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.


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.