Mitigating the Risk of Digital
Media Overuse at College

Written by
Tracy Markle, MA, LPC &
Dr. Brett Kennedy, Psy.D.

Mitigating the risk of digital media overuse at college is possible if you plan accordingly. Unfortunately, most adults overlook this detail when preparing students for the transition to college. Therapists, coaches, teachers, and parents read on to learn how you can help teens and college students take advantage of the tools at their disposal.

In This Article

What is Digital Media Overuse?

Digital media use can range from healthy to addictive. But most people who use the internet fall somewhere in the middle, in the category of digital media overuse. This includes the majority of our clients who struggle with digital media overuse negatively effecting their academic, professional, social and emotional lives.

Screen Overuse and the Transition to College are common

Only a small percentage of the population meets criteria for digital media addiction with the most vulnerable age groups being college students followed by adolescents. In a recent study of 800 college students conducted by the research team at Digital Media Treatment & Education Center and Binghamton University, all digital media formats proved capable of causing problems for users. For example, approximately 9-14% of college students were identified at high risk of digital media overuse when engaged in video gaming, pornography, and other video content streaming. However, smart phone use in general and social media use in particular, seemed the most capable of causing problems for users. 46.3% of the college students in the study were identified as being at high risk for digital media overuse when engaged in social media use and 43.8% were identified at high risk for overuse when engaged in smart phone use. The research team determined this could have potential negative impacts on the college students’ social, academic, and occupational functioning.

Why is College Such a High-Risk Time for Digital Media Overuse?

mitigating risk of digital media overuse in college

College students are the highest risk group for digital media overuse and addiction for two reasons. First, like younger children, they lack some of the executive functioning necessary to control their usage because of their stage of brain development. Second, unlike younger children, college students are living without parental supervision for the first time. Suddenly having to manage their own screen use, along with everything else, can result in disaster for those who are unprepared.

As the responsibilities of college life begin to overwhelm them, students turn to their favorite coping mechanisms. For many, that includes digital media use, such as marathon gaming sessions, binge-watching videos or scrolling mindlessly through social media.

If they are shy or uncomfortable in social settings, have difficulty making new friends, or advocating for themselves with teachers and authority figures, they might also begin to spend more and more time online where they feel a greater sense of competency and security.

Digital media overuse use can result in poor sleep, poor nutrition, and poor study habits. All of which exacerbate their problems, creating a vicious cycle that can result in a failure to adjust and failing out of school.

Coexisting conditions like ADHD, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), depression, and anxiety increase the chances that a person will overuse digital media.

How Can College-Bound Students Mitigate the Risks Associated with Digital Media Overuse?

Adults can set teens up for success in college by having them work incrementally towards independence. Identifying and accepting any disabilities is also crucial so that students feel confident advocating for themselves and getting the help they need. The following steps are intended as a guide to this process.

Have Teens Work Incrementally Towards Independence

Adults do teens a disservice when they focus solely on their grades as preparation for college. Teens must also develop the necessary life skills to live independently in order to succeed away from home. When the transition to independent living isn’t so abrupt, students have a much easier time coping with the new challenges college life presents. As a result, they’re less likely to lose themselves in digital media overuse or addiction. 

  • Talk to students about the transition to college early. Don’t wait until their senior year of high school to start. Begin in middle school or at least by age 14, if possible.
  • Calculate the number of semesters until the student graduates from high school so you both have a mental picture of the timeframe.
  • Discuss any concerns either of you have about the transition to college. Work together to come up with solutions.
  • Co-create a list of specific skills the student needs to work on and include examples of what those skills look like. It’s important that students co-create the list with an adult because they must feel invested in learning the skills.
  • High school upper classmen should begin to do each thing on the list on their own, becoming incrementally more responsible for all the items on their list with the goal of mastering them by graduation from high school.

Video: Mitigating the risk of digital media overuse at college means training students to do homework without electronic devices beginning in elementary school, says professor and author Cal Newport.

Examples of Skills for Students to Master Before Going to College

  1. Study habits – Know how to take notes in class or arrange to get notes from someone. Schedule regular time for studying in a place that is conducive to studying.
  2. Self-advocacy – Speak to instructors in order to get needs met. Know how to ask for help.
  3. Time management – Be able to create routines and follow them in order to complete all responsibilities.
  4. Work-play balance – Digital media use is in healthy balance with other activities including physical exercise and physical and creative play.
  5. Social Skills – Student can make and maintain friendships with peers and regularly socializes with them in person.
  6. Emotional coping skills – Student can bounce back from disappointments, rejections, or failures, understanding that these are a part of life and not a measure of worth
  7. Sleep Hygiene – Student regularly gets 8 hours of sleep
  8. Medication Management – Student takes prescribed medications on schedule and is comfortable speaking with medical professionals to update prescriptions and obtain refills.

