The WHO has recently classified compulsive gaming a mental illness. I am not so sure. What I do believe is that doing anything compulsively is a big problem for developing brains. Is your child heading in the direction of using gaming or web surfing to deal with issues such as social anxiety or poor executive function skills? Here is what you should be thinking about when you see your young child screaming because you have unplugged them from their tablet (or your phone, or your tablet):
- Have you (unintentionally) modeled this behavior for them? I don’t know any adult that isn’t tethered to their phone. Whether for business or to keep track of where their spouse or children are/what they are doing, most of us have a phone that we look at repeatedly all day long. When you are with your family, think carefully about how important it is to model the opposite and put it down as quickly as possible. In effect, you are saying “You are more important to me than this device”.
- Be clear about what you are doing when you put down the phone in their presence and why. In the spirit of The Happiest Toddler on the Block, which my readers know I adore, young children need to hear and see you explaining why you are doing what you do. They don’t assume things the way we do. Really. The older they get, the more it appears that they are ignoring you, but don’t you believe it. Parents are and always will be the most powerful models in a child’s life. Forever. Your teen may roll her eyes, but they are still open, and she is watching you. So tell your child that you want to focus on them, and your phone is a distraction and you can always look at it later. You want to be with them and pay attention to them. I know this sounds a bit weird, even awkward and preach-y. It isn’t if you do it with warmth and confidence. Find your own wording, but the message is the same: I care more about you than I do about data.
- Look around. Are your child’s activities, toys and games unsatisfying? Don’t count the toys, look at them and what they offer your unique child. An artsy child may need new paints, clay, yarn, etc. A reader may need to go to the library or get a new book series. Not a digital copy. A young scientist might need a kit or a microscope. A social kid may need more playdates or a creative class like cooking. Their interests and needs may have changed since the last birthday or holiday. If you want them to play instead of look at a screen, they need things that excite and inspire them, or the digital world will fill in the blanks.
- Does your child need help in building skills? Shy kids, kids with ASD, or kids that don’t make friends easily can find the less-demanding digital world much easier to navigate. Siblings sit quietly side-by-side, not fighting but also not learning how to solve interpersonal issues. This isn’t preparing them to go out there and succeed. The earlier you realize that your child is struggling, the faster you can stop bad habits and prevent rigid behaviors.
- I read a challenging piece this week on the origins of addiction to porn that might change your mind on dealing with gaming and digital devices. The author’s suggestion was that early experiences have impressive power to wire the brain, to the diminishment of alternative methods of engagement and interaction. I know, not exactly what you would expect me to discuss on my site. But the problems of finding easy satisfaction through a non-challenging (and solitary) source of excitement fits this post. Once a behavior is hard-wired into the brain’s system, it is going to be really difficult to change. Not impossible, but really, really difficult.
- Should you ban all media? You could, but you would be denying the reality that the world they live in is heavily digital. I tell parents of the kids I treat that I use my tablet in sessions to teach kids that this is just one activity or toy, in the same way that I will eat cookies but not to the exclusion of everything else. Putting the phone or the tablet away isn’t the end of the world, and using it is not a fabulous reward.
Looking for more on using technology with intent? Read Want A Stronger Pencil Grasp? Use a Tablet Stylus . To help kids engage and learn social and emotional skills, read Stop The Whining With The Fast Food Rule. Yes, it really works!