Are we – and our kids – becoming addicted to technology? What can we do?

Technology use and overuse is on the rise. What are some of the main signs of problems with screens, devices, software, games, and the internet? Expert Dr. Lisa Strohman, J.D., Ph.D. reveals symptoms of technology overuse in kids and what we as parents can do about it.

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Can you put down the device?

Technology use and overuse is on the rise. In fact, technology overuse impacts your life and the people around you. It affects our emotional health, isolates us, changes our behaviors and our bodies. In fact, compulsive use of technology can trigger behaviors that cause changes in the brain’s white and grey matter.

  • So, how much is too much?
  • What can you do at home to monitor technology in your home?
  • What can happen to kids if they consume too much screen time?
  • Are you modeling good or poor decision for your children?

We asked the expert: Dr. Lisa Strohman, J.D., Ph.D.

These questions are baffling for most adults.

Our lucky Editor, Lee Weber, had the pleasure of talking with Dr. Strohman at the LIC6 conference in Las Vegas about this very issue. To address the modern parenting dilemma – to device, or not to device? – Lisa has written a book with colleague, Melissa J. Westendorf, J.D., Ph.D. called:

“Unplug: Raising Kids in a Technology Addicted World”

It’s a blueprint for mothers and fathers on why overuse occurs, what to do to prevent it, and what to do if it’s already taken hold of your family.


To get some starting tips on technology addiction, check out our interview in full below. Then, feel free to send us your questions or comments in the section at the end. We’re happy to respond to all legitimate inquiries personally and promptly!

ADDICTION BLOG: What are some of the signs of technology addiction?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: It’s different for kids vs. adults.

With little kids, what you see is that persistent nag. So, oftentimes, parents end up giving up. If they want a lollipop, it’s no different: sometimes it’s easier to give kids a lollipop and they will shut up.

If you have kids that are constantly, chronically asking you for access to a screen or a game or a browsing point – to the point where as a parent you’re feeling like they are nagging you – or they are working the system then you must look at and see whether that persistence is probably trending towards some sort of addiction potential.

For older kids, it tends to change a little bit because then it becomes more secretive. The, signs of technology problems become something that they try to hide. Eventually, problem use tends to be something that we do closeted from other people because we don’t want them to know how much time we are spending online.

ADDICTION BLOG: Have you seen technology addiction manifest in adults?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: Absolutely!

The most resent statistic is that Millennials from 18-25 are online about 18 hours a day. When you look at Gen-X ers a little bit older than that, it’s very similar: about 14-16 hours a day.

So, we have people that are online chronically. The research is showing that we are taking in six (6) newspapers worth a data per day and we are generating two (2) newspapers worth a data per day. That capacity that we are taking in and generating every day is unparalleled in history.

When you think about why…Why is this happening? It’s because we have access to technology.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are some healthy limits for each age group?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: I think that you should really take into consideration how do you break time away.

  1. In our family, we do tech free Tuesdays where there is no technology at all that entire day. At this point, this is a day that we really love.
  2. If you are watching anything on television, or if you were eating dinner, or any of that: NO TECHNOLOGY.

That kind of dual thing that goes on, like if you go to a movie and you look around at the people eating popcorn and snacks, , but then it translates at home.

What does it look like at home? … We are watching a television show and we are scanning Facebook or Instagram, so that kind of dual treat time is what I’m seeing in technology stuff. Stopping yourself from doing that is a good way to limit.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are the compulsive behaviors? How were they manifesting in the brain? What changes are happening in the brain?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: In the brain scientists are showing us that if you have more than six (6) hours of screen time per day (which most of our kids do), then you are seeing changes in the cortical thickness of the brain. You are seeing white matter – that’s the connectivity between the different parts of the regions in the brain – is going away and the gray matter is atrophying, which is that neuronal connection in our brain.

So, you can see on the [Moray] imaging that we are structurally kind of creating these pock mark like places in our brain which means that we are not processing as fast, we are not emotionally able to regulate as much, so empathy is going down and our personal connectivity is going away.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are some age appropriate time limits for technology? Starting from birth…to young children to adolescents and through high school?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: From 0-2 years they say you should have no screen time.

I know a lot of the apps now have light bulbs. So, kids are learning how to touch light bulbs at certain times so that they are getting finger eye hand coordination. But the problem is that our brains weren’t wired in that sense. We haven’t adapted to the technology from a genetic perspective.

So, even if you look at ABCMouse or My Baby Can Read, or any of those, the science now is very clear that when we push our kids into areas that are earlier than they should from a developmental perspective, they end up falling behind their cohorts. Those technologies show that those kids have less light mood acquisition than their peer group they are going in.

Similarly, if you have kids that are trained to read (a lot of parents feel pressure to read before kindergarten), really from a developmental point of view, their eye strength and their muscle coordination isn’t strong enough. Therefore, we have so many kids in classes nowadays with convergence issues (CI); we are forcing them forward at a time when our brains aren’t at that level yet.

