My Child Seems Addicted to Screens - Help!

Posted: February 5, 2020

Video gaming
The screaming, the tears, the arguments, the negotiations when it's time to stop ... could your child be on the way to a video game or screen addiction?  Or  is he already there? 

You are the first generation of parents who have had to cope with this amount of screen time and emotional pull of progress ("I just have to finish this level!")  No wonder you're struggling!  There's no map, no established parenting history for handling this. 

And let's face it, modern day living has gotten so full for parents that it's very tempting to let your child spend time with screens in order to collect your thoughts, get things done around the house, or dare I say it? ... talk to each other or a supportive adult.

In generations past, the TV was the babysitter, but it couldn't hold a candle to a video game, addictability-wise.  Kids were still willing to turn of the TV and go outside to ride bikes, play neighborhood games, and even rake the yard.  Now there's a major scene whenever anyone suggests that it's time to turn off the device.  Why is this?  Because of the sophisticated way the games are designed, pleasure hormones are activated when success is achieved.  The brain seeks the pleasure over and over, especially in children.  Their brains are much more susceptible to addiction, both to screens and substances, than adults' brains.  This is a crucial point.  Do not allow an addiction to continue because it is happening in a vulnerable developing brain.  

I  know. You hate this conflict with your kids, especially when it's EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.  

Here are some (edited) guidelines from Melbourne Child Psychology (www.melbournechildpsychology.com

Consider the following signs of possible ‘digital dependence’.

  1. Lack of interest in normal daily activities.

Has your child stopped enjoying or seeking out the other things they used to enjoy? Does he always choose screen time over any other leisure activity?

  1. Constant distraction by technology.

Are you unable to communicate with her or get her attention when she's on her phone? Is she always anxiously waiting until she can get back to her phone?

  1. Problem behaviour when he's not able to be online.

Are there tantrums or disrespectful language (name-calling, profanity, swearing) when he's not able to access his video games? Do you see aggression that's typically out of character?

  1. Constant discussion about, and begging for, screen time.

When she's not using screens, is she frequently referring to them, such as discussing things she's seen or done online? (Some of this is normal, but watch for hyper-focus.) 

  1. Withdrawal.

Does he seem anxious, distressed or upset when he can’t access his devices, then calmer once he can?

If your child is showing these signs of being dependent on screens, an intervention can help!

Just like any other addiction, these things are most successfully dealt with ASAP. There’s no better time for that when they’re still kids — and you’re still actively parenting them.

Just as with all parenting topics, setting up healthy screen habits while they’re young will equip them to handle screens in adulthood.  They'll be more mindful navigators of the digital world, and more engaged in their actual lives.

In weaning your child off his screen obsession, consider the following:

  • Don’t ask for ending it cold turkey! This will make the transition seem like a punishment, rather than efforts toward their highest good. Slowly reduce their screen time, rather than cutting if off.  Include them in the discussion, always, even if they balk at the idea of cutting back.  That's natural when there's an addiction, but it's not a reason to abandon your efforts.  
  • Gather together in a family meeting to set healthy boundaries.  You'll need a two-hour/day limit, ultimately (recommnended by the American Association of Pediatrics) and periods during the week where there's no access (the AAP recommendation is no screens one hour before bed to allow for healthy sleep.)  You may think, "But what if he gets around my blocking of his device?  Use Qustodio, an app which allows you to control all devices in your home from your phone.  NEVER do this without a calm discussion of your reasons:  "All your life we've made sure you were safe and healthy by providing a home, food, education, transportation, love, affection, and by teaching you the rules of safety.  This is just another one of those areas.  Overuse of screens is not safe for kids, emotionally or physically. We're just still doing our job."
  • Are the household tasks and homework done?  Then it's screen time.  Two hours max per day for school-age children.  Zero for those under age 2.  One hour for preschoolers.  
  • Access educational content before simple or violent games.  No violence, as it is shown to increase aggressive behavior. Check the age recommendations on games and follow them without waffling. If your child wants to negotiate by saying, "Everyone at school plays this!" stop right there and say, "We know better than to allow this type of game. It's our job to keep this out of our home.  If other kids are using them, maybe their parents just need more information on this.  We're not changing our minds. End of discussion."  
  • Keep drawing, reading, playing board games, outdoor activities, cooking, baking, cleaning with raucous music, exercising together the focus of your lives.

As you take control of the screen use in your home, you may see less resistance than you anticipated.  Children, despite their protests, WANT their parents to set limits.  It helps them feel secure.  They become more relaxed, and you will soon see these effects.  

Please note the difference in approach between adolescents and children:

Children need clear boundaries that don't vary.  Adolescents need some input into the decisions, so never implement new boundaries without including them in the solution.   Say, "I want us to come to a daily screen time limit together, one we can both accept." If they negotiate and you can't accept it, remind them that it needs to be mutual.  If you land on something like 2 hours and 15 minutes, accept it.  This is collaborative decision-making, and it works the best.  Dictating the limits guarantees resistance and sneakiness.  

Be sure to monitor your own screen time hours - a rule of thumb is, "Should I be giving my child my attention now, or should I be on this screen?"  You'll be setting the example and sharing your values:  "Family time is our priority every day."  Nothing you can do beyond this will be more effective, as children learn what they live.  

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Keep in mind that the video game industry wants your child dependent on video games.  As a family, you can discuss this and help your children join you in the campaign against corporate greed.  That was one way I helped my kids with limiting TV and its constant marketing to kids back in the day, and it really worked.  

Our society will need strong parents, teachers, and leaders when this generation of children grows up.  We can't let them waste time - learning to navigate  life is vital to their development.  They need to learn about respect for others, sharing, problem-solving, managing strong feelings, decision-making and relating to family and friends.  If they're on screens, this is what they're missing.  Do not let this happen. 

If you need help with this or any other parenting issue, click here to learn about parent coaching.  






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