How to Prevent Screen Time Addiction

Children love computer games, and that’s not always a bad thing. Whether played on a handheld device, a computer, or a television set, the games can provide hours of quiet fun. (That’s one reason parents often rely on them to keep the peace on family vacations.) The games can boost computer skills and improve eye-hand coordination. One 2004 study showed that surgeons who play computer games commit fewer surgical errors than do their non-game-playing counterparts.

Computer games are emotionally “safe.” When a child makes a mistake, no one else knows (unlike the public humiliation of, say, striking out in a real-life baseball game). And because each error made in a computer game helps the player learn the specific action needed to advance the next time, the player gets the satisfaction of steadily improving and ultimately winning.

But computer games carry some big downsides. Besides being very expensive, many popular games involve graphic sex and violence. Perhaps most worrisome, they can be extremely habit-forming. Any child can become “addicted” to computer games, but kids with ADHD seem to be at particular risk. Many of them have poor social or athletic skills, and this doesn’t matter in the world of computer games. Such games level the playing field for children with ADHD. And kids bothered by distractibility in the real world are capable of intense focus (hyperfocus) while playing. The computer game “trance” is often so deep that the only way to get the player’s attention is to shake her or “get in her face.”

Do you find yourself monitoring how much time your child spends with his Gameboy? Do you constantly urge him to turn off the X Box? Does the desire to play computer games dominate her life? When you insist that the set be turned off, do you get an angry outburst? If so, the time has come to help this child or adolescent (and the whole family).

Give warning times: “You have 15 more minutes… You now have 10 minutes … There are only five minutes left.” A timer that is visible to the child can be helpful. When the buzzer rings, say, “I know you need to reach a point where you can save the game. If you need a few more minutes, I will wait here and let you have them.”

If he continues to play despite your step-by-step warnings, do not shout or grab the game or disconnect the power. Calmly remind him of the rules, then announce that for each minute he continues to play, one minute will be subtracted from the time allowed the next day (or days). Once you get the game back, lock it up. When he finally regains the privilege to play, say, “Would you like to try again to follow the family rules?”

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