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Parenting in the Era of Addictive Electronics

Taming your child’s addiction to social media, screens, and games.

I feel your pain. As a mom to a couple of kids in college and three tweens, I’ve found that video games, social media, and smartphones have made parenting harder than ever. With my younger three kids, I’m having to make new rules and navigate a landscape that wasn’t a threat to my older children.

The evidence is mounting that screen time and electronics function like hard drugs for our kids. According to Dr. Victoria L. Dunckley, “screen time—particularly the interactive kind—acts like a stimulant, not unlike caffeine, amphetamines, or cocaine.” The dopamine released by the stimulation of electronics hits children especially virulently because their cerebral cortexes simply aren’t developed enough for them to feel satisfied with small doses or to self-regulate. “It’s not realistic to expect the brain to adapt to intense and artificial stimulation it was never meant to handle,” Dunckley adds. “It’s also not realistic to expect a child with still-developing frontal lobe to control their screen-time, whether that means managing how long they play a game, how they use or misuse social media, or how they behave afterward.”

Although the data is still emerging, it’s obvious that our kids’ addiction is correlated with higher rates of obesity, less time spent reading, less self-directed imaginative play, and less face-to-face social interaction. There’s no point in dredging up the sordid details of the dangers of social media and the potential for cyberbullying; clearly, our kids face a brave new world when it comes to their daily reality. I’ve watched my fun-loving, intellectually engaged tweens become crabby zombies when I give in to their addiction. It’s painful for me to acknowledge that my older kids read more, played outside more, and weren’t myopically focused on getting their next fix.

I know I’m not alone when I say that screens, phones, and electronics have made parenting a much more onerous task than it was 10 years ago. Many parents are experimenting with a variety of techniques to manage their kids’ use of electronics, such as parental controls to block inappropriate content, with varying success. But the struggle is real, and we need to help each other navigate the electronic candy store that threatens our children’s well-being.

Adults find it difficult to resist the immediate gratification and excitement of phones, social media, and games. How, then, can we expect our children to manage electronics with rationality and reason? Bottom line: We can’t. As parents, we have to set limits and police our kids. This is an exhausting, daunting, and absolutely essential component of being a parent at this time. No fun for us—I know! I’d like to share some of the approaches that have worked for me, but I’m just as eager to get feedback and collect success stories from the frontline of this contemporary crisis.

12 steps to taming and living with the addiction:

  1. Determine how much screen time you will allow. In my house, we allow half an hour in the morning and again in the evening. Weekends, this extends to 45 minutes twice a day. My kids are busy with homework and activities, so they don’t always have time, but they always ask!
  2. Be clear and consistent. Don’t let whiny kids wear you down. Be clear about your expectations, and stick to your guns. Kids that wheedle more time get the message that more whining equals more of the drug. Tears, screaming, and pouting are all normal—remember, they are addicts—but if you don’t bend, they will eventually get the idea that those negative behaviors have little impact. Make sure all the adults in the household are on the same page.
  3. Never let them on electronics if they haven’t finished homework or chores, or if they’ve misbehaved. Screen time is a privilege, not a right. Their electronics high should be correlated with being a positive member of the family—a reward for a job well done.
  4. Lock computers and check phones at the door. I’ve been fooled more times than I care to admit. When I’m not super-vigilant about collecting electronics, I will find my kids under blankets, in closets, and especially in the bathroom, feeding their addiction. They are also master codebreakers, so change your passwords frequently. We literally have a safe in the living room for iPhones, iPads, and Kindles. Sounds extreme, but why make their drug accessible? If they know they can’t get at these items, they stop trying.
  5. Be vigilant. Expect children to find ways to push for more electronics time. Expect them to make blunders on social media. Expect gamers to end up in some unsavory situations. Kids are kids, and they will push boundaries. Unfortunately, the boundaries are riskier today. Be aware of how they spend their screen time. Check who they follow and who follows them. Ask to follow your kids, and if they won’t let you, take their phones away.
  6. Explain the dangers. Show them the documentary Screenagers and clarify that you are not trying to ruin their fun. Rather, you are aiming to protect them, as any good parent should.
  7. Allow for boredom. Kids will cry that they are bored or have nothing to do. This is code for “I want my drug!” Boredom is the source of creativity. Of course, everything will seem boring after an electronics high. Good parenting means that kids sometimes have nothing to do, and that’s OK!
  8. Guide them toward alternative activities. This gets easier and easier once they recognize that no amount of whining or pleading will get them their drug. My kids started playing cards and board games again. And they are so much kinder than if they’d been on a video game or social media.
  9. Expect relapses. Vacations, your work schedule, and household crises can set your kids down the wrong path. Don’t beat yourself up for relying on electronics during emergencies, but keep track of how often you rely on gadgets for babysitting, conflict avoidance, and other patterns that break down your control over their electronics use.
  10. Make adjustments as necessary. If your plan isn’t working well, this doesn’t mean it’s a complete failure and you should stop trying. If necessary, tweak the amount of time your kids can spend on their screens and which apps they’re allowed to use. If they protest, remind them that you’re in charge.
  11. Institute electronics sabbaticals. Many kids’ summer camps don’t allow electronics. If camp isn’t feasible for your family, instead aim for your own household electronics sabbatical. Give them a reward for a month off, such as a sleepover party or a day at an amusement park. Just please don’t make the reward a new video game!
  12. Be a role model. We all could benefit from the rules we set for our kids. When you’re with your children, avoid being on or checking your phone. Kids will rightly cry hypocrite! Plus, giving them your full attention will be the greatest reward of all.

Good luck! And please share any tips or observations you might have.

More from Marika Lindholm Ph.D.
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