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Help—My Child is Addicted to Electronics!

Dear Crucial Skills,

My fourteen-year-old son seems to be addicted to electronics. If we let him, he will spend ten hours a day on his tablet, computer, or XBOX. I want him to choose to do other things, and to do something worthwhile over the summer. Is there a better approach than “cold turkey”?

Signed,
Parent of an e-addict

Dear Parent,

I like the way you framed your objective: “I want him to choose to do other things.” That’s a completely different influence problem from “I want him to stop.” As a father of six children, I have often been tempted to go for the quick fix of the latter rather than the steady influence of the former.
The latter could be accomplished by simply spilling iced tea on the problematic devices, then feigning remorse as they short out in a puff of smoke. The former will require not only more thought, but more patience and character on your part.

1. Is the problem the problem? Before you decide that electronic games are the problem, do your best to determine whether games are a way of medicating against or isolating from some other problem—like bullying, depression, anxiety, loneliness, or other social or emotional problems.

2. “Addiction” isn’t a metaphor. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry . . . . This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.” Some evidences that a behavior has become “addictive” include: “inability to consistently abstain, feelings of craving, and diminished recognition of negative consequences of one’s behaviors.” You don’t need to ingest a substance to develop addiction. Behaviors alone can similarly contribute to brain reward circuitry impairment. My personal belief is that many of us (including myself) have unhealthy relationships with technology that create negative emotional and relationship consequences. So let me applaud you for your sensitivity to the potential developmental damage technology can do to your son.

3. Interview, don’t lecture. Don’t begin the conversation with your son using conclusions and wisdom (e.g. “I think you’ve got a problem” or “Reading is better for your brain”). Instead, come in with curiosity and a desire to connect. Trust is permission to influence—and he controls the granting or withholding of trust. Show an interest in his interests. Spend time with him. Affirm him. And when sufficient safety exists, broach the topic. “Hugh,” you might say, “on a scale of 1-10, how satisfied are you with the way you spend your time? How confident are you that it is taking you where you want to be and creating the life you want right now?” He might be defensive when you first ask this. He may suspect it is a manipulative tactic to open the way for your judgment or lecture. If so, reassure him it isn’t. Be honest that you have feelings on the topic, but push your agenda aside, and sincerely open yourself to his feelings. If he answers, “Well, okay, I guess. Maybe a six,” you now have some common ground to discuss. “Wow. Really? I would have thought you’d say a ten. What makes you less than perfectly satisfied with how you’re spending time?” Your only hope of helping him make different choices is to honor his feelings and autonomy from the first conversation. Interview, don’t lecture. This does not mean you can’t express opinions at times, but keep your airtime in careful balance with his interests.

4. Wake him, don’t make him. In order to sustain bad habits we must maintain ignorance of their consequences. If you want to help him “choose” differently, you’ll have to help him experience the downside of his habit as viscerally as he now experiences the upside. What he knows today is that grabbing a controller and logging into a game is associated with feelings of engagement, enjoyment, social connection (if he plays online games), mastery, and perhaps safe solitude. If he is to choose something different he will need to feel that other choices will create better consequences. This is tricky. But it’s also a fundamental problem you need to solve. The first step is to help him engage in experiences that will awaken him to either the negative consequences of his current choices, or the positive consequences of other choices. For example, you could ask him to conduct an experiment to help him become more mindful of his experience.

Emotion tracking. See if he would be willing to keep a simple journal of how he feels before and after playing games for long periods. Be prepared in advance that some of his journal entries will confirm the positive emotions he feels while playing. Have him similarly experiment with other activities (some enjoyable family activity, an outing with friends, etc.) and report how he feels during and after. Talk openly with each other about this data as a way of helping him make more conscious choices.

Abstinence Test. Share the definition of addiction. Invite him to experiment in discovering his own way to discern healthy gaming and unhealthy gaming by attempting a brief abstention experiment and recording his feelings during it. Discuss openly how it felt and what that means to him.

What could be better? Invite him to think of activities that might create more enjoyment and health that could be far more fun for him than gaming. Encourage and support him in experimenting with a single attempt at an activity, then discuss his experience.

5. There’s a difference between forcing him to change and refusing to enable. Realize that you are an accomplice in his choices. You are subsidizing his choices by maintaining home duties for him, providing the equipment, providing the comfortable environment, etc. You need to accept responsibility for how you are providing a structural influence that makes gaming easy by providing devices. You don’t have to do this. In fact, you shouldn’t. You should have boundaries with everything you offer. Just because you provide a bed doesn’t mean you have to consent to him lying in it twenty-four hours a day. Providing food doesn’t mean you have to serve up Twinkies every time he wants them. You get to say, “Here’s what I’m willing to offer—and no more.” Now, since your objective is to influence his choices, not control his behavior, I’d suggest you strike a balance by differentiating between boundaries and advice. You might say, for example, “I think it would be wise to limit your use to an hour or so per day. That’s something you’ll have to decide. However, I am willing to provide the opportunity for you to play up to three hours per day—and five on weekends—provided your grades are good and your homework is finished.” I offer this as an illustration, not as a sound position to take.

