Is it Screen-Time or a Screen Addiction? New Research Offers Problematic Media Use Measure

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It’s Not Just the Number of Hours of Screen-Time: New Research Helps Parse out Screen Addiction in Young Children

Just about every article I write sets the stage by giving recent estimates of the number of hours children are spending in front of screens. The numbers vary by survey or research study but the fact that they are high and getting higher does not. It’s easy to look at some stats:

  • Parents estimate their kids 5-to-18-years old spend 4.9 hours per day on a digital device.

Broken out by age in different studies, those numbers look like this:

  • Parents estimate children up to age eight spend 2 hours and 19 minutes with screens.
  • Parents estimate children aged 8-to-12 years old spend 4 hours and 36 minutes using screens.
  • Teens spend an average of 6 hours and 40 minutes engaged with screen entertainment (excluding school work)

The conclusion of examining these shocking statistics is usually: “This can’t be good,” with the same foreboding feeling as when a movie character goes out exploring in a horror flick.

Detractors suggest that there is nothing wrong with the number of hours, after all, this is a new tech-savvy generation and many children are doing productive things with their screen-time. While I question this argument for the very young, I agree that not all screen-time hours are created equally. I have even written articles summarizing research on how to appropriately select shows for your children and monitor their screen-time.

“I am/My Kid is/Everyone is ADDICTED”

Popular media and parents have been talking addiction in relation to screen-based media since the advent of the iPhone in 2007. The American Psychiatric Association is very conservative about behavioral addiction diagnoses. It took decades of research and consensus for the American Psychiatric Association to add Gambling Disorder as a behavioral addiction diagnosis to the DSM-V (the volume of diagnosable mental health issues) in 2013. Long before it’s addition to the DSM-V, many families struggled with a Gambling Disorder and there were many treatments available. The American Psychiatric Association has strict guidelines regarding research to validate a diagnosis and provide information on prevalence rates, comorbid conditions and course.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association also added Internet Gaming Disorder to its list of “Conditions for Further Study.” Once there is sufficient research basis, this disorder could move into a diagnosable disorder. However, it is restricted to online gaming, not screen-time in general. While people may feel addicted to screen-time, research has not yet shown same issues with tolerance and unsuccessful attempts to cut back.

Yet, parents and children alike are using the term “addiction” to describe their relationship with screen-based technology. A recent survey research on teenagers suggests that over 50% of them “feel addicted” to their mobile devices. The survey was conducted by Common Sense Media and, James Steyer, the founder and CEO stated, “What we’ve discovered is that kids and parents feel addicted to their mobile devices, that it is causing daily conflict in homes, and that families are concerned about the consequences. We also know that problematic media use can negatively affect children’s development and that multitasking can harm learning and performance. As a society we all have a responsibility to take media use and addiction seriously and make sure parents have the information to help them make smart choices for their families.”

Another recent survey study asked about addiction and digital devices: 67% of the 394 U.S. parents of children aged 5-to-18-years-old surveyed describe their children as addicted. Virtually an identical percentage of parents say they are addicted to digital devices as well.

Basically, we know that screen-time addiction is not a diagnosable mental health disorder and yet, we also know that a large percentage of parents and children are reporting that they feel they are “addicted” to screen-based media or digital devices. The next step is to clarify and quantify what kids and parents mean when they say they are addicted to screens.

How do I know if my kid’s screen-time is problematic?

Most parents have an idea when their child’s screen-time has become problematic. However, new research has given us a standardized way to determine if those hours of screen-time are problematic. A group of researchers have created the Problematic Media Use Measure specifically for parents of children aged 4-to-11-years. The scale items were created based on the 9 criteria for Internet Gaming Disorder in the DSM-5 and then validated in a series of studies. Importantly, the researchers found that the scale was able to predict problems in functioning, over and above children’s total number of hours of screen-time. This indication of incremental validity demonstrates that this measure adds something to our understanding of problematic screen-time beyond “she spends how many hours on that thing?”

The development of this scale is big news to parents (who can have a standardized method of examining their children’s screen habits) and to researchers (who have a more sensitive measure than total hours to examine screen-time problems). The scale items ask about those things that concern parents about screen-media.

Here are some areas to think about if you are worried about your child’s screen-time:

Infographic used with permission and sourced from: http://ns.umich.edu/new/releases/25302-kids-and-screen-time-signs-your-child-might-be-addicted

The study and associated measure was just published this year and more studies will need to be conducted to develop clinical cut-off scores. But, for now, this measure can help parents, clinicians and researchers parse out media-use from problematic media-use.

To learn more about the study, see the abstract here. The full citation for the study is:

Domoff, S. E., Harrison, K., Gearhardt, A. N., Gentile, D. A., Lumeng, J. C., & Miller, A. L. (2017). Development and Validation of the Problematic Media Use Measure: A Parent Report Measure of Screen Media “Addiction” in Children. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000163