Q. I don’t know what to do anymore about screens. My 9 and 12 year olds are not only on screens all day for school but then they crave playing their games and it’s all I can do not to just give up. I hate the way they behave when they get off and we end up in some kind of fight or argument because their attitudes are snarky and rude. What can I do to get a handle on it?
A. It seems that across the board everyone is hitting a Covid wall. Everything that is normally a simple problem turns into huge emotional upheavals. We all want to escape and feel normal again. For most kids, their escape—Covid or no—is into the world of gaming and watching gaming.
Kids who feel some level of incompetence at school, athletics, and/or friendships find solace and mastery in the video game world. With Covid, kids are stuck at home with parents who are always telling them what to do. Especially when school is online, they are less engaged than ever and feel frustrated and bored. It doesn’t matter to them that they have been staring at a screen all day. It’s what they gain in the gaming world that we need to pay attention to.
We know that games are designed to suck kids in. But do we really understand why. They are presented with a problem they learn to solve level by level. Gaining proficiency brings instant reward—the pleasure hormone dopamine. And they accomplish new levels by themselves or with the support of friends.
At the same time, you try one thing after another to quell this urge in your children. I imagine those attempts involve threats, yelling, and taking screentime and other desirables away for a period of time only incensing them further. While you know you can’t pull the plug entirely without banishing your children to isolation vulnerable to ridicule, you curse the games and catastrophize addiction in the teen years. Perhaps parents are jealous of the draw these game designers know how to tap into.
There is a discrepancy here that needs addressing. Perhaps you would be wise to pay careful attention to not only HOW they are learning but WHAT is motivating them to proficiency.
Most parents complain about negative tone and angry mood the transition off screens brings. But let’s think about what that’s like for them. You are perhaps threatening and yelling at them to leave the place they feel most competent and engaged back into an environment where they are powerlessness and bored—that world of being told what to do with more threats of consequences. When kids are worried what they love will be taken away, they grab for what they can when they can. Sneaking and lying come to be the only way they can get what they want.
Is it any wonder, getting off their device, leaving the land of enchantment and mastery is not a desirable thing to do? I’m not saying that you should sit back and let your kids spend 18 hours a day in front of a screen. But I am saying that in order to get them to change course willingly, understanding the draw is the best course of action.
The good news is all children want to succeed and do well. This is the first principle of Connective Parenting. This is what they are doing while gaming. Here are the 4 main aspects that draw your kids in.
- Mastery – Yes, your kids do want to learn and become masters of their efforts.
- Determination – Yes, your kids have a drive to advance to more and more proficiency.
- Competition – Yes, they can compete in a driven world to be successful.
- Teamwork – Yes, they know how to work with peers to accomplish goals.
Ordinary home life doesn’t usually offer the same excitement as a game. However, there is so much that can and should be eliminated in ordinary home life that could make it more pleasant for your kids to want to hang around and not escape into their screens. Here are some ideas:
- Understand the number #1 job of a child (and appropriate expectation for you to hold) is to get what they want when they want it. They are not yet considering the best mental and physical components of healthy living.
- Focus on their interests. Play (or attempt to play) with them. Have fun. They will love being the expert teaching you.
- Pay attention to what they want to escape from, i.e. your tone or criticism, not hearing from friends, incompetency at school, etc.
- Fully eliminate punitive, blaming tactics in your home. Replace them with problem solving, engaging the child in planning a screen schedule that works for both of you and reevaluating the plan. Do not be the “you do what I say” parent.
- Stand in your power. Never blame. Say plainly and clearly, “I don’t want to be spoken to that way.” “That plan didn’t work for me.”
- Relationship is your #1 priority. Together find things that are enjoyable for both of you. Make a list of things they each like to do they can choose from at the end of screentime.
- If they do feel incompetent in life, help them find something to accomplish, i.e. karate, music, art, gymnastics.
- Eliminate telling them what to do as much as possible. Make lists to check, offer choices about when and what they will do to contribute to the family, talk together to solve problems.
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