giving drugs .

Video games and mental illness

It seems necessary to add some common sense to this matter. The World Health Organization (WHO), with controversy, included in 2018 video games and gambling as mental illness, appearing in the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases): “ video game disorder ” ( Gaming disorder ) , which refers to the use of digital games or video games, either through an internet connection or without it.

In order to talk about pathological gambling or addiction to the game, a behavioral pattern must be met, for at least 12 months, severe enough to cause a significant deterioration in personal, family, social, educational, work or other areas.

It has not been included, therefore, today, the use of the Internet or social networks or mobile. Therefore, if it is not considered a disease or disorder, we cannot talk about “addiction” either.

What are FOMO and Nomophobia?

Yes, two syndromes, FOMO and Nomophobia, have been defined to describe increasingly common situations in our daily lives. The first, (from English Fear of Missing Out ), refers to the fear we feel for missing something from the digital world or being excluded from it. The second is the irrational fear of running out of battery or leaving home without the mobile.

Does our son spend more than two hours on YouTube a day? Can’t we unhook our daughter from Instagram or Tik Tok? Does he spend the hours whatssaping ? We should start worrying, yes, but they are not addicted to mobile or internet. They are making problematic or abusive use of the technologies, as is the case in most of the occasions in which the families go to consultation.

Healthy uses

Setting rules and limits will be essential for children to learn to live with the digital world in a healthy way.

As established by the American Pediatric Association (APP) in 2018:

  • In babies up to 18 months, we should avoid exposure to screens.
  • From 2 to 5 years you have to limit the use of media between half and one hour a day, provided that the contents are of high quality.
  • From 5 to 12 years old it is necessary to accompany and supervise them always, being able to be between one hour or hour and a half a day.
  • With adolescence, our work should be more to guide and educate them in the responsible and healthy use of technologies.

However, according to the latest report from the Qustodio digital security and welfare platform , the average is 2 hours and 24 minutes among children between 5 and 11 years old, and, if we talk about high school students, even more spend connected time than at school.

We must also be aware that most of the teenagers who spend hours and hours with the mobile can be doing different activities: they write with their friends on WhatsApp or Telegram, then watch Instagram, at other times they watch videos on YouTube or Tik Tok or have Spotify music connected, play, watch Netflix series, etc. That is, the device is not the problem. It is the time and activity they devote to each platform.

How to detect that something is wrong and what to do?

We will know if there really can be a problem if:

  • He locks himself in his room more than usual.
  • Suddenly, your performance and grades in school drop suddenly.
  • We notice physical changes such as weight loss, tiredness or drowsiness.
  • He suddenly changes friends or isolates himself, and does not want to leave home.
  • Is constantly aggressive or aggressive, responds in a bad way or any other pronounced change in character, such as sadness or anxiety.
  • It gets irritated, or even becomes violent or violent, every time we try to disconnect from the computer or stop using the mobile.

In these cases, we must see a professional who advises us, such as our GP, or specialized centers for the Prevention and Treatment of Addictions, where, depending on the severity of the case, we will be assisted by a Family Guidance team (which guides and guides to the family) or health personnel (psychologists, doctors, nurses, etc.), who will work directly with the adolescent.

Author Bio: Laura Cuesta Cano is Head of Communication and Digital Content in PAD Service. Professor at Camilo José Cela University