Nothing makes you feel guilty like realizing that your young child has an addiction to electronics. You hear other parents claim that their child can take it or leave it, but yours cries every time they have to put it down, and then tries to sneak more.
Your pediatrician tells you that only a few hours are healthy. Too much time on the screen will make your child stupid, rude, and fat. But your child wants to play all on the computer or i-pad all day, every day.
It would be nice to just throw all the electronics away. But then, you have to pay your electric bill, and send a quick e-mail, or log-in to take care of a work issue.
How can you tell your kid that they can’t have their electronic device, when you’re consistently logging on to yours?
You try to carefully regulate their hours, only to learn that the teacher used a video as a baby sitter today, and now your child is coming home whining and refusing old fashioned toys, when you haven’t even had a chance to cook dinner. Is everyone against you?
How do you find an actionable solution?
There’s a lot of theoretical advice about screens: what ages, how much time. Experts can give you theoretical standards, but other parents will tell you how it really gets done.
My screen addicted kid
I know what it’s like to feel that the love of screens has gained control in your home. Some of my children really love them. It was horrifying to read an article on addiction and realize that my kindergartner had the tell tale signs of withdraw and forgetting to attend to personal needs.
When I first realized what I was seeing, I read everything I could find on the subject. We tried a ticket system. The child tried to forge tickets.
We tried only using electronics on certain days of the week. On electronics day our house shut down, and we were bound to do nothing that would interfere. It was terrible.
I knew I had to find a way to help my child do better, so I dug even deeper.
Why some kids can’t get enough electronics
My husband gave me one of my first clues. “It’s just relaxing,” he said.
I happened across some descriptions of different sensory needs in children. Did you ever notice how some kids love playing in the mud, and others will have nothing to do with it? How some love loud music, and others cover their ears?
The same principle applies to the lights from electronic screens. For some kids, the lights and colors are especially enjoyable.
It occurred to me that when my children were on electronic devices their brains weren’t necessarily working. They were just receiving the sensation of lights and colors passing in front of their eyes.
Part of the reason my kids loved being on electronics so much is that they felt it was rest compared with the activities that they did off the screen.
How restructuring screen time freed our household
I decided to start forcing my children to treat screen time as work, and time off the screens as rest.
First, I implemented a rule that every 20 minutes they have to take a 20 second eye break, focusing on an object at least twenty feet away. This advice came from a vision therapist.
In addition, after every hour spent working on screens, they have to spend fifteen minutes outside relaxing.
Next, I categorized screen time three ways. Level 1 is screen time that is required to complete their homework. Level 2 activities are those which have some academic or creative value, but aren’t required. Level 3 activities are just fun.
Of course they can do Level 1 activities whenever needed, following our guidelines for breaks. Level 3 activities are tightly restricted — family movies and maybe a 30 minute session on the weekend.
Level 2 activities became available whenever other leisure activities like reading books, making crafts, or playing with Lego were available. Unlimited screen time was a huge plus in my kid’s opinion.
Level 2 activities include Starfall for my child who is learning to read, and Dragon Box algebra or Chesskids for my older child. Mine craft can be a level 2 activity, if the child is working toward a well defined goal that requires strategic thinking. Photo editing and composing music are also popular level 2 activities at our house.
Sometimes I’ve let the standard for level 2 activities slide, and I noticed that the negative results of screen time start to reappear.
Drawing out builds to be done on Minecraft is a great level 2 activity. It builds creativity, and transferring designs from graph paper to screen builds math skills. Sometimes, though, my children want to count free building without the planning stage as level 2. I’ve allowed it, and regretted it.
The unstructured time quickly devolves into just playing around. Their behavior starts to show all the negative signs we were trying to avoid.
Learn from my mistake. Don’t compromise on what constitutes a level 2 activity. The whole plan will fall apart.
Three years later, how it’s working
After failing so many times, I figured that this set up would require changes as well, if it wasn’t a total failure.
But, after three years, I can honestly say that it’s working really well. The addiction symptoms are gone. My screen loving kids can put down their devices when asked without a fight, and may decide to stop without even being asked. We easily stay within recommended limits.
My children are happy and expressive about their time on the devices, rather than withdrawn and demanding like they were at one time.
There are days when I need to spend some time getting work done on the computer. Often my kids choose to “work” on their i-pads at the same time. We take eye breaks together and then go outside. Fifteen minutes can stretch into an hour.
Sometimes my kids come home from school and tell me about the computer activities they’ve been allowed to do that day. They are starting to discriminate the value of various games.
Ready to have some peace about the screen time issue?
Imagine your child putting down his i-pad and heading outside without a fuss, and you not even feeling surprised. You can get there.
Kids need adults to have the maturity to hold them to any system, but this is a system that they can eventually learn to implement on their own.
That’s the best part.
Nothing beats the feeling of knowing that you are successfully training your child to handle the challenge of living well in the modern world.