HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Is my son addicted to screens?

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By Anne Collins

Techno yes or Tech-no?

Over the next five years, the thirst for the latest best thing could never be quenched. From Game Boy, to DS, to Wii — the requests never stopped. I put my foot down when he asked for a subscription to World of Warcraft, an online multi-player game that an editor of a non-profit media web site warned me against. “Never let your son play that! It’s incredibly addictive,” she cautioned.

Maybe a sane parent — the parent I was before we went down this rabbit-hole — would have just said no, instead of holding fast to certain boundaries, letting others slip. 

I have no defense, except that life gets busy, and it’s full of compromises. Some days I’m so busy taking care of his little sister, or writing on deadline, and a video game or TV show quiets my son — and I’m grateful. And, I try to reassure myself, he doesn't just sit in front of a screen all day. He’s a talented pianist and performer. He gets pretty much straight As. He’s fantastic at math and science, and he’s a gifted writer. What more do I want?

You can’t always get what you want

Me: Max, you’re supposed to be doing your homework. Turn off Facebook/Minecraft/your iPod.
Max: I’m just taking a break.
Me: You know the rule. No screens until you’ve done your homework.
Max: I’ve done most of it, Mom. You just don’t want me to be happy. Playing computer games makes me happy!

Why don’t I want him to be happy playing screens? Because I’ve been reading the latest stats on screen addiction — and I see how harmful it can be, especially for adolescents whose brains are still being shaped and whose bodies need plenty of exercise and activity to keep them healthy.

I want him to be doing anything other than an activity that, I fear, keeps him from experiencing real life, and using as much of his brain as possible. I want him to play basketball at our nearby playground. I want him to practice music for his upcoming keyboard lesson. I want him to play like kids used to play. The problem? There aren’t any kids playing outside. The few teens on our block are also inside their homes, also grudgingly doing their homework, also arguing with their parents about being on a screen.

Emergency help

But here’s the deal: I’m genuinely worried my son is addicted to screens. I can’t seem to stop him from pushing the "on" button whenever he has free time. He can’t seem to stop, and he certainly doesn’t want to.

I decided to get outside help, and where did I find it? Online, of course.  I tracked down a former screen addict who counsels families with children or other family members whose lives have been taken over by technology. I also found the co-founder of the country’s first and only screen addiction center, who also offers private counseling.

