Extensive vs. Problematic Media Use: What’s the Difference?

“My daughter is always on the phone. If I try to take her phone away from her, she’ll have a meltdown. She’s constantly waiting for her friends to text her.” 

Parent Quote.

“If we don’t physically shut off our son’s computer at night, he’ll never sleep.”

Parent Quote.

In today’s digital era, children are growing up in a world full of screens and digital devices – a drastically different childhood from that of their parents and caregivers. In a national survey conducted in 2023, researchers found that roughly 70% of US teens reported visiting video-sharing platforms, such as YouTube and TikTok, daily. Understandably, many adults are stressed and worried about their children’s device usage and want to know when their child’s media use becomes problematic. In this article, we’ll share existing research on what signs to watch out for depending on a child’s developmental stage. We’ll also provide guidelines on how parents can support their children in practicing healthy media habits.  

Defining Terms

There’s a difference between intensive media use and problematic media use*. Intensive media use is primarily characterized by the amount of time one spends on screens. A child who utilizes media as a tool to learn a new skill but can stop to interact with peers and loved ones is using media intensively. There are no convincing results proving that screen time alone directly compromises children’s psychosocial functioning and development. By contrast, problematic media use is characterized by dependence and uncontrolled use of screens or specific types of media content that interfere with a child’s functioning; it is a compulsive behavior with harmful consequences for one’s social and mental health. A child who plays video games to an extent that interferes with their day-to-day life is engaging in problematic media use.

Types of Problematic Media Use 

According to Boston Children’s Hospital Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorder (CIMID), problematic media use among youth tends to present in one of four ways

  1. Gaming: This can include excessive gaming on a computer, console, or mobile device, where the player engages with the game for hours on end, often only taking breaks when forced to do so.  
  2. Social Media: This can include using social media as the primary means of connecting with others instead of through in-person interaction. 
  3. Information-Seeking: This can include spending hours surfing websites and binge-watching videos in place of other activities.  
  4. Pornography: This can include obsessive use of internet pornography that results in sexual dysfunction.

Other behaviors described as problematic media use may include excessive online gambling and shopping or over-involvement in online dating, although this is less commonly seen among youth. 

The mechanisms underlying problematic media use can differ based on the type of media and individual predispositions. Problematic use of media can interfere with children’s daily lives and is correlated with poorer school performance, increased family conflict, reduced relationship satisfaction, physical health risks (e.g., weight gain, lack of sleep), and emotional and psychological challenges (e.g., increased odds of depression and anxiety, higher perceived stress). Recognizing these underlying factors is crucial in addressing problematic media use. 

Primary drivers and motives in relation to the four media types and behaviors introduced earlier may include: 

  1. Gaming: Children with pre-existing mental health conditions (e.g., anxiety and depression) and neurological developmental disorders (e.g., ADHD, ASD) are more likely to engage in problematic gaming. Studies have also shown that low self-esteem is often one of the causes of gaming disorder. Children who report having lower levels of social support from family and friends tend to engage in gaming overuse. Players often engage in gaming as a means of “escaping” reality, a coping mechanism to manage stress, or a way to boost self-esteem through a feeling of accomplishment. 
  1. Social Media: The overuse of social media has been linked with the need to regulate negative emotions (e.g., lower self-esteem, increased depression, and social anxiety). Children and teens tend to overuse social media as a coping strategy for their everyday problems (e.g., family conflict) or to simply pass the time. Research has also demonstrated the prevalence of FOMO (fear of missing out) – the fear or anxiety that others may be engaging in enjoyable activities while one is missing out on them. 
  1. Information-Seeking: Doomscrolling and information-bingeing refer to instances when internet users continually surf across websites, apps, and information sites (e.g., Wikipedia, Reddit) to learn more about topics and events. This type of negative information-seeking can lead to anxiety, fear, and distress – which in turn can be detrimental to a child’s quality of sleep, eating habits, and mood. 
  1. Pornography: Reliance on internet pornography can lead to an inability to develop healthy and appropriate sexual identities and romantic relationships. Extensive viewing of pornographic material leads to desensitization to sexualized content, which, in turn, could lead to more compulsive viewing.  

Recognizing Symptoms & Understanding Impact 

Research underscores the potential impact of problematic media use on children’s physical and emotional well-being. Although a common symptom of problematic media use is a fixation with screen-based media, other symptoms include a decline in personal hygiene, a decrease in school performance, and social withdrawal. Even then, it can be challenging to evaluate whether your child has trouble managing their media and digital device use since it’s such a large part of children’s lives today. We urge parents and caregivers to consider the following questions: 

  1. Has media use significantly impacted your child’s quality of sleep? Do they have trouble falling asleep, struggle with fatigue throughout the day, or have difficulty waking up in the morning? 
  2. Has media use affected your child’s academic performance? Are they turning in their assignments on time? Are their grades dropping? 
  3. Has media use affected your child’s social life and relationships? Are they spending less time with their friends and family? Have they lost interest in their hobbies and pastimes and prefer to spend more time on screens? 
  4. Has your child started neglecting their daily responsibilities and activities due to their media use?
  5. How does your child react when it’s time to stop using their media or turn off the screens? Do they become dysregulated when you tell them to stop? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, your child may need help addressing their problematic media use. Even if your child isn’t exhibiting these symptoms, studies have shown that setting up healthy screen habits early on with your child can be an effective intervention, playing a crucial role in mitigating risks and promoting resilience in children. 

What Can I Do To Support My Child? 

Parents and caregivers have a significant impact on their children’s media use. Adults need to be conscious and mindful of how they’re using screens and media, especially in the presence of their children. From birth through elementary school, children are highly impressionable; thus, parents must model healthy screen use early on. Examples of this include implementing screen-free mealtimes or avoiding screens while playing or engaging with a child. Furthermore, since many young children don’t have a personal device yet, parents should be critical about the types of media content to which they’re exposing their children and consider ways to engage in media use together. Parents of preteens and teens should have open, regular, and honest conversations about their child’s media use. Just as a parent would check in with their child about their day, parents can also inquire about what they’re seeing on media and how it’s made them feel. This practice can help strengthen the bond and trust between parent and child while increasing the likelihood of children confiding in their parents when challenges arise. 

The infographic below contains a list of specific action steps and tips to help promote healthy and safe media use habits among children.  


The media and technology landscape has rapidly changed over the past few years. Thus, it’s understandable and unsurprising that parents and caregivers are having trouble adjusting to and establishing the “right” guidelines and limitations in today’s ever-changing digital world. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this challenge for parents across the globe. Parents have a lot of questions and concerns about how much is too much, in addition to whether and how to set limits around screen and media use. We know from research that parents play a significant role in helping their kids engage with screens in a healthy manner. With the help of these guidelines, we hope that parents can navigate the digital landscape together with their children –  drawing on knowledge, empathy, and optimism – to ensure that children thrive in an increasingly connected world. 

*Note: There is no standardized term for Problematic Media Use. Names for this problem range from Internet Addiction Disorder to Problematic Internet Use, Pathological Internet Use, Compulsive Internet Use, Probelmatic-Interactive Media Use, etc.