Help Teens Identify and Accept Co-Existing Factors So They Can Advocate for Themselves

Most of the clients we treat for digital media overuse issues have co-existing factors that predispose them to digital media overuse such as ADHD or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Often they’re unaware they have one or more of these conditions. In other cases, they have a diagnosis, but they’re not keeping up with treatment and/or not taking advantage of school accommodations legally available to them because of how these conditions can affect learning. Once they begin to receive regular treatment and accommodations, they are often better able to get their digital media use under control and improve their scholastic outlook.
  1. If you suspect a student has a co-existing factor that predisposes them to digital media overuse, it’s important to have them evaluated by a licensed medical provider and begin treatment if appropriate.
  2. If a student is already diagnosed with ADHD and under treatment with prescription medication, ensure they are taking their medication daily. Also see item #8 above, “Medication Management.”
  3. High school students receiving accommodations should begin attending their individual education plan (IEP) meetings and advocating for themselves by 11th grade. Students won’t have a parent to advocate for them in college, so they must gain the confidence to advocate for themselves before they leave the home.

A List of Items to Consider When Choosing a College for Students with Learning Disabilities and Other Co-Existing Factors

mitigating risk of digital media overuse at college student services

A longitudinal study from the National Center for Learning Disabilities found that 94% of students with learning disabilities received accommodations in high school, but only 17% received them in postsecondary education.¹ The college accommodation process can be long and complicated. Add to this the shame or stigma many students carry about their ADHD, ASD, or learning disability and you can see why most college students who need accommodations don’t request them. This is why we say co-existing factors must not only be identified, but accepted by the student so that they can advocate for themselves throughout the complicated system. The following is a list of items college-bound students should consider when co-existing factors are present.

  1. Consider the size of the university when deciding where to attend as many students do better with smaller class sizes and more individual attention from instructors.
  2. Research academic and mental health student services at any colleges under consideration.
  3. Research the university’s office of disability resources. Post-secondary institutions aren’t required to provide students with the same level of accommodations required in K-12. So, it’s vital to learn exactly what kind of accommodations a school provides before deciding where to attend. The earlier you can find this out the better, as some schools require new documentation of a student’s disability.
  4. Consider disqualifying a school that doesn’t provide necessary accommodations.
  5. Ask about prescription services at the university health center. Students under prescription drug treatment should ask if they can fill prescriptions on campus and learn what kind of documentation they need to provide the school. Often university health centers will fill prescriptions for ADHD but will not prescribe them.
  6. Learn not to share ADHD meds. College students with prescription stimulant medications for treatment of ADHD are commonly pressured to share them with classmates. Students should be taught about the dangers of sharing prescriptions.
    • It’s illegal
    • It could get them kicked out of school
    • It puts the student with ADHD at risk of being without the prescription medication they need to succeed in school.
  7. Ask universities if they provide coaching services or skill services for students. Many colleges and universities provide academic, social, and emotional support programs for students, but they are often called coaching or skill services because of the stigma around asking for help. These programs might be located in the university’s mental health services department, the student services department, or in a university career center.

The Gap Year: When Going Directly to College Isn’t the Best Option

More and more US students are taking a gap year or transition year after high school. This can be a great choice when a high school graduate isn’t quite mature enough to live independently. Or when their career plans don’t require a four-year degree. A gap year is a time to mature, grow confidence, gain a deeper understanding of career aspirations, and a greater appreciation for education and learning. It’s not a year to stay up late, sleep in, and play video games all day. It’s important to have a structured plan in place for the gap year that leads to college or some other career path. The following are some ideas to consider when planning a gap year.

  1. Ideally, the student should live away from home as they should be learning how to live independently during this time.
  2. Students can defer college for one year once they are accepted by a university as long as they notify the university in May of their senior year of high school.
  3. Gap year or transition year programs can include college transition programs, working a job or internship, taking community college courses, enrolling in travel programs that include classroom or work experience.

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1. Horowitz, S. H., Rawe, J., & Whittaker, M. C. (2017). The State of Learning Disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5. New York: National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Introduction to Digital Media Overuse, A Clinical Training for Counseling and Related Professionals October 7, 2022

Attend a live, interactive, clinical training on digital media overuse and addiction with two of the world’s leading clinical experts.
Approved by NBCC for 6 CE hours.