Comments from readers

"I say this with all the respect in the world: Are you flipping kidding me?...I mean, I understand the initial purchase of the Game Boy because you felt like your son was going through a lot of changes and he deserved one, but what’s this thing about one thing after the other that you caved to and now you’re blaming your son for being addicted to screen time?! You’re the adult, you compromise on the Game Boy and say that he may have that and he may play it after his homework is done, for half an hour or so, and then as he gets older, he could possibly trade up for something newer. But, I reiterate, how does a parent go from acting like they don’t want their child to have anything to now the child has a cell phone, mp3 player, DS, computer, wii, and so on and so on and some how that’s HIS fault? And by the way, no young kid needs to be on Facebook (you have to be over 13 to be on there, sounds like your son has been doing it before that age) or playing multi-player g! ames. There are plenty of age-appropriate websites out there that can slowly teach your child how to be responsible online. My older daughter always asks for some high tech device and the first thing I remind her of is that we don’t need more “stuff� in the house and I also remind her how they are made and who makes them (yes, privileged Western children need to learn that unprivileged Eastern adults and even children suffer so we have cool gadgets). If we do agree on some techno device, then we use it sparingly, a couple of times per week she can play a computer game or once a day she can watch a show she likes. It’s not rocket science to compromise and work with your children...but making your child out to be the proverbial bad guy because you gave up on your parenting, well that’s just crummy. On another note, I’m one of those kids who grew up how you wished you would have grown up, i.e., no screen time and more books, because we didn’t have a T.V. or any ! other gadget so I read a lot, but I can’t say that I’m any! smarter because of reading a lot as a kid. I’m a pretty average student, even now. I think anytime a parent is too extreme toward one side or another, children will rebel and also wonder if they would have been better off if it would have been the opposite. If parents just realize that doing anything in moderation, with compromise and mutual respect, you can teach a child plenty. "
"Academic edge? Go to your son's school GATE program, if it has one, and look for one kid without a gameboy in his hand. He will be the one who has nothing to talk to the other kids about, discuss strategy on, or figure out how to hack. I think you've been living in a cave if you think keeping your kid from technology will make him smarter. "
"Are you kidding me? Screens? He isn't addicted. And if he was, this is America, we have the freedom to do what we want, even if that means letting your kids play games. As a Christian, it is important to install some family values in him and games won't hurt that. Trust me! Reading this nonsense from other sites that have little to no proof on this topic is bad. Stop getting brainwashed. Think, what would Jesus do? "
"I'm a kid, and honestly, I can't stay still, I mean really. I can only watch a full movie in the theater, I get bored in the middle and go outside. I love to read, too. "
"My son is 10 years old, and your story sounds just like ours. My husband convinced me that a Gameboy would be a good incentive for him to do obey, where nothing else was motivating him. Now it's a DS, and we've drawn a line in the sand. We don't need anything else for our kids to get addicted to. I've pushed the kids back to Saturdays only for the computer and DS's, at least during school, because their behavior is awful when they've been playing a lot. I think I fall between Roberts and Cash. Gaming CAN BE as addictive as any drug, especially multiplayer online games. My brother-in-law's life was ruined by gaming. He can't hold down a job or even hold a conversation with another adult because his parents let him play without limits. "
"Nice article. Thanks for sharing. "
"To the grandparents who are sending their grandson to skateboard and martial arts camps, YOU GO! We need more people like you active in the lives of young people. "
"The average American is in front of a screen only 7 hours a day? What about the 8-10 (because, ya know, overtime) many adults are *required* to be in front of the screen for their jobs? ------------------- I'd be worried about him ever finding a date if he's still on the computer as much as a 13 year old when he's 25, not when he's 15. Worries beyond that? Lighting, so he doesn't hurt his eyes. --------------- I spent about 6 hours a day outside of school on the computer as a teenager. As a recent graduate, I'm now an entry-level software engineer earning almost as much as my dad is as a manager of 30 years. But hey, if you don't want your child to end up in the high-paying tech sector... ------------------ I'm also seriously getting the impression from the comments here that the comment parsing is broken and throwing away newlines (which is why I added the rows of minuses). I suggest the web developer behind this site get on fixing that. "
"What a timely article, on a topic I've had reason to ponder often as the mother of a 13-yr-old boy. I'm an advocate for balance. A couple of years ago we vacationed in S. Dakota. As we hiked the walkways in the area around Mount Rushmore, my son and I were observing and commenting on the various plants and rocks. Another tourist who overheard us loudly commented, "Now THERE'S a kid who doesn't spend his time on TV & video games. HE knows how to appreciate the things around him." The guy went on and on about it. I smiled politely, but didn't mention that my son (and his dad!) plays plenty of video games and watches plenty of TV, more than his share. It just so happens that he also loves science and history, has his black belt in martial arts, and works his tail off in school. Last year, my son was a big fan of Star Wars Battlefront II. Such a fan, in fact, that he discovered (via YouTube) that one can create their own worlds for it with "mods." He decided to learn to make them, and in order to do so, he had to learn to read the technical FAQs, and learn to communicate his questions on the forums (with my supervision and help). It wasn't easy, and there were some things he never did completely figure out, but he did learn that with persistence, he COULD learn, and make progress at it. I would have to call it a good educational experience. This year, it's Minecraft. He plays single-player offline as well as multi-player online. He's found an online server that's pretty well moderated (Gametoast), and he has a friend who plays there also. They talk on the phone while they're building things together and helping each other find things. Now he's working on making their own server. Am I concerned about addiction? Hmmm...yes, always watchful, and always encouraging balance. But I think it's as harmful to be a heavy-handed guilt monger and fear monger as it is to allow addictive behavior to develop. American society has some major issues with serving up mixed messages on many fronts. Food, for example: we see ads for decadent chocolate and greasy burgers, followed immediately by ones for weight loss programs. With technology, the mixed message is that we're supposed to use it--in fact, it's responsible behavior to check our e-mail, and research things, etc.--but at the same time we should feel guilty for it. I'll be interested to see the inventions of this generation, and how the technology influences them. Already, doctors can perform surgery in an operating room miles away, via video game-like remote controls. All is not lost. But all will be different. :) "
