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Why You Shouldn’t Blame Your Kids for Too Much Screen Time

7 strategies to counter the problematic pull of screens.

Key points

  • A 2021 study found screen time increased by 4.8 hour per day for kids during the initial COVID-19 lockdown; now, 37% continue at the same level.
  • While the concept of "screen addiction" is debated, researchers are increasingly aware that technology is designed to keep users coming back.
  • Too much screen time may not be a personal problem; rather, it may be the result of the technology itself.
  • Recognizing how technology companies keep users on screens, and taking steps to combat them, can help minimize screen time without fights.

Aiden’s parents had asked him to come to the dinner table five times before his mother left the kitchen and turned off the computer. The crying and temper tantrum that ensued was predictable.

Aiden’s parents did as many others do—they blamed their kid for too much screen time. It's easy to get upset with your kids when they refuse to get off their screens. At times, keeping kids off screens seems almost impossible.

Increasingly, parents in the United States and many other developed countries are concerned that kids may be becoming addicted to their screens. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has only gotten worse. A 2021 study by Boutaina Zemrani and colleagues found that screen time increased by 4.8 hours per day for all children—and 3 months after the initial lockdown, 37 percent of kids were still spending most of their awake time in front of screens.

"Video game addiction" has been classified as a "condition for further study" in the most recent volume of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic guide: the DSM-5. Officially known as Internet Gaming Disorder, it is reportedly most common in teenage males . Being formally included in the next edition of the DSM would designate this disorder as a disease—but what if the difficulty that kids and adults have in staying away from their screens lies in the technology and not in the person?

By gpointstudio via Envato.
Source: By gpointstudio via Envato.

Adam Alter , author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, puts the blame for compulsive and "addictive" screen use at the feet of tech companies and tells us that we shouldn’t blame our kids for too much screen time. In Irresistible , he presents compelling arguments about how large technology companies have mastered psychological principles that ensure we stay on our screens as much as possible. After all, the longer we are glued to our screens, the more money they make.

Taking Alter’s perspective shifts the emphasis from the player to the game or from the viewer to the screen. His insight into the psychology of screen-based businesses is remarkable, but also frightening. Technology companies seem largely unconcerned about their responsibility for extensive problematic behavior.

Alter describes five techniques technology companies use to keep you on screens:

1. Variable feedback/schedules of reinforcement

This is the same method casinos use to keep you returning to a slot machine. You’ll win sometimes, but you don’t know when. This type of reinforcement makes it difficult to stop or “extinguish” a behavior. For example, waiting to get feedback from social media posts has the uncertainty of a reward.

2. Portability

Seventy percent of U.S. citizens constantly have phones in reach without even taking a step. We are now tethered to our phones physically and psychologically.

3. No stopping cues

Remember when you could readily close a book at the end of a chapter or watch your favorite sitcom and wait a week until the next one airs? The absence of stopping cues is now a feature, not a bug, of many video games and other media. If you scroll to the end of your newsfeed, it will refresh; the next Netflix episode or podcast will play automatically. Such activities do not have end points.

4. Artificial goals

Whether you use your Fitbit to measure your daily 10,000 steps or you play games where building your character or collecting items for a quest is ongoing, these tech-created goals keep you coming back.

5. Unresolved cliff-hangers

You need to know what happens next and you don’t have to wait to find out. Watching one Netflix show, for example, leads to another—often in only five seconds! But beware; sometimes you might have to wait until the next season!

Alter’s book is great for understanding the role technology design plays in the seemingly addictive behaviors that screens now engender. He offers only a few solutions for parents to combat big tech, such as working on achieving a better balance between screen time and other activities or building distractions from screen time. However, by recognizing how technology actively reinforces compulsive use, he has given parents an important tool for educating their kids and developing their own family plan.

Rather than blaming your kids for too much screen time, use these seven strategies to counter the problematic pull of screens:

  1. Educate them about how technology companies earn their money.
  2. Empower them to push back against big tech when they feel manipulated.
  3. Encourage them to become the master of their technology, not vice versa.
  4. Guide them to engage in activities and hobbies where screen time is not necessary and perhaps even interferes with these interests.
  5. Learn and model how to be in the moment, not needing to constantly be seeking new stimulation.
  6. Engage in family mindfulness by training to attend to the present rather than needing to fill every moment.
  7. Embrace digital minimalism. To do this, you can read the work of computer scientist Cal Newport, who suggests focusing online time on a small number of activities that support your values.

While you may not be able to change the need for screens for school, work, recreation, and daily affairs, a better understanding of how these technologies engage us can lead to steps to keep your kids off screens for more hours of the day.

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