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Are Your Kids Addicted to Screens?

I recently read a story about parents who are suing the makers of Fortnite because their kid became addicted to it after playing it frequently during the pandemic to deal with the boredom and isolation that ensued for adults as well as children.

The pandemic brought us many challenges, and kids being home from school and bored was just one of them.

Often in these situations there is culpability on both sides. ( Don’t let your 9 year old play video games labeled 13 and older. And it would be nice if the makers of these video games would stop cranking out realistic and violent games.)

I think the short answer to the question of the title of this blog is yes for most kids and adults.

Carrying and looking at a cell phone, or being on a video game, ipad, or Xbox is now so ubiquitous that it is almost rare to hear that someone does not have a cell phone, ipad, laptop etc.

And while technology has brought us many valuable advances and conveniences in our daily life, many of those have come at a cost. The price tag is adding up. It continues to rise.

What signs might you see in kids that are addicted to their cell phones and /or video games?

Let’s start with you, the parent, first. What do you notice about your own cell phone usage?

Is there a designated time you are on your phone or other screens, and a regular time you are off? Do you bring your cell to dinner, and do you allow other family members to bring their phones to the dinner table? Are you even sitting around a dinner table to eat together as a family and talk?

Are you looking at your cell first thing upon rising in the morning? Last thing at night? How about when your kiddo or partner is trying to talk with you? Are you on your phone then?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, then you are modeling addictive behavior that normalizes these habits. You may see addictive habits happening in your child or teen, but not associate any of that with your own cell phone / gaming habits.

Our kids are watching us all the time. Whether they know it or would ever admit it, they learn from you every day. They learn the wisdom you impart, and they watch and learn which life habits are helpful and which ones you just do because those are the habits you’ve acquired.

Examining your own habits first is a good place to start. Then look at what you notice with your child and screens.

Here are some signs to watch for in your kiddos/ teens that suggest a problem with screens is looming, or it’s already there.

1. They want screen time all the time.

2. They complain of boredom when they are not in front of a screen.

3. They become angry, irritable, moody or otherwise unpleasant when you tell them screen time is up.

4. They toss out whiney comments like “you’re on your cell ( or gaming) all the time.”

5. They seem depressed or down when they are not playing video games or on their cell.

6. They lose or have lost interest in hanging out with family or friends in person.

7. They lack ability to read social cues, show empathy, or help out the family with chores.

8. They sneak and steal back the phone, ipad, or other screens that you thought you hid.

9. They stay up late to be on their cell or gaming after you go to bed, and therefore don’t get enough sleep.

10. They begin to lie or manipulate about their screen usage. They may act out or even become violent or aggressive.

A significant problem exists when kids become depressed, nothing else seems to interest them or light them up until or unless they are on their cell or playing video games.

When your child is uncooperative, angry, lashing out, or won’t come out of their room, that is a problem. If they won’t do “normal people things”, like eat and sleep regularly, that too is a trouble sign.

While one blog cannot solve this all, here’s some things to consider in intervening.

It’s going to take time and consistency to turn this situation around.

Make no mistake, addiction to screens and gaming is like any other addiction. The same mechanisms are happening in the brain including withdrawal symptoms when your kid is not on screens.

This is when you may see lying, manipulating, anger, bargaining, acting out verbally or violently or otherwise not looking like your normal son or daughter used to look and sound like.

Parents, you are still the parent and your kid needs you to consistently set boundaries with screens.

Setting boundaries can look like a lot of things, however it needs to start with an honest and open discussion first.

1. Share what you notice. Be sure to always use “I notice” language vs. YOU are doing or not doing … Be sure to pick a good time when it’s not first thing in the morning or late at night to have this conversation. Express your true concern about what you are observing. Let them know though they may not see it as a problem or understand your concerns, that you do and therefore there are going to be some changes.

2. Acknowledge your own unhealthy habits around screens and cell phone usage. Let your child /teen know that you intend to do better and that each member of the family has the responsibility to use technology wisely. Talk about ways you will hold yourself accountable, and discuss ways each member of the family can do one small step towards not allowing screens to rule their life, health, social time etc.

3. Learn and discuss some basic neuroscience around this issue. We know that brains that are constantly stimulated and rewarded in the ways that occur with video games and cell phone games etc. are brains that “wear out the pleasure center part of the brain.” Like a cocaine addict or alcoholic, more of the drug or alcohol is needed to achieve the same effect. That is the insidious part of addiction. It occurs slowly and over time. Once we build a tolerance, we need more of the substance or activity to maintain the same level of “high.” Worse yet is when our brain gets addicted to anything when we are young, because the adolescent brain is immature and developing.

Addiction changes the way the brain learns and develops, paving the way for the addiction to worsen and /or lead to other addictions as the brain demands more and more frequent pleasure/ reward.

Do not ask your child or teen to go cold turkey and get off all screens. A better approach is one that is worked out together, where the concerns are discussed, and the big picture presented.

Additionally when kids can have a voice about what they need, and guidance to find other ways of finding reward ( going on hikes with friends, spending time in nature, playing sports, doing art or music etc.) then they can expand their repertoire of both coping skills and learn that they do not have to rely solely on screens to bring them “happiness.”

While your kid may balk at first, try to manipulate, or otherwise get you to see it their way, remind yourself that you are the parent. While it may take more time now to invest in talking about this, making agreements and holding your child accountable, as well as working on changing your own habits…. These efforts in the end will be well worth it.

As I like to say, invest now, or pay later.

Life is short and sometimes challenging. You have a community to lean into. Learn more at info@livewellkitsap.com

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