"Reading some of the comments by other readers I have to say that for my 10 year old Wii or online games such as are his absolute favorite. We have always limited any and all electronics and maybe that's why he LOVES them so. Although our younger son (8) does not have this problem even though he got the same limitation. So every child is different as all know who have multiple kids. Having said that, electronics is the first thing we take away as a privilege for disrespectfulness or other undesireable behavior. It has the greatest effect on him and is a good insentive/reward to do better. I think prohibiting any and all video/online play is sticking ones head into the sand as our kids' world is filled with the latest and greatest the industry has to offer and for them to succeed in high school/college/career they need to be savvy in those areas. We don't allow any of those devices in their rooms where no one can monitor what they are actually doing which keeps! them accountable as well. A good balance of course is best, but on certain days they might get more of one thing than is good for them. In the summer I learned that if I let them play Wii too early (a.m.) they got too dependent on it and expected it every day. So I switched gears and told them they had to "earn" it during the day to play it in the afternoon instead. Oftentimes friends come calling and they forgot all about it or got to play an hour of Wii with their best friend who showed them how to beat a certain level on Star Wars :-) Just my two cents worth... "
"I'm so so so glad you posted this. REAL issues facing parents today. My son is 10 and I'm feeling the urge to pull the plug completely sometimes. It's too much. I know it's too much. Loads of stuff to chew on here; we're dealing with a whole different world from when we were young, but we are no less a parent than our own were. Definitely some excellent food for thought. Need to get my mommy mind in gear and get this dialog going. Much to the chagrin of my son, I just sent him the link and asked him to read it. We will be discussing later today ........ -Jennifer P., The Incidental Domestic "
"What are you doing as parent? Are you going out and play ball with your son? Are you dancing with your daughter? Going hiking, running or biking? How about a movie in a theater once a week? If you are, that brings variety and balance into your child's life. "
"Addiction, especially in the prime of life, is most harmful. You may have waited too long. Who knows. I've had great success talking to kids about this face to face. As a sub-teacher I often take phones and headsets away . . never in anger. Just after school was out I heard a radio commercial where in a chap says, "Play with your children outside, wrestle with them in the grass or hay etc.." What a novel and great idea. When I ask most kids junior high and up if they wouold let their own children spend so much time on techy things theri response is a mature, "No way". I wish you well mam. "
"Welcome to the world of responsible modern mothering. Dads never seem to worry about these things, especially ones with Tech backgrounds and mothers are bombarded with mixed messages, the strongest being the scare tactics of your child being doomed because of their computer/screen addiction. I do think the advise regarding not lecturing about screen time but addressing outdoor physical outlets to be helpful. Thanks for the reminder! "
"This article drives me nuts. Why is "screen time" so bad? Just because it is something new? I do think that kids should be playing outside more or otherwise doing physical play more, but there is this undercurrent of "fear of the screen" that has, in my opinion, no logical basis. Take this statement: "Looking back, I wish they’d nudged me out of my stupor to read more and explore other interests, and I can’t help but wonder if that would have given me more of an edge academically" "more of an edge academically"?? "Screen time" includes hours and hours spent on computers for educational purposes. The modern student *must* be online or they won't be able to do their school work. Why is this a bad thing though? In fact, I think it is a good thing. Also, video games, unlike the extremely passive TV of my youth, are active, engaging, thought-provoking things. They are not mindless. And that is just the games. There are a ton of good things that happen in this maligned "screen time". Also, why is texting considered so bad? I feel like parents my age, or maybe a smidge older than me, face texting and instant messaging the same way some old timer faced the telephone in the 1920s or something. "Get them young whippersnappers off the durn telleephonee and talking face to face" (note: I am a 41yo white, suburban male with 7yo and 4yo boys, and I work in IT) there is a valid space for all modern forms of communication. I think that if anything, parents should focus on teaching their children the most appropriate way to use all these modern forms of communication. Like, it isn't appropriate to send a text in response to a job interview (I've seen that done) or whatever. Of course, the problem with that is that most people in the current parent or teacher role are too old to really know the answer to how to most appropriately use these new forms of communication to be able to teach their kids. And the entire section on online games being a drug, well, that just made me want to puke. There are some kids that will be affected more negatively than others, but *MOST KIDS WILL BE FINE*. As in, the vast, vast, vast majority. Anyway, my take away point is this: Screen time is not bad. It is just like anything else, and children need limits on it like anything else. If you, as a parent, are not willing to enforce those limits, then your kids may have problems with screen time in the same way that they may have problems with drugs, or alcohol, or sex, or gambling, or, or, or, whatever. "
"I find it more than a little ironic that you're married to someone who works for a high tech magazine and website but don't want your son to use computers. I fought the same battle withmy daughter about wearing make-up, sometimes I think our own resistance makes it more appealing. I mean, if you had just given him the original gameboy, maybe he would have used it and been bored with it altogether. "
"You do not have a screen addict. He likes it, most boys his age do. But I know 14-year old boys who spend 12+ hours during the summer on their computers. I don't know what their parents are thinking, there is a clear problem. 2 hours is a hobby. Set that as the outside limit and agreed, don't allow the online, multi-player games. He is much too young for that, they are far too "adult-oriented". "
