Teen girl struggling with screen addiction scrolls through social media on phone.

Screen Addiction: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Young Adults

By Janet Hamm-Tuverson Director of Addictions Counseling Services 

Are you worried your young adult might be glued to their screens a bit too much? In the digital playground of today’s world, screen addiction has emerged as a common challenge among young adults, often disrupting their daily lives. This guide aims to help parents understand screen addiction in youth, recognize its signs, and discover effective strategies to regain control over their children’s brains.  Dive in as we unpack the essentials of navigating this digital dilemma and supporting your young adult through the maze of screens. 

What is Screen Addiction?

Screen addiction refers to the compulsive use of digital devices to the extent that it interferes with daily life. It is categorized under behavioral addictions and can have severe implications on an individual’s mental and physical health. 

What Are the Warning Signs and Symptoms of Screen Addiction in Young Adults?

Parents can identify screen addiction symptoms by behaviors such as spending excessive time on screens, neglecting responsibilities, or experiencing sleep issues. 

Here’s what parents need to know about screen addiction symptoms in young adults:

1. Excessive Screen Time

Excessive screen time is the most apparent symptom of screen addiction. Young adults with screen addiction may spend a significant amount of time glued to their screens, whether it is for browsing social media, streaming videos, or playing online games. For instance, if a young adult consistently uses their phone or computer late into the night or the first thing they do upon waking, it may be a sign of problematic use and negatively affect their daily life. 

2. Neglect of Responsibilities

Screen time addiction often leads to neglecting important daily responsibilities.  This situation could result in lower grades in college, poor performance at work, or the neglect of household duties and personal cleanliness. If you notice a significant drop in academic or job performance coinciding with increased screen use, this could be a red flag

3. Mood Disturbances

Pay attention to mood swings, especially irritability, and restlessness related to screen use. Young adults might become agitated or visibly upset if they cannot use their devices or if their screen time is interrupted. Additionally, they may exhibit signs of depression or anxiety when not engaged with their devices, which can be indicative of underlying depressive symptoms. 

4. Sleep Issues

Overuse of screens, especially before bed, can lead to sleep problems. The blue light emitted by screens can disrupt the natural sleep cycle by suppressing melatonin production, leading to difficulty falling asleep, insomnia, or unrestful sleep. If a young adult complains of feeling tired during the day or has altered their sleep schedule to accommodate more screen time, it could be due to screen addiction and inconsistent sleep patterns. Poor sleep can negatively affect mental and physical health, making it important to prioritize a healthy amount of sleep. 

5. Physical Discomfort

Extended screen use can cause physical symptoms such as eye strain, headaches, and back or neck pain. If a young adult frequently complains about these issues, or if you notice them rubbing their eyes, squinting, or changing posture while using digital devices, excessive screen use might be linked to these behaviors. 

6. Social Withdrawal

Screen addiction can lead to withdrawal from social interactions, also known as social isolation. Young adults may prefer online interactions over face-to-face communications or they might skip social events to spend time engaging in activities on their digital devices, such as social networking. If you notice a shift from active social involvement to isolation, this might indicate a problem. 

7. Screen Withdrawal Symptoms

A young adult who uses technology excessively may also struggle with screen addiction withdrawal symptoms if they have their devices taken away or have to go for a prolonged period without screen use. These withdrawal symptoms could include irritability, restlessness, anxiety, or difficulty concentrating. 

Why Young Adults Are at Risk of Screen Addiction?

Young adults are particularly vulnerable to screen addiction due to a variety of psychological, developmental, and environmental factors, such as instant gratification, pressures from school, relationships, or life, and mental health issues. Other risks that can make young adults more likely to be addicted to screens can include:

  • Brain Development: The prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and impulse control, is not fully developed in young adults. This difficulty in managing impulses and resisting instant gratification provided by digital devices can affect individuals negatively.  
  • Instant Gratification and the Brain’s Reward System: Digital devices provide immediate rewards through likes, shares, and comments, which is particularly appealing to young adults. For example, a teen posting a photo on Instagram may receive instant feedback through likes and comments, reinforcing the behavior and encouraging continuous engagement. 
  • Social Pressures and the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO): Young adults face significant social pressures to stay connected and up-to-date on social media platforms. The desire to be constantly available and responsive online can lead to compulsive checking of notifications and messages. Young adults are highly active on social media platforms and the constant updates from peers can invoke a strong fear of missing out. 
  • Academic and Professional Demands: Many educational and work environments require digital devices, which can blur the lines between productive and recreational screen use. This constant exposure can make it challenging to disengage from screens during personal time. 
  • Marketing Tactics: Tech companies use sophisticated algorithms and design features, like endless scrolling and personalized notifications to capture and retain user attention. These features can entice young adults, keeping them engaged for longer periods. 
  • Mental Health Vulnerabilities: Young adults with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD are particularly susceptible to screen addiction. Screens can serve as a temporary escape from real-life problems and stress, but excessive use can exacerbate these conditions. 
  • Blue Light and Sleep Disruption: Screens emit blue light, which can interfere with the natural sleep cycle by inhibiting melatonin production, the hormone that regulates sleep. Studies have shown that exposure to blue light before bedtime can lead to significant sleep disturbances. A study on the effects of blue light illustrates how this exposure can shift circadian rhythms, affecting sleep quality and overall physical health. 
  • Doomscrolling and Anxiety: Doomscrolling, or endlessly scrolling through negative news, can be especially addictive. It feeds into the anxiety many young adults feel about staying informed. For instance, during events like the COVID-19 pandemic, young adults might find themselves compulsively checking updates, which can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and make it difficult to disengage. 

