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Think your child might be addicted to watching YouTube videos or playing video games? It’s possible. Here’s what you should watch for.

Photo: iStockphoto

Almost every parent stresses about how many hours their kids log on their tablet, smartphone or TV each day. But according to a new study, the amount of time a kid spends on a screen isn’t actually as important as how dependent the kid is on the screen.

Spending too much time in front of a screen has been linked to a lack of sleep, speech delays and poor social skills. But brand new research out of the University of Michigan has found that the bigger issue “is whether screen use causes problems in other areas of life or has become an all-consuming activity,” says the study’s lead author Sarah Domoff, assistant professor of psychology at Central Michigan University. When this happens, it’s considered screen addiction.

The researchers developed a tool to measure screen addiction in kids ages four to 11. Classic signs of addiction include things like an inability to stop using the substance or when the use of that substance begins to interfere with your life and relationships. When it comes to kids and screens, the symptoms aren’t all that different. Here are the red flags to watch for that suggest your kid might have a screen addiction.

1. Your child can’t control their screen use
The researchers call this “unsuccessful control,” when kids have trouble stopping using devices. If you’ve tried to impose limits on screen time, but your kiddo just couldn’t deal, this could be an issue.

2. Loss of interest in other activities
If “tablet time” is the only thing that motivates your child (books, toys and sports don’t get them nearly as excited), they might be too invested in screen use.

3. It preoccupies their thoughts
If, even when your kid isn’t playing video games, he’s talking about Minecraft, wondering what his favourite YouTuber will post next, or acting out scenes from Angry Birds, this could be a sign of addiction.     Little girl watching a video on a smartphone

4. It interferes with socializing
Is your child bringing a phone to the dinner table? Sneaking peeks at his tablet while his grandmother tries to make conversation? When screens interfere with family activities, they could be problematic.

5. Screen use causes serious family problems
Have you had any blowout arguments incited by screen use? Or behaviours problems related to something they’re watching? This could be a sign of an unhealthy relationship with screens.

6. Your kid shows signs of withdrawal
When it’s time to turn off the TV for bedtime or put mobile devices away for screen-free family time and your kid gets frustrated, they may actually be experiencing withdrawal.

7. Their tolerance is increasing
If your child used to watch 30 minutes of YouTube after school each day but now she’s even watching it on a phone on the way home from school, her tolerance is on the rise.

8. They’re deceptive about it
If your kiddo is sneaking a tablet into bed at night or lying about how long they’ve been playing a video game, this is a red flag.

9. A screen is their mood booster
If your child comes home after a bad day at school and needs a TV show or game to make him feel better or offer an escape, researchers say it could be a sign of screen addiction.

The study doesn’t specify how many of these warning signs your kid has to exhibit to have an addiction—or what to do if they do, in fact, appear to have an addiction. But if your kid checks off more than a few of these boxes, then it might be time to re-evaluate how screens are being used at home and to make an effort to wean your little ones off of screens before the dependency does damage.