This type of demand is focusing them at such a high rate that – my personal opinion is – when you see these kids in third or fourth grade they are already burning out because they have such a demand that comes from a neurobiological stand point that their brains are just overwhelmed. There’s too much data for them!

Keep into consideration how much time that they are going to be in school, because if you keep technology below 4-6 hours a day, then you’d be great. You are not going to be able to do that once you get to middle school, but in elementary school, for sure try to keep it below that 4-6-hour period just because that’s the highest level of developmental period.

When you get into the middle school range your kids are going to need more time online, because of academic needs. You really need to monitor the social media and the private stuff that they are doing, because they think that they are multitasking. Instead, they are rapid toggling between tasks. What we are finding that from the European studies that are coming across is that our students are performing far worse with the more technology that they are putting in the system. A London School of Ecomonics acca mnemonics study that came out with showed students that are high achieving are less impacted by technology. Students that are struggling at any part of their developmental stage, if they have any sort of issues…are impacted much more. You are looking at probably 4-5 percent impact to 15 percent of grade loss when you get to low achieving, so we’re creating more disparity.

If you can limit the amount of time that they are connected via cellphones – because that’s really the primary area for 6, 7, 8th graders – then you’ll really be better off with the academics the brain development.

ADDICTION BLOG: When do you think a child should get a smartphone? At what age?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: I don’t think they should ever have a smartphone.

I have three flip phones at my home and I collect from people. If your kids are picked up from school every day, there’s no reason to have a phone. My kids also don’t want phones because they hear what I talk about. They like to use the family technology like a family computer and family iPad. We’ll use these types of technology for school stuff.

Just as a side note, schools are now giving Google accounts to our kids without asking us! I would advise you to go to your school and dig into the policy agreements or waivers related to IT that you sign as a parent. Just ask them: look and see the paperwork you’re signing. I guarantee there is a policy in there. Look at what you agree and what you DO NOT agree to.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are the healthy alternatives to technology use? What should we as parents be focusing on getting to our children?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: Social and interpersonal, because what the research is showing is that we need to work on the interpersonal part. For example, if you’d lack the interpersonal connection with others and you add that with the increased technology use, then you are losing empathy … aggression goes up and empathy goes down.

So, the problem is now: How do you put yourself into an environment with other little kids (in a classroom setting) when they don’t really know how to interact with each other, and they are again at the mercy of technology in their classroom setting? So off-school, at home whatever you can do:

  • Play sports
  • Join clubs
  • Do craftwork…

… or anything that’s collaborative… work together! To get the intrapersonal connections, really, we need to be going back to basics.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are some ideas that parents can help rein in the technology at home. It’s so tempting to just hand your child a device and just have them be self-guided for a little while…what else can we try?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: Use those moments wisely!

When I was writing the “Unplug” book, I did that and I remember thinking, “I’m going to take two hours and I’m going to have you guys do this!” Then, I set up three (3) things for them and I’d say, “Here’s the three (3) things you can do. I’m going to take this time to write.”

Set up those kind of centers, because that’s what they do at school right? They are used to it. So set up centers and one of the centers would be technology and just have a timer. Use your own technology to set 20 minute timers and then every 20 minutes, I have them switch and then I had almost hour and 40 minutes where I was completely focused. They can self-motivate that way and it teaches them control.

ADDICTION BLOG: What about modeling? What is the role of modeling? How important is modeling healthy use of technology?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: Modeling is extremely important. Making some simple changes as much as you possibly can…this is important!

My daughter is nine now. When she was seven I remember her saying, “Mom, is that text message more important than me?” It really struck me very hard, she’s watching every minute.

So, when I’m in the car my thoughts are on my driving. The phone is away in my purse. When I’m engaged with the kids, I’m engaged with them.
When they are doing their homework, I’ll do my “homework” and might have my laptop out because they are sitting there and I say: “Well, Mom has her work and you have your work.”

When they are reading books, I read real books. I don’t put them on screens because it impacts their security and sleep, so taking away screen time at night is important. So, I model real books.

ADDICTION BLOG: Can you talk about the technology and the advances that are going on now that might help predict who could be potentially more prone to either technology addiction or addiction in general?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: I think that the fMRIs [functional magnetic resonance imaging] and the PET scans that we’re able to do have really been helpful in terms of what we can see from a structural component of the brain. We’re starting to figure out whether, or not, you have some sort of capacity for addiction.

But, nothing’s going to be better than your genetic potential. So, look at whether you have addiction in your family – and look more broadly, because it doesn’t have to be alcohol or drug addiction: it can be a workaholic, it can be somebody who’s addicted to marathon running. Look for who’s out there seeking that endorphin or that brain chemistry change, then you must look and say, “We might have this potential in our family.”

The technologies are there, we’re starting to see those scans come through. The problem is that they are not going to be any pre-test/post-test controlled studies because nobody with a six-month-old is going to sign their child up to a computer lab and say: “Go ahead and put him in a group where he’s going to participate in aggressive video games and violence and let see how he turns out!”

So, you’re going to have to rely on self-report and you must rely on people coming in when there’s problematic behavior already. So, you can go back and you can do that questionnaire and clinical interview and say: What happened? and What’s going on?

