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In the past decade, the use and abuse of screen-based technology—smart phones, computers, handheld electronic games, tablets, etcetera—has exploded.  In my work with young people in hospitals, residential settings and transitional programs, I have seen an epidemic of screen-based emotional disorders.

These disorders typically stem from excessive use leading to isolation, unhealthy relationships, and social and emotional delays, i.e. lack of maturation.  The result is a generation of young adults who lack age-appropriate social and emotional skills to assume the normal responsibilities of early adulthood.  In addition, screen addiction can lead to a lost sense of personal control and the inability to form face to face “real” human relationships, creating a potential gateway to other addictive disorders.  Finally, screen addiction can also lead to or exacerbate certain personality disorders.  Young women in particular are prone to developing relationships very quickly online and becoming deeply engrossed in potentially unhealthy and artificial relationships.

Factors Driving this Trend

Numerous factors are driving this trend of screen-based emotional dysfunction.   Like most highly addictive activities, availability and convenience are big causative factors for the proliferation of screen addiction.  Since screen-based technology is replacing written media as the norm for communication, young people have increasingly high levels of access to screen-based activities.  So the technology itself is partly the culprit for this explosion of technology addiction.  Also, adolescents and young adults often struggle developmentally with identity issues; communicating through screen based technology allows them to “try on” new behaviors/identities in a hidden or secretive way before they decide who they are in a face to face relationship.  This can lead to delays in actually developing a stable independent identity.

Because of the hidden, secretive nature of screen-based technology, adolescents and young adults are also able to fulfill their need for thrills and rule breaking, so there is often a high incidence of high-risk or illicit online activity in this population.

Parents may also inadvertently promote the overuse or misuse of technology and should be attentive to this issue.  This is because screen-based technologies provide an incredibly convenient parenting tool.  Busy parents as well as those with their own emotional difficulties or life stresses may overuse this tool to avoid having to deal directly with their children’s difficult behaviors.

How to Address the Problem

By the time a parent suspects that their child’s use of screen-based technology is excessive, it generally is!  At this point, a parent needs to know, believe, and understand they are in charge—even if the child is an adolescent or a young adult living dependently at home.  Parents do not have to allow their children to own a cell phone, iPad, computer and etcetera.  But whether the young person owns their own screen-based tools or just has access to family technology, parents should limit time spent on screen-based technology if their child is not self-regulating effectively. Putting technology in an easy to monitor place—e.g. the living room, kitchen or somewhere else the family spends time together—is another strategy to help control excessive screen time.  If screen abuse reaches a point where you suspect it is truly out of control and is harming your child’s development, seek professional help.  A therapist or psychologist with experience treating addiction can help assess the situation and offer appropriate guidance and treatment.

Gayle Jensen-Savoie, Ph.D., is the executive director of Fulshear Ranch Academy, a treatment program for young women seeking to overcome emotional and behavioral issues.  Fulshear prepares these young women for a successful transition to work, college, and independence.  Jensen-Savoie has spent more than twenty years running psychiatric hospitals and treatment facilities and is an expert on the impact of screen-based technology on adolescent development.