The Slippery Slope of Digital Addiction & How Parents Are Avoiding It
When my ten-year-old son showed me his holiday wish list recently, I knew it would be laden with electronics of all sorts. And I was right, more or less, because it consisted solely of electronics. What I didn’t expect was just how short the list would be. It contained just two items: V-bucks (Fortnight cash) and an X-Box One, yet another device on which he could play his beloved Fortnite.
The Washington Post describes Fortnite as a cross between Minecraft and a shooter game, complete with 100-person, battle royal fights to the death, zombie survival modes and more. It’s definitely been my least favorite video game so far, due to its violent features and highly addictive nature.
But despite the title of this article, I’m not pointing all fingers at Fortnite. Although the latest gaming sensation has captured the 24/7 focus of kids, teens, and even adults alike, it will surely be phased out soon and replaced by the Next Big Thing. Before Fortnite, it was Roblox. Before Roblox, it was Minecraft. Before Minecraft, Super Mario. At least back in the Super Mario days, my son would often pause the game to fiddle with his toy dinosaurs or build brightly colored LEGO creations. But each phase is seemingly more intense than the last, with action figures and fantasy play replaced by more and more gaming time. It’s becoming a problem.
I’m not innocent, of course. I can limit device use, encourage outdoor play, or use gaming time as a reward rather than a regular activity. But I think a lot of parents are guilty of over-utilizing these convenient little electronic babysitters. As a work-at-home-mom who relishes the rare, quiet moments where I can complete projects in peace, my kids probably spend more time staring at screens than they should.
The World Health Organization recently classified digital addiction as a diagnosable disease called “gaming disorder.” Studies have shown overuse of screen time can lead to obesity, depression, sleep problems, anxiety, loss of social skills and more. In very young children it can lead to delayed language development.
According to Dr. Peng Pang, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Staten Island University Hospital, there is overwhelming evidence of similarities between internet & video game addictions (IVGA) and substance use disorder. He cited the following symptoms of gaming disorder:
- preoccupation with video games, which becomes the dominant activity in daily life
- withdrawal symptoms when gaming is taken away like irritability, anxiety, or sadness
- loss of interest in past hobbies and entertainment
- continued excessive use of games despite knowledge of a problem
- lying about gaming
- use of games to relieve a negative mood
“To prevent development of IVGA, children and adolescents typically need to resume healthy real-time living strategies to replace the dopamine that addiction creates and to regain typical joys and satisfactions balanced living provides, e.g. focusing on academic or work performance, sleep quantity and quality, ‘real-life’ ‘in-person’ activities and relationships,” Dr. Pang said.
In other words, both children and adults can become as dependent on video games as people with drug or alcohol addictions. Therefore, is critical to help kids foster those real-life experiences to replace the “high” of addiction.
It’s scary to think of my ten year-old being addicted to anything, so limiting screen time altogether is the best place to start in combatting my son’s chronic gaming. I turned to parents in and around Staten Island for ideas on reducing screen time and received some excellent tips and feedback.
In my own house we try to restrict screen time on school nights, limiting it to weekends only, a practice I found to be fairly common amongst parents with school-aged children. Some parents are rigid with their rules while others are lax.
Mary Checo-Williams is strict with her weekend-only rule: “No video games Monday through Friday and only on the weekend, even during summer vacation.”
Polina Vix allows for very little flexibility in her rules: “No screen time Monday to Thursday. No iPads, no TV, no X-Box, etc. School nights are strictly for homework, reading, writing, drawing. Friday through Sunday is a 30-minute limit for iPads per day, and TV/X-Box two to three hours depending on weather and activities for the day.”
Deception can be okay.
There’s no shame in their game for parents who use a little trickery to keep their kids away from screens. Some hide remotes while others “forget” to charge controllers or insist the internet is “broken.”
“Sorry, the iPad died!” Krystle Rocco tells her three-year-old daughter. “She will tell me to charge it, and I do, but then I distract her anyway.”
Use timers and controls.
Deception probably wouldn’t work on older kids, which is why they invented timers and parental controls. WiFi can be turned off easily with the press of a button. TVs can be set to switch off at a certain time. “The Nintendo switch app has controls where I set it to turn off after two hours.” Nicole Saldana says. “They cannot turn it back on if they tried.”
Just say no.