What Are the Effects of Screen Addiction on Young Adults?

The effects of screen addiction extend beyond mere preference for digital over physical interactions, deeply affecting several aspects of life: 

  • Mental Health: Excessive screen time is strongly linked to increased risks of anxiety and depression. For example, a young adult who spends a lot of time on social media may begin to compare themselves unfavorably with the idealized lives of others, leading to feelings of inadequacy and depression. Young adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and screen addiction are also at risk for having more mental health issues when technology is used excessively
  • Physical Health: Sedentary behavior associated with prolonged screen use can lead to health issues such as obesity, increased blood pressure, carpal tunnel syndrome, and poor posture. Regular late-night gaming sessions, for example, can disrupt sleep patterns and exacerbate weight gain due to inactivity. 
  • Social Skills: Heavy screen use can impair a young adult’s ability to engage in face-to-face interactions, potentially weakening interpersonal skills and difficulties in maintaining or forming new relationships. Consider a teen who prefers texting over talking; they might struggle with non-verbal cues in real-life conversations. 

How Can I Help a Young Adult with Screen Addiction Issues?

Parents can help young adults with screen addiction issues by implementing boundaries and guidelines around technology use, encouraging offline healthy activities, and addressing mental health issues related to screen addiction.

1. Setting Boundaries Around Screen Use

Implementing structured boundaries around screen addiction can help manage and mitigate the adverse effects of excessive screen use: 

  • Screen Time Limits: Introduce a rule that digital devices are used for no more than two hours a day for non-academic purposes. For instance, allowing phone use after homework and chores are completed can instill discipline. This includes monitoring and setting limits for their screen time, using tools such as the screen time feature on Apple devices or third-party programs like Disney Circle and Bark. 
  • Tech-Free Zones: Designate areas like dining rooms and bedrooms as tech-free zones to encourage interpersonal communication and better sleep hygiene. Enforcing no phones at the dinner table ensures that meals are a time for family discussions. 

2. Encouraging Offline Activities

Teens who struggled with screen addiction spend time outdoors to overcome excessive social media use.
Teens who struggled with screen addiction spend time outdoors to overcome excessive social media use.

Promoting engaging activities that do not involve digital devices is essential to combat screen addiction. Here are some specific activities and strategies to encourage young adults to reduce their screen time and engage more fully in the world around them:

  • Outdoor Adventures: Encourage activities such as hiking, biking, or camping. These activities promote physical health but also offer a break from technology, immersing young adults in natural surroundings and reducing stress. 
  • Creative Arts: Engaging in creative outlets like painting, writing, music, or crafting can be therapeutic and fulfilling. These activities stimulate the brain in ways different than digital media. They can also help foster a sense of accomplishment and self-expression. 
  • Sports and Physical Fitness: Participating in sports or regular fitness routines like yoga, martial arts, or dance classes offers physical and mental health benefits, including improved mood and reduced anxiety. 
  • Volunteering: Getting involved in community service or volunteer activities can help young adults feel more connected to their community, provide a sense of purpose, and offer opportunities to develop new skills and friendships outside of online networks. 
  • Mindfulness and Meditation: Encourage practices that enhance mindfulness, such as meditation, tai chi, or guided breathing exercises. These practices can help reduce the need for constant stimulation and promote greater emotional balance. 

3. Using Therapeutic Techniques and Treatment

Addressing the underlying psychological or emotional factors related to screen addiction can greatly help young adults. Some screen addiction treatment options for young adults can include:

  • Professional Help: Engage the services of therapists who specialize in behavioral addictions. For example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), can help individuals understand the thoughts and emotions that lead to excessive screen use and develop healthier coping mechanisms. 
  • Group Support: Support groups, such as Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous, can offer peer support for young adults dealing with screen addiction, which is incredibly effective in fostering a sense of community and shared responsibility in recovery. 
  • Mindfulness Techniques: Teaching techniques such as meditation and yoga can help young adults learn to manage stress and disengage from compulsive behaviors. Practicing mindfulness can significantly enhance an individual’s ability to self-regulate and make conscious choices about screen use. 
  • Modeling Behavior: Parents can lead by example by managing their own screen usage. Demonstrating balanced tech habits, such as avoiding phones during mealtimes and prioritizing face-to-face communication, can set a powerful example for young adults. When parents show that they value real-world interactions over digital engagement, it encourages similar behavior in their children. 

Screen Addiction: Embracing Balance in a Digital Age 

As we navigate the challenges and conveniences of a digitally connected world, the importance of recognizing the signs of screen addiction and helping young adults shouldn’t be overstated. By establishing clear guidelines, promoting engaging alternatives to screen time, such as exercise, reading, playing board games, or spending time with friends and family, and providing appropriate therapeutic support, parents can significantly improve their young adult’s use of electronic devices. 

Equipping our young adults with the tools they need to manage their screen usage effectively and lead fulfilling lives both online and offline should be about helping young adults use technology in a healthy way. If your young adult is struggling with screen addiction and the steps above have not helped, contact or call OPI at 818-853-2696, and we’ll walk you through some healing treatment options. For more resources and support, visit Optimum Performance Institute.