“I don’t know how to explain it, but something is wrong with my son,” one mother told me, fighting back tears. “He’s a good student, he does his chores, he used to be so sensitive and caring. But I feel like I’m losing him. His video games are the center of his universe now and he’s losing connection with us.”
She explained that her son was depressed and seemed to be disappearing into another world. Her child was becoming unrecognizable to her.
This lonely parent was sharing what many parents wish they could share, but don’t due to the current cultural norms around kids and screens. Many parents are afraid to talk about it. We, as a society, have accepted the idea that screens are harmless, and part of every child’s day-to-day life. And the industries responsible for producing and marketing the technology have not been transparent with the known risks.
So how do you help your child? How do you rescue him or her from this screen-driven culture? How do you get your child to come eat dinner, join in family celebrations, and reclaim the happiness of everyday real-life pleasures?
It is not as hard as you may think, but early action is the key.
A basic understanding of child development provides direction for healthy screen use. For example, when parents understand that the executive function area of the brain is not fully connected until the mid-twenties, they understand why children and teens are driven largely by unregulated emotions and rewards.
When parents know that young people crave peer and group approval just about as much as food, they think twice about allowing negative exposure to social media. When they understand that the dopamine released during video gaming and social media use mimics the effects of a drug, they will be motivated to take action.
Warning Signs of Screen Dependency
- On entertainment screens every day and for longer periods of time
- Lies to parents about how much time they are spending on screens
- Sacrifices social and physical activities for more screen time
- Leisure screen time interferes with homework and school success
- Experiences bad moods when not allowed on screens
- Chooses screen time over spending time with family
When the weight of your entire society is tilted in one direction, the first step after education is to find support.
One of the greatest human needs is to bond with others and earn the approval of our peers; it is a survival mechanism and a core aspect of the interdependent nature of human beings. This is true for parents as they look to other parents for advice and support, and it is true for children as they seek to fit into peer culture and develop their identity.
The human drive to belong to a community is so strong that people may follow group norms even if they are being hurt by them.
Finding a new community that understands screen struggles and offers you support is essential to creating healthy screen habits for your kids. Most parents can’t make screen changes alone. The bigger your struggle, the more important it is to seek out like-minded families. Without this support, the odds are that you and your kids will slip back into old habits.
Once you are confident with the facts and find a new community to bond with—or even just a few friends to support you—you will be ready to remove the screens that are harming your children.
Be a Coach, Not a Friend
Adjusting your parenting style is the next important key to successfully raising kids in a screen culture. Decades of research point to one style of parenting that offers the most success: firm but loving parenting. This means that parents are not their child’s best friend; instead, they are their best coach. Strong parents are not afraid to go against the norm when needed and put up guardrails and boundaries so their kids will thrive.
Children crave this type of parenting. When parents love their children enough to say “no” to negative forms of screen use, they will win against the pull of today’s screen-obsessed culture.
This coaching perspective allows you to love your “team” with confidence, and to do the right thing even if the team doesn’t like it. You can trust your instincts that have come with years of experience.
Are you experiencing a losing season right now? Then it is time for a new game plan. Go back to the fundamentals and do the hard work—even if the team complains.
When we change our perspective and begin to parent like a good coach, we put ourselves on course to win the screen battle. This one simple step to rethinking your parenting style will get you halfway to your goal of reclaiming your kids. You are no longer the mean parent; you are a smart, winning coach.
Your child uses screens because screens are fun. Your job is to replace those activities that bring about negative consequences with something truly fun: real life. This art of replacement is paramount in overcoming most addictions.
Parents must plan ahead to fill the time that was previously spent on screen-based activities. Practical replacements like board games, books, art supplies, and puzzles are a necessity. One mom reported that during this replacement period, she had never played so many Monopoly games in her life. Another mom learned how to play chess. Don’t worry about having to play board games every day with your kids forever; this phase is temporary. Eventually, your child will not need you to fill downtime.
In order for replacement activities to work, your child’s environment will also need to change. Video game controllers on the table are too hard for your child to resist. Willpower has a short shelf life; few can withstand the same temptation more than a few times. Many addicts do well detoxing at a treatment center only to fall right back into their addiction when they come home to the same physical cues in their environment. For families, this may mean that you need to rearrange your home to be more family-centered instead of screen-centered.
Right now is not the time to worry about over-scheduling your child. Sign them up for lessons: music, art, sports, dance, etc. But realize that you don’t have to break the bank. Do what you can to keep them busy, creative, and physically active. How about a family bike ride after dinner, daily runs, or workouts with Mom or Dad? Your goal is to structure new interests by getting involved, especially at first.
Reconnect to Family
The final phase of screen detox is centered around your effort to get your child reattached to your family. This is easier to do with younger kids, but can be more challenging with teens. Chances are that if you have a dependent gamer or social media addict in your home, you have a child who has emotionally distanced themself from the family unit. Your child—at every age—needs to feel close to the family.
Don’t stress about what some friends might say. Ignore what mainstream culture says about kids being “left behind” without screens. Your goal is to unconditionally love and support your child through this lifestyle change. You know in your heart that your kids will be far ahead without the stress and anxiety of negative screen time. Spend time with them. Sit and read a book with them. Go camping, even if it is only in the backyard. Get off your own screen when you are with your child. You have everything you need to save your child.
One of the best parenting tips I can leave you with is this: Trust your intuition. Our world is full of stories of a parent’s intuition saving their child. A police detective working in the sex trafficking division once told me, “We listen to the moms. When they tell you that they have a ‘feeling’ about something, I can’t logically explain it, but they are always right.”
Screen detoxing is the best decision you can make for your family. It is difficult at first to think of a life that doesn’t revolve around smartphones and video games. But stepping away from these distractions leads to freedom and a revelation that these devices, not your child, are the problem.
Forty years ago, very few people suspected that cigarettes caused cancer. People smoked in hospitals, churches, and airplanes. Today, no one questions the facts that cigarettes are detrimental to the health of smokers and those around them. One day in the very near future, people will think the same thing about screens for children. As a parent, you need to start now to protect your kids from years of damage.
Think of your screen detox as the happiest decision you will ever make—a proactive decision to help your child that will benefit them the rest of their life. You are creating new habits that will not only enrich your child’s development, but also enrich your relationship. You are opening doors you never dreamed you could open, helping them reclaim potential they never knew they had, and creating fun memories that almost never were.
Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to help their children gain the benefits of screen media without the toxic consequences of overuse that threaten healthy mental and physical development. The ScreenStrong Solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skills development, and family connection.