"It’s all fun and games until we try to take the game away, and then all hell breaks loose," commented one worried mother to me, as she fretted about her children’s devotion to screens. Experts are calling it ‘digital heroin’ as they see previously mild-mannered boy – it’s mostly boys – throw aggressive temper-tantrums when their beloved screens are taken away.
"Mum, can I’ve your phone?" is the eternal request from children today. When I was a kid it was, "Mum, can I have 10 pence?", but loose change holds little interest for cotton wool kids who never go out – instead, it is the lure of the screen that catches their interest. You see, being outside is boring – there are no other kids outside; they’re either inside on the screens, or they are at supervised activities. This is why any hopes of a group of kids randomly deciding to play a game or build a fort outside is really quite unlikely these days – the level of online entertainment is so vast that a simple game of ‘Kick the Can’ just can’t compete. But just because it’s entertaining, doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
So, what should parents do if they wish to stage an intervention into screen addiction?
First of all, parents should take a step back from the fights and undertake to silently monitor their child’s screen usage over a period of time. After this, the parent will hopefully have sufficiently recharged their batteries and be ready to begin the screen wars.
Invite your child out to their favourite restaurant for some serious talking. (It isn’t appropriate for anyone except the child and the parent(s) to be present, as this should be a serious chat). The goal of this conversation is for the child to admit that, on some level, they are addicted to the screens; that Minecraft, or whatever, has taken over their lives and that it has become detrimental to the happiness of the family.
It is at this point that most children desperately try to convince their parents that online gaming is really quite a sociable activity (it isn’t – it’s about as sociable as an evening spent on Facebook), that they are very happy in front of a screen (they’re not, it’s a wired and frenetic experience), and that you are preventing them from becoming the next Steve Jobs. The parents need to have already prepared and printed out their research about the dangers of screen addiction, about how screens might light up certain synapses in their brains but they don’t make us happy, and about how Steve Jobs and most executives in Silicon Valley are notoriously low-tech parents. It is well documented that most technology CEOs limit their children’s use of technology, because they have seen the horrors of technology addiction first-hand. It is important that the children become educated about the issue of screen addiction.
After you have explained all this to your child, it is then time to request your child’s buy-in. Ask him what would be a fair and reasonable use of screens in the house so that every member of the house is accommodated? You need to come to an agreement on tech-free rooms, such as the kitchen and the bedrooms, and tech-free times such as meal times and night-time.
To properly manage this situation, the parents need to keep the WiFi password and not give it away until the child has proved himself a responsible user of technology. To encourage your child’s buy-in, you can offer a regular review of the rules – responsible usage equals more freedom. But, in the meantime, just as you would with any addict, parents should try to introduce other activities into the mix. Spend some time researching some hobbies that might interest your child, and be willing to support these ideas as you try to encourage your child to rebuild their life.
It’s a long road, and it can be difficult; but it will be worth it when, one day, you realise that you have finally freed your child from the clutches of screen life and helpedhim to rejoin real life.
Psychotherapist & Career Guidance Specialist