PART 3 How to Handle Overuse and Addiction
Would you say that your child is addicted to screens: gaming, social media or texting? Do you see the top of his head more than his face? Addiction can happen to anyone, because social media lures us from one link to another as we uncover interesting information and want more. Sometimes hours can pass before we know it, and we re-enter the real world feeling a bit let down, anxious that we’ve wasted precious time. We know we need more balance and we want to make sure that our children have it too.
In my first two posts in this three-part series, I’ve discussed the effects of tech devices on your kids’ brains, and how to prepare for introducing TV, cell phones and tablets to them. Please read them if you haven’t yet had a chance to do so. I’ve been able to reference experts who have participated in a four-day summit put together by Susan Steffelman. I have more expert advice in this part, too, Part 3 of 3.
As parents, you want to have some face time with your kids. You want to teach them to have time away from their devices to interact with their family and friends. You want them to have balance in their lives, to develop an internal self-regulator so that they can be part of the real world, developing relationships, conversation skills and empathy for others. You can do this only if you build a close connection with them so that they listen to you and want to co-operate. Spending time with your kids, listening to them without criticism and judgment, encouraging them by recognizing the positive things they do, all help bring you closer to them.
I’ve mentioned that many adults are on their phones and on the internet too much. It’s very important that, as a parent, you curtail your time on your own device, especially when your kids are there. They do what you do. They watch you all the time. If you feel that you’re overdoing it, you could start to separate yourself from your device bit by bit, taking ten-minute breaks, then fifteen, then twenty, and so on. During this time, you could be with your kids, talking with them or playing with them, perhaps going out for a walk with them or to the park. You can’t get your kids to have balance if you don’t have it.
William Powers, who wrote Hamlet’s Blackberry, thinks that with so many distractions, it’s hard to be truly present for each other. His advice is to have a time when there is disconnect from every tech device in your home so family members can be interacting face-to-face with one another. For five years, his family stayed off the internet on weekends. He suggests that you start small, perhaps staying off for one hour. He says, “Your mind is taken off the leash.” He thinks you could pause before reaching for a device and that you and your family can do this together. Talk about it as a group and decide what strategy you’ll use to be smarter about your connection to technology. Computers can do great things, but have their place.
Cosette Ray, of “Restart”, an internet rehabilitation program, suggests that, as a courageous parent, you look for the following indications that young people or adults could use help (many of these happen together, not just one at a time):
- building up over time, they prefer social media over face time
- when they detach from their devices they feel irritable and angry that they can’t stay on This may escalate to a complete meltdown or explosion.
- their digital use increases, and they may go from device to device, bouncing from one program to another
- they lose interest in offline activities such as hobbies, music etc. and their interests may be abandoned
- they lie about their use, pushing back about time limits
Ms. Ray suggests contacting other parents or friends and forming a support group, asking how they handle screens in their homes. “Parents are isolated”, she says, going on to say they may be afraid to say “No” to their kids and risk displeasing them; but there are areas in which children aren’t able to make decisions and need firm and consistent guidance from parents. Another parent, or parent group can be a “buddy” and help you stay on track. Parents must be mindful, and instead of ordering kids around, must be aware that they need “detox time”, time away from technology to reconnect with things that matter. When you see the irritability, you could say, “Do you wish you could go back on and not feel so much discomfort?” The break could be a way they see for themselves what is happening from too much screen time. Urges will last twenty to thirty minutes and usually will pass.
According to Stephanie and Elisha Goldstein, clinical psychologists, and founders of the Center for Mindful Living, parents have to hold fast and endure their children’s suffering. Parents must understand their kids’ feelings, but must be strong and persist in setting limits and holding to them. Alanis Morisette suggests that, when you pull them away from their devices, you hold them in their protest or meltdown and validate their feelings. You could say, “I’m your mom and it’s my job to protect your brain and your person and it’s the best job in the world. I understand your feelings.”
What are some ways you can manage screen time in your family?:
- keep computers in the main area of the home
- take phones away for play dates
- have a rule that there are no phones at a meal and that phones must be turned off
- teach good manners, such as not being on a phone when in the presence of others who aren’t on their phones or other devices
- keep bedroom doors open when kids are on the internet
- limit group homework on tech devices
- set a timer, especially when kids are small and just being introduced to screens. Make sure they understand how long they’ve been on and that they either time themselves or get off when you tell them. Monitor older children too.
- if you have the same problem, you can tell your child that you’re struggling too, and so have a basis for discussion. This way, your child won’t feel like a victim.
- be calm and don’t be afraid to negotiate. Don’t let fear overcome you. Remember that this is very hard for everyone who is overusing. Rules can be a family matter with everyone contributing. If you are always negative, your kids won’t come to you with problems and will be fearful that you’ll take their device away. Encourage them to come to you with their concerns and stress that you are always there for them.
Dr. Delaney Ruston, the director of Screenagers, suggests that parents talk with their children about the science, how screens affect their brains. The film originated with her own issues with her daughter. She was feeling angry and out of control with screens controlling her children. The movie is the result of research she did and her own solutions for her family. She says that kids need clear guidelines and suggests that parents develop limits for their families that are written down. The movie is a documentary that encourages parents and kids to see it together with follow-up discussion. It can be found at www.screenagersmovie.com.
Please make sure to access all three parts of this series about your children and screen technology. Find out how your kids’ brains are affected, how to introduce devices to your family and manage their use so that kids become self-regulating and avoid addiction. Digital technology and the internet are here to stay. We need to focus on the positive things that they can do, but know that children need firm, consistent parental guidance and support in order to learn how to use their devices appropriately and have balance in their lives.
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