I admire your desire to think about long-term influence rather than short-term compliance. My worst moments as a parent have been when I was more interested in behavior than growth. I believe that if you reflect on some of what I shared, and keep an eye on what you really want, you’ll find a way to help him grow in the way only a loving and discerning parent can.

Warmly,

Joseph

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

19 thoughts on “Help—My Child is Addicted to Electronics!”

  1. Very good advise indeed! As a family counselor and Neufeld Institute facilitator I highly recommend to read Hold on to your kids by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté. This will give you much insight in the situation of today’s adolescents and the inclination to be constantly active with electronic devices. Also it will explain what the core solution is.

  2. Great advice for a common problem with parents. However, this “phenomena” is happening to kids aged 2+ nowadays and how can you reason with those kids to choose wisely?

    1. Parents of young children are definitely responsible for setting limits on their kids screen time. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limited screen time for kids under age 2 and only 1-2 hours/day for preschoolers, researchers find most kids greatly exceed these limits.

      I am concerned that pediatricians, psychologists and teachers are reporting babies and preschoolers with social, emotional and physical problems related to too much time on screens. Based on a request from a preschool teacher, I created a one page summary to give parents on why it is so important to limit screen time for babies:

      http://www.pricelessparenting.com/Documents/Babies%20Screen%20Time.pdf

  3. This article is of particular interest to me….My son has recently been diagnosed as officially “Addicted to Gaming”….The issue is rampant in China and Taiwan and there are 9 “thresholds” to determine if it’s really an Addiction. My son has All 9. This has just recently been proclaimed as an Official Addiction and many many more kids will be diagnosed in the coming years as this is deteriorating our children’s social interactions and destroying their ability to focus on school. It’s really a matter of asking yourself, “would I leave a bottle of Vodka on the kitchen table for my child to access” (same as leaving the gaming systems available). They can’t simply make choices to abstain when they are addicted and don’t have the maturity level and skills to “manage the addiction” so it’s up to parents to step in and Intervene. Just thought I would share my experience – several years of trying to get the professionals to acknowledge the problem, and now there are actual studies done that support the Addiction diagnosis. Thank you for your article and trying to bring this issue to people’s awareness….much appreciated.

  4. “Trust is permission to influence” – Wow! Yet again I find a buried gem in these consistently well-intentioned and thoughtfully crafted posts.

  5. I have a much different opinion on this topic. I think today’s electronics are, in some ways, yesterday’s books. With the proliferation of technology, many more high-value jobs will be centered around technology. Also, the effective use of technology will become critical to being successful in most jobs. It will be a handicap to a young person if they do not gain digital fluency before they absolutely have to.

    Instead of getting him to stop using electronics so much, it might make more sense to try to shift his behavior to doing more intellectually stimulating things with the electronics (e.g., coding, designing a web page / game, etc.)

    1. I agree with you. In my response I tried to be careful to distinguish electronics use from addictive use. I hope I didn’t sound as though I was equating the two! I also agree that there are new an interesting skills that come with this new technology.

      1. Hi – and thanks. Just a quick note to say – a while back, there was a major study – (I believe from Germany) – that showed significant negative impacts on many aspects of child development with increased “screen time.” This included hormonal effects, such as precocious puberty, etc. Right now I don’t have time to look for it – just mentioning this, in case you do.

        In other words, a screen is very different than a book.

  6. As a 25 year veteran of the software industry, 10 years as a hiring manager and team manager, I have to strongly disagree.

    High-value technology jobs require more than anything the ability for sustained, complex problem solving and attention. The attentional, cognitive, social and critical evaluative skills required are only developed with extensive use of long-format materials. I.e. books, research articles, study materials, courses.

    That is: materials that combine long format attention and low-intensity short term reward with longer term accomplishment and reward. Thats what gives kids the tools to succeed in any business.

    Playing with low-threshold / hot reward systems (shooter games, texting, tweeting, Facebooking, reading Internet articles (universally < 2 pages), just using technology… these do NOT prepare you to engineer those systems or any systems. They dont prepare you to evaluate tricky business decisions, or to manage complex social requirements at a place of work.

    Most of all they do not prepare you to be happy while sucking it up and do all the boring individual tasks that make up a project, a work day, an accomplishment, a business, a career.

    No parent needs to worry for one second that their kids will not be familiar enough with technology to get on in today's workplace, unless they are living an Amish type lifestyle. Instead we have a lot to worry about giving kids the kind of uncontrolled mental sugar high we would never expect to build a strong body. Minds have to have complex tasks like bodies do or they grow poorly.

