Your Kids Aren't Addicted They're Just Annoying

Another holiday season has come and gone and our kids just got the new technology they begged for. Now might be a good time to start discussing how we can better manage our kids’ use of said technology. This is obviously a concern for many parents these days as technology seems to grow more captivating by the minute. Parents I talk to are frantically trying to get a handle on how to manage their children’s video game play, which is is not an easy task. Having the right philosophy and a strong plan around limit setting can help us stay grounded, even when the landscape of technology is constantly shifting under our feet. So here are some ways of thinking about screens/video games that I share with parents. Since this topic is so broad, I’ve broken it into two posts. If you missed the first on addiction it’s here.

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There are a whole host of annoying behaviors around screens and video games that drive parents nuts and contribute to our feelings of helplessness. Parents often link the feelings of helplessness to concerns about addiction. But these behaviors don’t point to addiction, they are just annoying! Consider this:

They always want to play: Just because this is what our kids want to do more than anything else does not mean they are addicted. Our job as parents is to teach our kids about having balance in just about everything they do (i.e., sweets vs. carrots, sloth vs. exercise). We want them to be able to go off on their own and make healthy decisions, but it will take a long time until they master this. So we have to just keep at it.

They usually don’t want to stop, so expect attitude or tantrums: Ask most kids and they will say that playing video games or watching screens is the best part of their day. Nobody wants to stop doing what they love doing, no matter what it is. The younger they are, the more tantrums. Oh, and sometimes the older they are (14/15) the more tantrums.  

Don’t expect them to stop themselves: The inmates will not voluntarily lock themselves in prison when the guards are gone. Our job as parents is to stop them continually and consistently until they go off and can do it themselves. Even older teens do not necessarily stop themselves while we are around and wait until we step in, instead. This does not mean that they won’t be able to do it when they go off to college or out on their own, it just means they defer to us when we’re around.

Expect to say it more than once: People don't listen when their attention is occupied and the screens are magical attention grabbers. And not just for kids. When I’m watching something on TV and my wife tries to talk to me...let’s just say I am not the best listener.

Fire a warning shot: Give at least one warning before asking your kids to stop but 2 or 3 may work better. All games take time to complete, respectively it takes time to get to a place where they can stop and save their progress, so warnings can help prep them. This also helps kids prep themselves for the impending loss of playing. Sometimes setting a timer works well too.

Expect them to go over the time limit: Even with warnings, many kids have trouble stopping. Again this is not a sign of addiction, but I do find that parents often blow their stack when their kids go over the time limit even after several warnings. Set one limit for your kids and another for yourself a few minutes later so you don’t have to blow up when they go over. This is how it works, we set the limits and they go over them.

OK are you with me?...Not addiction, just annoying! Now we have the philosophy or mindset down, but there is still the business of setting limits that stick:

Setting limits is a cold cold business

I feel that one of the most important aspects of setting firm limits is removing the emotional quality of our interactions with our kids. Think about all those cliche movies you’ve seen where the emotional hot blooded jailers are always the ones that allow our hero to escape. It’s never the cold unaffected jailers! When we are angry and lose it while simultaneously trying to set limits, four things happen:

  1. We say the most ridiculous things that we can’t or won’t ever follow through on (i.e., You’ll never watch TV again!, I’m going to throw your Xbox in the garbage!).

  2. We often feel badly about how things went and in repairing the damage are more likely to give back what we took away or limited.

  3. We are implicitly sending the message that the situation is not in our control. We are asking our kids to calmly deal with the loss of the game/screen, but how can they do this effectively if we can’t?

  4. We give our kids a way of feeling in control and having power over us as they figure out they can do things to make us lose it.

Basically, I just said the same thing I always say, which is: Stay Calm! Now that we’re all staying calm, here are a few other suggestions when considering a limit setting plan:

Make a plan you can enforce easily: The most effective plans are often the simplest ones. The most important thing is the follow through. The goal is to set up a structure now so they can do it on their own later. Here are a few examples of simple plans:

  • A time limit for the week and one for the weekend.
  • Homework done then play time.
  • For every minute of screen time there are two minutes of outdoor time.

Don’t be afraid to get nasty: Like I said, follow through is key. Many parents I’ve worked with get overwhelmed when their kids resist their verbal commands. Sometimes it’s important to show them who’s the boss (following all the above steps first). This means pulling the plug, taking control paddles, shutting off the internet. These are often last resorts as kids usually go nuts when we use them, but you only need to draw the line a few times before they get the message and understand you mean business.