"If you can direct your son a different way,"Do It" My Son is 17, and I couldn't get him off the computer if the house was on fire ... The only problem is the schools are giving them assignments where they have to work on computers. I think that is very unfair. Unless I sit right there with him, babysitting in other words, he fluffs off the home work and goes to his games. Hes old enough to know better, so I don't babysit. We argue all the time about his time spent on computers. I know its easy to say I'm the's not easy we get into some pretty nasty fights. Now I'm just waiting for him to turn 18. yes I gave up... "
"Thanks for a great article. I've grappled with the same issue when it comes to my 13 yr. old's screen time and I've come to realize that there are both positives and negatives to it. On the one hand, I don't want to prevent him from moving on with the times because let's face it, technology has completely changed. Phones are interactive and are basically little computers on-the-go. Books will soon be obsolete with the soaring popularity of e-books. Snail mail is becoming more scarce. (My bank just offered me a free checking account if I choose to only receive e-statements and use online banking. What does that tell you?) There is no avoiding "screen time" if you want to go with the flow. For me, the negatives of screen time would be the activities that are centered around gaming. My son does play World of Warcraft and yes, the game can be addictive which concerns me. But I've solved this problem by placing limitations on his game time through the game maker's parental controls interface. He gets two hours a day of game time and when the time is up, the game locks him out. I think it's important that we don't impede our children's exposure to what is new in the technological world. By the time they're adults, they'll need the skills and the "tech-savyness" to be able to keep up. As long as they're well rounded, get good grades in school, have no behavioral issues, I see no harm in a reasonable amount of "screen time". "
"If there is any nerd-level in your house, introduce your son to board games -- depending on his age, the more complex the better. My husband began introducing Dungeons and Dragons, Munchkin, and other old-school board games (some with really awesome collectable game figures) to my son last year, and they're great. My son's friends like them too -- they eat up two or three hours, involve the mind, invite conversation, etc. My husband loves to play games with my son and his friends. Great diversion, especially on days when going outside isn't an option, and when friends sleep over. As for video time, it's part of our daily lives, but we do set limits during the school year. And, we loosely enforce earning or losing screen time, depending on if our son does his chores, practices piano, finishes homework, etc. It's just finding the balance. But no interacting with people online, no Facebook, no cell phone (yet anyway), and no Gameboys in restaurants! "
"As the mother of a 13 year old boy, I totally understand where you're coming from. There is a balancing act that we must do as parents to keep our kids actively engaged in real life outside of "screen world." That said, I seriously disagree with Hilarie Cash. Her viewpoint is alarmist and is as unbalanced as the "screen addict" but in the opposite direction. I was a drug addict as a teenager and I know well the dangers and misery that comes with that. To compare computers to a drug addiction is seriously inflammatory and just downright WRONG. Last I checked, kids don't ingest computers into their system. At least if my kids are home playing a game, I know they're not shooting heroin in a public bathroom or passed out on a curb somewhere. Seriously. Kevin Roberts has a much more balanced approach. And as a mom, you have to know that you're allowed to find moments of sanity. The reality is that all our lives revolve around screens. Going cold turkey from screens isn't an option. As in all things, it's about balance. "
"We are going through this with our grandson. Right now he is going to skateboard camp and taking Korean martial arts and even reading some voluntarily and helping a little with chores. I know the screens are here to stay. I know how addictive they are but they won't go away so we have to figure out how to live with them. "
"It's not just children who are addicted to screens - it began a generation ago. In many waiting rooms now, a television is turned - often to a morning talk show or afternoon soap opera. We now make cars with double screens in the back seat so children can each watch their own DVD... Watching is soothing to children and adults alike - it's a passive activity that fills the brain without challenging it. Video games though are not passive, they're active and they excite children because they are challenging. Children used to like to play cops and robbers and now they can play video games that are exactly like cops and robbers but with amazing special effects that give a seemingly more real sense of battle and a very sense of victory. Many kids find these games thrilling even while obesity in American children is now up to 1 out of 3! Increasingly fearful of letting our children play outside without being watched and increasingly stressed while we try as parents to manage both work and home, we let the kids play video games because it occupies them and lets us attend to the many other things that demand our attention. Some children come to crave the games - children with shorter attention spans find the constant stimulation of the chase and the shooting very attention-grabbing. Children who find it hard to sit still can sit still for hours while shooting away in a video game. Victory in a video game gives some children a very real - if false- sense of accomplishment. And that makes it hard to wean some children off the games. If you really want your child to spend less time playing these virtual games, you have to give them something real to do. Don't get started with the games migh be good advice but once started to get them to stop, you have to offer other alternatives and then model the behavior you expect of your child. If you want your child to take a healthy walk, talk it along with them. If you want your child to ride a bike, get on your own bike and go along with them. Listen to their excited tales about what they did with their games and then steer the conversation to other things. The old saying 'all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" can also be said 'that all play and nothing else also makes Jack dull.' Video games should be a diversion - not their life. If they like the idea of combat and many young boys do, judo, karate or aikido teach safe, structured and ancient forms of combat that also teach discipline and physical! fitness. Children don't really get addicted to the games but they can come to crave the excitement of the game and the sense of accomplishment when they win in the game. Try games like Capture the Flag and Freeze Tag to teach children that excitement and a sense of victory don't have to be virtual and can come from your own backyard. "