My son who just turned eight had a concussion at seven, was knocked out; he had a scan done of his brain because of the trauma that happened. So, I now have that CAT scan of his early brain at age 8. It’ll be interesting given looking at my history and my pretential at where he is, whether or not things change for him, so I’ll have that scan but only because of this horrific accident.

ADDICTION BLOG: How can we communicate to our kids, like setting limits? How can we set up limits and explain to them that this is not good in terms of consequences?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: I think that we need to re-consider how we’re using technology in schools. We first introduce tech via school, but the educational medias translate very easily into social media. That’s how they get into YouTube, for example.
So, we’ve got trusted sources at home and at school, telling them that’s OK to go into this box. Then there is the reality: technology overuse is not good for them. So, you really should step in with the kids and talk to them more about an analogy that they can pick up on.

My example is always food. My kids love dessert, they live for dessert. However, we can’t have sweets for breakfast lunch and dinner, we must have healthy foods and we should understand that there must be balance. It’s the same thing with technology. That’s how you should talk to your kids about it, use that example.

ADDICTION BLOG: If we as individuals are identified as having certain risk factors present for addiction, how might we be able to avoid addiction in the future?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: I think you should self-monitor in the same way as when our clothes get too tight and we must decide that we can’t eat as much cake as much as we want to. You should really take into consideration the following:

  • Are you connecting with your loved ones?
  • Are you paying attention to what’s important in your life?
  • Are you still in charge of your life, or is your life in charge of you?

With technology, ask yourself, “Is it the first thing you reach for in the mornings?” I find that many people wake up and often they’ll have their phone by their bed, because of course it must be their alarm, because there’s no alarm clocks any more. So, they’ll grab their phone and they’ll start surfing what’s come in overnight. So, their day starts, before they’ve started their day.

The technology is dictating what happens.

If you can start your day, engaged with your kids, have breakfast and … then set a time to engage and dive in, it really does control some of those methods.

Same thing at night, turn off at technology at a specific time. Stick to that rule.

Often with business people I say, “Let’s talk about when you do turn these things off…” When a business person says, “Well I never turn things off.” I break it down for them…that would make your working day 18 hours. What’s your annual salary? and I break it down for them. “Oh, so you’re making $17 an hour.” So, that really works a lot of the times when you break it down.

ADDICTION BLOG: Who is the next target group for treatment of technology addiction?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: Millennials are already there.

They are already in this arena where, employers are hiring them and firing them very quickly because they have a different ethic, different approach, and different way. People talk about them being the digital natives; they are born with it and we are not. We are seeing that we are not communicating in the same way, so the kids that can use technology and able to use it to brand a company better are doing fabulously well. But those that are using it to toggle between work and personal life… not so well.
I think if we teach our kids at earlier ages:

  • Here’s what happens if you cheat on an exam using your cell phone.
  • Here’s what happens if you text something.
  • Here’s what happens if you cyberbully.
  • Here’s the reality of the effects with videos.

…the kids are really taking to it and becoming new little citizens. I think that they are going to be a new generation. That’s my dream, to help these kids not to be controlled by it.

For my kids, I always say McDonald’s Happy Meals are just a big ploy. The Internet I say is very similar: it’s a marketing machine. It has good content in it, you can find good things, but if you go on the internet… there’s nothing free there. Little toys aren’t free, because you’re paying for them.

Kids think that the things they are downloading on the internet are free apps. Well, it’s not a free app, if you read the fine print, which I’ve done with my children because they are old enough now. It shows that there is a key stroke login and that they are taking information from you and you agree to that when you download this game.

ADDICTION BLOG: Where can we get your book?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: It’s on Amazon, Lulu.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are some top 3 steps parents must take today to sort of prevent the distancing, detachment, lack of empathy? What are the top 3 things you might recommend?

DR. LISA STROHMAN, J.D., PH.D.: The first thing is assessment. Assess your family use and your child’s use of technology. You must assess where you are now. Good, better, ugly, just look at it.

Second step is really, setting up boundaries. What are going to be our new rules? Do this boundary setting with your children and get buy-in from them. You approach your child and say: “This is what I’ve learned, let’s talk about what we should do. What do you think should be a good rule? How do you think we should do that?”

Once you set up those boundaries, or the family rules to technology, then everybody’s on the same page, they can call you out of your violating, you can call them out of their violating so it’s that accountability peace.

And the last part is: Don’t go down the road of shame, guilt and secrecy. Really have a community open approach to it. My mom always said, “If you’re out at a party, somebody’s drinking and you’re on the way home, call me, no questions asked.” It’s the same thing with technology.

Something happens online, no questions asked. I will help you with that problem, the Sextortion, the trafficking, the pedophiles that are online, they are actively going out for our children and if we don’t have an open policy on the other end, they definitely will have an issue with, coming to us and talking about it, because they are going to be fearful we are going to take away that lifeline that they have now on their own.

Keep that shame guilt and fear out of it and have an open and honest discussion with your kids.

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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