How to manage teen tech use and addiction

UCLA Health addiction psychiatrist Dr. Timothy Fong shares insights for parents.
A boy plays a video game using two computer screens and a headset.

Worried that your teenage child might be addicted to video games? Or social media? Or worse, to some kind of substance that could lead to overdose?

While these are common parental fears, Timothy Fong, MD, a UCLA Health psychiatrist and director of the UCLA Addiction Psychiatry Fellowship, advises parents: “Don’t panic.”

“Don’t panic and then impulsively do something,” Dr. Fong said at a recent discussion about teen mental health sponsored by the Friends of Semel Institute. “You get informed. You get a professional. You have an open discussion. Getting highly emotional and yelling and screaming and criticizing and judging is only going to drive a deeper wedge between people.”

As for what kind of professional to contact, Dr. Fong said to start with your family’s pediatrician.

“Say, ‘Hey, I’m worried about my son or daughter’s behavior. What should we do?’ The pediatrician will take it from there,” he said.

The biggest change in addiction today is the role of technology, Dr. Fong said. Cell phones make placing bets and having drugs delivered to your doorstep as close as the palm of your hand. And technology itself can be addictive, as many who have gamed, scrolled or binge-watched away hours can attest. 

Playing video games prompts the brain to release dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and behavior reinforcement. Scrolling social media can have the same effect. Gambling, shopping, sex and addictive substances also trigger a dopamine release.

“Social media overuse is on the unhealthy dopamine menu,” Dr. Fong said. “It’s ultra-processed information. It’s like a Twinkie for your mind.”

The ubiquity of technology and social media has also led to disinformation and misinformation about addiction, he said. 

Video games

Dr. Fong said he gets several calls a month from parents worried that their child may be addicted to video games. Internet gaming disorder is a real psychiatric condition identified in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

Video game play must cause “significant impairment or distress” to be qualified as a disorder, the manual notes. The condition is estimated to affect 2% to 5% of gamers, with higher rates among American teens, according to a 2022 analysis of global studies on gaming disorder.

The first thing Dr. Fong advises parents to do if they are concerned about their child’s video game use is sit down and play the game with them. 

“Do not make a judgment,” he said. “Watch how they play. Understand their perspective. Understand what they like or don’t like about it.”

Then ask yourself: Is my child’s quality of life better or worse because of this video game?

“If they continue to engage in the video game and they develop harmful consequences, that’s a sign of problematic behavior,” Dr. Fong said. “That’s when we, as professionals, may need to step in.”

Excessive video-game play may also arise in response to untreated depression, ADHD or unaddressed trauma, he added.

The antidote to potentially excessive gaming and scrolling, Dr. Fong suggested, is a “healthy dopamine menu” — regular activities and behaviors that provide natural, healthy doses of dopamine. These include physical movement, sufficient sleep, real-life connections and becoming skilled at something you enjoy.

This is the strategy he relies on with his own teenage children, he said: “If they’re doing all that (good) stuff, I really don’t care how much screen time they have.”

Technology also has a positive role to play when it comes to addiction, Dr. Fong added.

“It can bring you the ability to connect,” he said. “It can bring you telehealth. It can bring you proper information.”

Take the Next Step

Learn more about the Addiction Psychiatry Clinic at UCLA Health.

UCLA Health covers scientific advances and of-the-moment health concerns at Talking to your pediatrician or primary care provider is another way to get accurate health information.