Some parents avoid rules and restrictions with a simple “no.” It’s a strict approach but if you start early, you can set a precedent like Angelina Millaj has with her twin toddlers. “My kids are only two and don’t really know how to work the TV and they don’t have a tablet, plus they aren’t allowed to play with our phones,” she says. “I give them TV time but I don’t generally do it unless they ask and even then its one episode or two short ones. They can have a movie with the family. No set rules—it’s just something we don’t like doing too much of. They’re used to hearing no.”
Schedule afterschool activities.
It’s a simple philosophy. If your kids are too busy with productive activities, there will be no time for screens. Ivy Goffredo says she’s always been extremely strict with her kids’ digital use, but admits their daily extracurriculars make it a little easier. “What helps is the amount of after school activities they have. They are in extended day at school because we both work. They also have activities almost daily – dance, soccer, etc. Weekends are busy with those activities too.”
Monitor for negative reactions.
It’s important to step in if your child is becoming belligerent or having adverse reactions to gameplay. This type of behavior can be unhealthy and needs to be addressed immediately. Alison Arpaio won’t stand for it with her 11-year-old son. “If he starts getting too serious while playing or angry, I make him stop because it’s just a game and I don’t tolerate attitudes over a game.”
Redirect, redirect, redirect.
Having distractions available will surely keep your kids from craving screen time. If they are bored, they will turn to screens. Crystal Jorge says she plays a lot of music in her house and keeps many books on hand for her son. “I try to always have an arts-and-crafts box around with cool stickers and stuff so I can tell him to go be creative instead.”
No screens outside the house.
For some parents, it’s a matter of respect. For others, it’s about discipline. Either way, many parents won’t allow digital devices outside the house. Jennifer Spadafora enforces this rule when necessary. “Tablets do not come into restaurants or family gatherings but may leave the house if I have a doctor’s appointment for myself where I need them occupied.”
Set an example.
This might be the hardest rule for parents to follow. Many of us are just as guilty of an overabundance of screen time as our children. Setting an example is important. Putting phones away during meals and letting your kids see you reading instead of zoned out on the couch is a great place to start.
“We have one TV in the whole house and it is only on twice a day: while I’m making breakfast and while I’m making dinner,” Mrs. Spadafora says.
Use technology as reward.
A little positive reinforcement goes a long way – a lot longer than the negative kind, at least. Instead of taking their digital devices away when they are misbehaving, try using screen time as a reward for good behavior only.
Many parents will only allow screen time after homework is completed and chores are done. Good grades, good behavior, and a positive attitude are all a must.
Jaimee Fontaine found this to be a helpful solution to her daughter’s digital habits. “My seven-year-old was getting obsessed with her iPad, so now she has to earn her time by reading or putting away silverware, folding socks, etc. Instead of an allowance she gets time on her iPad.”
Educational games only.
Some parents are more opposed to the types of games being played than the gaming itself. Many won’t allow their child to play a violent game like Fortnite at all. Instead they limit device use to educational games only.
Kristin Dalton says of her daughter: “We’ve had very, very few instances when we’ve had to take her iPad away. She’s only allowed to play educational games like ABC Mouse, though we do have a Spotify account for her so she can use it to listen to music.”
Use your judgement.
Rules and restrictions are not for everyone. If you trust your child not to overdo it, then give him the opportunity to be responsible on his own. One mom I spoke to admitted she doesn’t limit screen use at all.
“He’s a really good kid,” Andrea Tancredi says of her 11-year-old son. “He is respectful, polite, kind and thoughtful. He also asks me every time If he can download something or go online to look at something. He does extremely well in school. So for all these reasons I have no limits on device time. He unwinds by playing video games mostly or watching something on his phone. I feel because he really doesn’t give me any trouble I allow him to unwind how he likes. No limits. I know most parents would jump on me saying that’s ridiculous, but it’s just a non-issue for us.”
Actually, Andrea isn’t alone. I heard from several other parents with a similar outlook.
Jennifer Amato-DiStefano says: “As long as homework is done their free time is theirs to do whatever they want. Unfortunately, in this day and age kids can’t go ‘out to play’ like we used to so spending time on video games is a way for them to socialize with their school friends outside of school.”
Mike Dubs agrees. “If schoolwork is done and they are doing good in school, and getting up for school in time, I’m good with giving them time to do what they want.”
There’s no arguing that technology will always be a big part of our children’s lives. At least we have the power to decide to what extent.
By Jeannine Cintron, a Staten Island mom of two who’s dreaming of a screen-free Christmas.