The key to winning is losing: The goal of setting limits with our kids around screen time is to teach them how to take care of the things they have to do so they can enjoy the things they want to do without us telling them to do it. So when they get angry and upset after we tell them to get off the screen and go outside, we’re actually helping them to deal with the loss of not playing/viewing. Every time we go through the annoying steps of telling them to get off, having them get upset, then having them get over being upset, we are actually teaching them how to deal with loss. This ability to cope with loss is much bigger than just managing screen time...it’s  continuing a job search after being rejected a few times or compromising in a relationship or showing up at school after being dumped by your girlfriend.

There’s no surefire plan that will always work. Sometimes the best we can do is to just keep at it with the understanding that fighting the battles now will pay off in the future.  And for those parents who have young kids, my advice is to start firm now because it’s much harder to get tough after being loose then to loosen up after being tough.


If you had a plan that really works or a plan that was a complete disaster, please reach out and share it...We’re all in this together!!

So My Kid is Addicted To... Lemonade?

As we enter the Holiday Season and our kids begin asking for the newest technology, now might be a good time to start discussing some of the worries we parents have around these requests.  Namely how we can better manage our kids’ use of said technology. This is obviously a concern for many parents these days as technology seems to grow more captivating by the minute. Parents I talk to are frantically trying to get a handle on how to manage their children’s video game play or screen usage, which is is not an easy task. Having the right philosophy and a strong plan around limit setting can help us stay grounded, even when the landscape of technology is constantly shifting under our feet. So here are some ways of thinking about screens/video games that I share with parents. Since this topic is so broad, I’ve broken it into two posts. 

I feel I have to start with my thoughts on addiction, as this is usually what parents worry most about when it comes to screen time and video game play. The fears that our kids will become addicted has a strong effect on parents’ approach to setting limits. A more informed perspective on addiction and the risks involved can help us make better decisions.

Two types of addiction

There are two types of addiction, physical and mental. Psychology Today does a good job defining both types of addiction. Over the past twenty years, researchers have attempted to link the rush of game play to a release of endorphins in the body, however, there is no clear evidence to indicate that video games cause physical addiction in its users. Mental addiction, or the feeling like you just need something, usually in response to emotional stress, is the right way for us to think about how kids are affected by video games and screen use. Let me explain with a story.

lemonade

Am I addicted to lemonade?

Several years ago I was speaking to a class of fifth graders in an all boy’s school. After describing the two types of addiction, a boy raised his hand and said that his mom often buys sparkling lemonade and he likes it a lot. He went on to say that when he has a stressful day at school he will come home and pour himself a large glass of lemonade and this makes him feel better. With the utmost sincerity he asked, “Am I addicted to lemonade?”.

After settling down the classroom from hysterics at the absurdity of the question, I realized that it was not at all absurd. In fact, one could argue that the boy was addicted to lemonade. Taking this a bit further one could make the argument that we all are mentally addicted to something. Whether it’s watching Real Housewives of NJ, exercise, reading the news, or playing video games, all these activities help us to shake off the stress of the day. We often use the prospect of unwinding to a TV show or a good book in order to get us through a rough day.

Am I saying we should just let our kids use as much technology as they want because they’re stressed? Hell no! I make this point more for us to consider that while video games or iPad apps may not be our chosen form of stress relief, is it fair to judge or label our kids as addicts simply for their passion and fascination? Probably a more neutral way to judge whether there is a problem is for us to focus on what our kids do and do not do as a result of game play.

Taking care of your business

The first thing I ask parents when they tell me their child has a video game/technology addiction is “Do they take care of their business?”. Are they doing their homework, chores, and other responsibilities? If they are not doing what they’re supposed to do, then I still usually see video games/screens as secondary issues. The primary issues often have to do with difficulties in learning, defiance, attention issues, or parents lacking a clear and executable plan around limit setting (we’ll get back to this last one).

If kids are doing what they’re supposed to do, then the question becomes how much time is too much for games/screens? This is a much tougher question to answer and I feel the answer is as personal as politics or religion. So, I’m not going to suggest a certain time limit for screen use. I will say that my own unscientific and anecdotal observations of my kids regarding screen use suggests a direct correlation between the amount of time they play and their irritable mood afterwards. In other words, the more they play/watch screens the worse they seem to behave and this negative mood usually persists long after their initial upset at having to turn the screens off.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recently given more specific guidelines on how much screen time is too much, so perhaps this will help.

Putting aside some of the emotional knee jerk reactions we have around addiction can make limit setting a little easier. There are, however, many things that kids do around our attempts to set limits regarding screen time that look a lot like addiction, but are actually just annoying. The sister post will focus on kids’ behaviors around setting screen limits that drive parents nuts, as well as suggestions for setting lasting limits that take into consideration both our children’s passions and what’s good for them.