Q: Our son, age 9, has been sneaking screen time so he can play an online game that he's obsessed with. He's managed to learn our passwords and override our protections. Yesterday I was charging my phone and in 10 minutes while I was upstairs he ...
Q: Our son, age 9, has been sneaking screen time so he can play an online game that he’s obsessed with. He’s managed to learn our passwords and override our protections. Yesterday I was charging my phone and in 10 minutes while I was upstairs he installed a game on my phone and deleted an app to make room for it. He has repeatedly lied to us. When caught, he’s full of apologies and visibly ashamed. We’ll have to up the security ante, and there were consequences for each incident, but I’m more concerned with his ability to control his impulses and helping him develop into a trustworthy person. Middle school is just 1½ years away. How can we help him? If it’s relevant, he has been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and impulse control issues and was found to be highly gifted.
A: You have my full empathy. For the parent with an average child, there is an endless source of stress associated with keeping boundaries on screen time. We are flying blind when it comes to a parenting playbook for this. We are the first generation of parents to grapple with this phenomenon, and we (our culture at large) do not know what we are doing.
[We’re the first generation of parents in the age of iEverything]
I say this not to panic you; rather, I want you to take some solace in knowing that parents worldwide share your confusion and exasperation. You intuitively feel that too much screen time is unhealthy for your son (common-sense parenting), and you know that the early neuroscience is showing that gaming affects some parts of children’s brains, but this common sense and neuroscience have not come together to create a cohesive standard or recommendation. In essence, we are full of data points, but have no road map for what to do. A quick visit to the American Academy of Pediatrics website yields good data, but no conclusive recommendations for parents whose school-age children use screens.
[Melinda Gates: I spent my career in technology. I wasn’t prepared for its impact on my kids]
Even as I write this, there is more anecdotal research showing that school-age children are experiencing withdrawal-like symptoms when cut off from gaming and social media. So much so, in fact, that rehabilitation centers have been created to help teens acclimate to life without gaming. It is a real, debilitating and chronic problem for many parents. You are not alone.
But what has really piqued my interest is that emerging research is revealing a strong correlation between people with executive function issues and negative screen time use/abuse. Essentially, if you have a neurotypical brain, chances are good that you use screen time to have fun, connect with others and take a break. You are also able to put down the screens and interact in the real world without any significant withdrawal symptoms. Lovely, right?
But if you have executive function issues, your screen use can take on obsessive qualities, negatively affect your ability to function in the world, feed depression and anxiety, and hinder healthy relationships.
For better or worse, we know that your son has a special brain. He has been diagnosed with ADHD (his ability to focus is compromised), and he is gifted (his brain is churning through data at a faster rate or may have a different perspective than most children). He is a prime candidate for screen addiction, because the ADHD brain often feels really good when it is gaming. The quick decision-making, the frenetic screen action, the multiplayer aspect and the fact that the game never ends can feel normal and good for the ADHD and gifted brain.
The lying, the sneaking, the hacking of passwords, the downloading of apps (and deleting yours) are behaviors driven by the reality that when he stops gaming his brain doesn’t feel safe. Why do I think this? You report he is truly sorry and ashamed. Your son doesn’t want to sneak around and feel obsessed with gaming; he is literally compelled to do this (like an addiction). I have a lot of empathy for him. When I binge on social media, it feels good in the moment, but I can say that I rarely feel better for having done it. Like gorging on sugar or alcohol or heroin or sex, our brain feeds on the anticipation of the feeling, but then it never feels satisfied.
What should you do?
I turned to my friend Adam Pletter for some ideas. He is a child psychologist and runs an online class for parents who need support with handling screens and children. He suggests a clear family contract, with every rule spelled out for parent and child. Because your son is both gifted and ADHD, we need a contract that emphasizes the agreed-upon rules and building trust through the son’s increasingly trustworthy and appropriate behavior. It also needs to spell out the consequences of breaking the rules (increased restriction, etc).
While I am not usually a proponent of too many consequences (when used haphazardly, they create more resistance), your son needs clear boundaries, rewards and consequences to help focus him and promote responsibility.
Pletter also suggests a more comprehensive online-control system to prevent hacking and stealing, such as Circle from Disney. There is no perfect answer for keeping children off technology, and we are not going for a scorched-earth solution here. But we absolutely can stop the purchasing of apps and decrease the sneaking by having the games blocked.
I am also a big fan of “cell-free” Saturdays or Sundays. This means that every family member stays off their screens for the day. Yes, it is hard to get used to and yes, you can make exceptions for sports games or something else special that the whole family can enjoy. But in general, this is a fun way to reconnect, get outside, play board or card games, or simply laze about and read.
Finally, because he is so bright, you are going to have to find other things to occupy his mind. Of course I want him to experience some boredom. You are not expected to entertain your son night and day. You would go mad. But if he loves games and screens, is there a coding class or camp he could attend? Can he attach to the tech person at school? Could he even mentor younger children in understanding the fun side of some games? Keep an open mind and look for options.
This is hard work. You will probably be managing behaviors that are highly provocative, and holding these boundaries will test your patience on every level. Please find a safe place to unload your big feelings — a partner, a friend, a therapist, anyone who will offer compassion and a nonjudgmental ear. Your main goal is to keep some of the technology at bay while you give your son’s brain a chance to mature. We need to let time do its work. Do not get so stuck in the ugly little details that you lose focus on the bigger picture. Time equals brain maturity. Your son needs to grow up to better handle the onslaught of digital media.
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