Too Much Tech: Preventing Digital Addiction in your Tween-to-Teen

As an adolescent counselor, most of my time is spent talking and connecting with text-happy, Instagram-snapping, YouTube-watching, Halo-shooting, iPhone-obsessed middle- and high-schoolers and their parents.

Recently, I received a call from a parent who said, “My 13-year-old is absolutely addicted to technology. If she’s not texting, then she’s emailing. If she’s not emailing, she’s on YouTube or Instagram. If she’s not doing that, then she is playing with a new app. I really don’t know what to do. Help!” 

I get it. I really do. I have three tween-to-teens of my own. So, when it came to writing an article on digital addiction and adolescents, I didn’t have to look much further than my own house. Seriously, it was in my own house. 

With one glance around the room, I saw four smartphones, three laptops, two iPads, an AppleTV, and a handful more devices. Yikes. That’s a lot. It really shed light on just how much we have let technology into our lives.

During a family card game, I realized just how much we had begun to rely - actually, depend - on technology. My son couldn’t sit still when he heard his phone vibrate, my daughter needed to show us the funniest thing on Instagram and, truth be told, I was taking a picture with my phone. Could we be addicted?

Merriam-Webster defines addiction as “a compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance.” Is technology a habit-forming substance?  Like alcohol, drugs or other substances, technology rewards us with the “pleasure chemical” dopamine.

Kids can get a natural high when logging onto Instagram, playing the latest video game, or instant-messaging with their friends. There can be an almost compulsive need to get the digital boost. This need is not going unnoticed by professionals. Just last year, the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5) took note of the impact and listed digital addiction as a “condition for further study.”

Signs of technology overuse in tween-to-teens have begun to include dropping grades, increased isolation and aggression as well as the possible onset of stress, sleeping disorders and depression. Now, I’m not advocating a ban on all technology. It has it benefits too: kids can check-in with parents more easily; electronic libraries, research has become simplified, and more. However, it’s flipside of the benefits that raise the red flags. So, what can you do to begin to minimize the impact?

Choose People Over Devices

Human interaction trumps technology. Encourage your kids to use digital devices on their own time, rather than when they are with others. Request that your tween-to-teen to shelve the smartphone or laptop during family time. And, make sure YOU do the same!

Set Limits

Talk to your child about when, where and how to use technology as well as when to unplug. If needed, employ beneficial parent knowledge apps and computer controls that help you monitor passwords, time online, websites visited - even hurtful messages or potential predator situations.  Additionally, schedule a starting and stopping point for on your child’s online connection. An evening check-in of devices can also help discourage late night tech sessions.

Know Where They Go

Talk to your kids about what sites they are visiting, games they are playing or videos they are watching. Is their a “real-life”equivalent that could provide the same experience? For example, rather than chatting with friends online, could they invite them over for a pizza party? 

Practice Mindful Monitoring

Utilize tools and apps to help to provide digital monitoring for your child’s use and exposure. Raging hormones and adult websites can become a recipe for digital addiction.

Schedule an E-Free Day

Once a week or month, increase your teen’s connection by disconnecting. Schedule a family sabbatical from the digital world. Go for a hike. Play a board game. Do something - anything - that allows you to unplug and recharge.

Listen to the Little Inner Voice

If you think your tween-to-teen might be spending too much time in front of the screen, it’s highly likely he or she is. Start the conversation about what your child is receiving from spending so much time online. Is it because chat sites are providing acceptance or anonymity? Is technology offering an escape from daily pressures and concerns? Perhaps they are just bored and technology is the default activity.  That little voice knows when it’s all become too much. Listen to it. Trust it. Talk about it.

Practice What You Preach

Lastly, be the epitome of “do as I say and as I do.”Telling your tween-to-teen to limit their digital use will not have the effect you desire unless you also show them how to limit by doing it yourself.

Contributed by: Julie Smith

Julie Smith, adolescent counselor and parent educator, specializes in the art, science and adventure of connecting with tweens. She helps parents better understand, communicate and [re]connect with their tween-to-teen.. For more information, visit

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