What to Do When Your Kid's Screen Use Is Out of Control

Sometimes kids' screen use gets way out of control. What can we do?

Posted Aug 31, 2018

This is my most recent video blog at my Tech Happy Life YouTube channel. The entire transcript is below if you prefer that over video. The topic is the Red Light Level of our Tech Happy Life model. A more complete explanation of the model, all of the levels, and much more can be found in my book, Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected WorldThis was published on August 1, and I am happy to report that Oxford University Press already sold out of the first printing!

Transcript for What to Do When Your Kid's Screen Use Is Out of Control

Hello, this is Tech Happy Life with Dr. Mike Brooks. Thanks for joining me today. Today we’re going to be covering the last level of the Tech Happy Life model, which is the Red Light Level. As you recall, there are four levels of the Tech Happy Life model.

The Four Levels of the Tech Happy Life Model

On the bottom level of the Tech Happy Life model, we have the foundation, which is building the relationship - the most important part of the model. Then we have Green Light Level, which is about preventing problems from emerging to begin with. The Yellow Light Level is what to do when problems start to emerge, and today we’re going to cover the Red Light Level, in which we intervene in a stronger fashion when more serious problems arise.

What Does the Red Light Level Look Like?

So, we’re at the Red Light Level–what does this look like? Now, this is where stuff is hitting the proverbial fan. Hopefully we don’t get here, and the whole idea behind the Tech Happy Life model is that if you work the other levels of the model you’re less likely to get at the Red Light Level. But, if you do get at the Red Light Level, it can look like this. It could be chronic sleep deprivation where your child is only getting five hours of sleep a night because they’re playing Fortnite. It could be failing grades or an extremely negative mood when they’re not on the screen. It could be that they have few to no recreational activities beyond the screen. Another really big one is limited in-person interactions, where all their interaction is through the screen. It might be through Snapchat or X-Box Live, but the bottom line is that they’re not engaging in person. Another on is risk-taking. This could be exchanging nude pictures (which could constitute possession of child pornography). It could be texting while driving, which could be just one mistake and that could be it, so we say that’s at the Red Light Level.

Where Do We Start?

So, where do we start? Well the first thing is to be in a calm state. It’s not going to help your child or teen if you’re flipping your lid, so get it together first. Another is if you have a partner, you want to get on the same page with your partner. As the saying goes, “A house divided cannot stand,” so if you’re bickering with your partner over which consequences to apply or whether any consequences should be applied, you need to get that straightened out first before approaching your child or teen. This is a really important one too–pick a good time to talk about it. You don’t want to call out your teen in the middle of their friends and embarrass them or shame them, or anything like that. It's never good to shame our kids, but we don't want to shame or embarrass them in front of their peers. 

The Consequences

Now, what about the consequences? You should apply consequences that were agreed upon beforehand. Whatever consequences you deliver, they should not come out of left field. You should have already talked to your child or teen about "if you do this,” or “if you cross this line then this would be the result.” Now, there are different types of consequences. There are natural consequences, and logical consequences. Natural consequences are, as the name implies, things that naturally occur from the behavior.

For instance, if your teen stays up all night playing Fortnite and they have a test the next day, they probably won’t do as well on that test. That’s a natural consequence of staying up all night, and sometimes we need to step out of the way and let those natural consequences occur.

A logical consequence is one where the punishment basically fits the crime. For instance, if your teen stayed up late or all night playing Fortnite, your teen might lose access to Fortnite for a period of time thereafter. That makes sense–it’s connected.

If your child or teen has lost screen access for some level of misuse, it's very important to talk to them about how they can earn it back. Don't just leave them in a dark hole and give them the impression that they've lost the screen or their gaming console indefinitely. Talk to about what your expectations are, and how they can earn that screen time back.

Some Logical Consequences for Over- or Misuse

Some logical consequences might look like limiting his or her Wi-Fi access. It could be removing a gaming system altogether for a period of time. If your child or teen was misusing their smartphone and that was the culprit, it could be that they only have access to a flip phone or an old cellphone for the time being. It could be that they lose access to all non-essential screen time (for a period of time). So basically recreational screen time is knocked out. Of course, with school these days so much is done on the computer, so they only have that access.

Collaborative Problem-Solving

Now we talked about this at the Yellow Light Level, but we don't give it up–collaboratively problem solving. So at this point stuffs hitting the fan things are out of control, but we want to empower our kids and engage them in a conversation to work together to solve the problem of screen time, because if it's all top down then there's a power differential, and how are they going to learn how to self-regulate and manage their lives effectively if we're telling them “this is the way it is”? And that doesn't mean they get just what they want, but we're listening to them, we're engaging, and we're trying to work together to get this problem resolved.

Be Careful About "Pulling the Rug Out"

We've talked about how we have certain needs as human beings, like for connection with other people, for autonomy, and for competence. What can happen is that our our children or teens can start meeting all of their psychological needs through the screen. For instance, if your teen’s on social media and they're using Snapchat a lot they're connecting with others. They're posting things. They're getting feedback. They're having interaction.

If we stop that cold turkey, sometimes our children aren't going to be able to meet their psychological needs elsewhere, at least initially. There's a vacuum there, and it can be very difficult because a lot of times children and teens are using the screen to keep negative thoughts and feelings about themselves, the world, and the future at bay. Video games and Snapchat and all this type of interaction is so cognitively demanding and preoccupying that it can keep negative thoughts and feelings at bay. So in a way we could pull out the rug from our teens and kids if we're not careful. So what we need to have our some replacement activities ready to go so, we don't leave them in the lurch.

Seeking Professional Help

It could be the case that these problems are so deep and so severe that you need to seek professional help. So it's important to look for family counseling and it maybe even individual counseling for your child or teen to help sort through these problems and to help develop the tools that they need to work through these deeper issues.


So that was the fourth level of the Tech Happy Life model, the Red Light Level. There are the four levels of the model, and the emphasis, again, is on the lower levels of the model. Building the relationship and preventive strategies. So hopefully we don't have as many red light level issues to deal with to begin with. Now the overall goal of this model in intervening around the challenges of technology is to help our kids ultimately self-regulate so that they're able to develop the skills and strategies to meet their psychological needs in an effective way so they can grow to be happy healthy productive adults. That starts now, and our our way to influence our kids is through the relationship. Never forget that - that's the most important part of this model.

My book, written with my good friend and co-author, Dr. Jon Lasser, is out right now. It's called Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World. It's available at my website Tech Happy Life, or, of course, Amazon. In our book, we cover the Tech Happy Life model and many other topics, so I hope you check it out.

I hope you join me for future episodes where we cover many other interesting, engaging, and challenging topics. I'll see you then. This has been Tech Happy Life with Dr. Mike Brooks.