  7. I like this article. When my son came back from his summer break at his dad’s, he was addicted to electronics. I tried limiting his use by allowing him to use them when homework and chores were done. He eventually started lying about finishing his homework and he was circumventing the chores to where I had to inspect. Then we took them away completely on weekdays, which worked for a while. Then he was sneaking on devices in the middle of the night, including my ipod. I changed the passwords to all computers. I started removing the roku box and hiding it. Then I had to hide the modem because he’d have a friend being his laptop over. He’d lie about everything and still does. When we go camping, hiking, to the lake or do anything outdoors, he’s a completely different person and its great. We don’t even allow electronics during meals and he’s good. He leaves for boy scout summer camp tomorrow, then he’s off to his dad’s for 6 weeks. We are moving this summer. I have to pack and move the whole house all by myself. The deal was he packs his room and he could take his tablet. Nope didn’t happen, so I’m sticking to my guns and this boy will ride from AZ to MT, then to TX, then fly back here several weeks later….with zero electronic devices. He gets motion sickness if he reads in a car, so he’s going to have a couple of more than one day road trips with just watching the trees whiz by. Part of me feels sorry for him, but his addiction is more than I can handle and it has forced me to resort to cold turkey enforcement. When it comes to kids, or at least my kid; I’m convinced that electronics poses more of a negative influence, than a positive one.

  8. When we’ve faced with the problem of addiction to PC (I’m a father of a teenager boy), I’ve read dozen of articles and forums, so we’ve done 2 things: we’ve placed his PC to a living room and started to use parental control software (we’ve chosen Care4teen (http://www.care4teen.com/). We’ve installed it to PC and to Android smartphone of our son. As a result he just can’t use his devices as much, as he used to, now he pass much more time !!doing his homework, reading!! and playing outside.
    I don’t know, may be it’s not the best decision, but I feel calm with these changes in his digital usage. For our family this is a good solution!

  9. This article talks about important issues, but makes too many assumptions about a child’s ability (and willingness!) to self-regulate… This part specifically makes me cringe:

    “You might say, for example, ‘I think it would be wise to limit your use to an hour or so per day. That’s something you’ll have to decide.'” […and then saying it’s okay to spend 3-5 hours a day on the addiction.]

    By God, why is this up to a child to decide? Aren’t you their parent? Have parents abdicated all their responsibilities these days? Is the kid 18 yet and paying their own way? Who is running the show here?

    Imagine this article were about chainsaws instead of electronics. Chainsaws are actually cheaper than iPhones and not against the law for children to use. But read the post again and substitute ‘chainsaw’ instead of ‘electronics’ and then see what you think you your responsibilities are as a parent.

    Things have gotten backwards and out of balance. The cart is before the horse. Don’t be an accessory or enabler.

  10. I agree that there is a growing problem with screen time for young children. I see it with my children. Near the end of the article you suggest we strike a balance by differentiating between boundaries and advice. The example used is to give them an “unhealthy” amount of screen time in exchange for all homework done and good grades. Playing for three to 5 hours on friday or weekends contradicts in my mind what children are missing here. They aren’t reconnecting with family members or people and they aren’t finding healthy ways to not use screen time for medication themselves from their anxiety or problems. For example my elementary school children get all their homework done and are getting straight A’s. They do this without complaint and in a remarkable speedy way. They are also going to challenging academic schools that pride themselves in homework as an extension of the classroom so it isn’t just worksheets and busy work, it is a couple of hours or really studying. Yet they finish it and then get to use the computer. They don’t have anything else to do in their minds but those two tasks and then they just sit at a computer for hours. By letting them have that much time on the computer it is counter productive to getting them to not develop a habit that will lead or feed an addiction to Electronics. There has got to be a better compromise and a plan for constructive use on time that leads to more then just good grades. Like service, creative play time with friends, caring for animals or developing a talent, musical instruments. All of these things get pushed aside when 5 hours on a Saturday at a computer is all they have to do. I am guilty of this too but I would like to change my way of looking at it and reward system for homework completion and good grades.

    1. You’re wise to be looking at the amount of time your kids are spending on screens. There are plenty of “A” students who get their homework done and also get addicted to screens (social media, video games, porn, …).

      The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 1-2 hours/day of entertainment screen time for kids. Most kids are getting far more than these recommendations. Parents who set limits have kids who use less screen time.

      You can read more here: http://www.pricelessparenting.com/documents/limitingscreentime

  11. Great post!!! One of my children is definitely addicted to “screen time.” But I don’t know which came first – he wasn’t allowed much when he was younger, but he has always been a socially awkward kid who likes to be alone or in small groups. Is he attracted to screen because of these tendencies, rather than the screen causing the anti-social behavior?

    1. Socially awkward kids tend to love screens because it takes the interpersonal piece out of the interaction. However, these are exactly the kids that need more practice with social skills. The more time he spends interacting with family and friends, the better his social skills will become.

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