Overcoming screen addiction in children

How your child or children react to interacting with digital devices in general, and video games in specific, can vary. It's an intense experience and while some will do just fine and exhibit minimal behavioral changes, others will present with diminished focus, rudeness, or a loss of emotional control. The latter is something I saw in my own children, and something I knew I had to help them learn to overcome.

Update: Apple is under renewed pressure from activist groups to improve Parental Controls and combat screen addiction. But what's real, what's sensationalism, and what's an abdication of personal responsibility? I join iMore and VECTOR's Rene Ritchie to explain.

Video games and behavioral changes

As a psychotherapist, I've worked with numerous families struggling with the effects unrestrained video games (and television) have had on their children. Since the problems are behavioral, I've come to realize the solution has to be behavioral as well.

To preface this, let me once again say that I love video games and that I recognize they have some beneficial elements to them, including the ability to help regulate aggression, build problem-solving skills, and teach kids how to handle frustration. Playing video games (and board games) as a family can also be a terrific bonding experience.

If a child starts to display signs of addiction or other forms of negative behaviours after they play — if they get angry or agitated when they're asked to stop, if they lose the ability to focus or if their manners, mood, and behavior devolve when they do stop — then it's absolutely something that needs to be addressed.

Video games and addiction

Video games have addictive properties. They're made not only to appeal to us, but to encourage us to play more. The most addictive are no different than casinos and use many of the same principles to get and keep engagement. It creates an intense desire to keep playing and can make it extremely difficult to self-regulate, especially for kids.

Even games that don't deliberately try to increase addiction still feed our need for instant gratification in a way the real world often doesn't. They cause the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is the body's natural reward system. In fact, the amount of dopamine released playing some video games can reach levels found in stimulants.

Helping kids cope with video games

Teaching children how to handle video games and their own emotions while playing video games can be tough. Some parents see their kids happily playing video games and don't want to upset or anger them by telling them to stop. Other parents use video games as a babysitter so they can get everything from cooking to cleaning to work done around the house. It's understandable because getting something — anything! — done when you have kids can be a real challenge, and it can make the idea of limiting game time as painful for parents as it is for kids. But if that game time is adversely affecting your child, it's a sacrifice you're going to want to make.

Personally, I found that my children became "zoned out" while they were playing and the longer they played, the more agitated and curt they became when they had to stop. Seeing that, I knew we had to set up a plan for the entire family.

Currency systems

Know up front that this is difficult. It takes a lot of time and effort to set up and see through. Don't think of it as the cost of parenting, though. Think of it as an investment in your children.

Every family is different and every child is different. Goals can also be different. For my family, I wanted my children to work on their manners and their ability to deal with disagreements in a pro-social manner. In order to facilitate this, I not only needed my children to spend less time interacting with video games, but more time interacting with each other.

So, I created a currency system that rewards my children for getting better at behaviors I wanted to encourage. We decided this as a family, so my children also had a say in which behaviors they wanted to work on.

There is some controversy with using currency systems as a way to improve behavior. In this case, some would worry the child wouldn't keep up the behavior if the rewards stopped.

In my experience, however, behavioral improvements become habitual, and a secondary social reward — positive interactions with other adults and children — continue to reinforce them even when the planned rewards change.

Children also become proud of their improvements and accomplishments, and once they learn that feeling, it becomes its own motivator.

Also, currency systems are very similar to how the real world works and can have the side benefit of helping them learn how those systems work.

Reward charts

Since my children are in elementary school, I used a reward chart to manage the system. The first thing that I did was write down all of the behaviors or skills that I felt my children had to work on.

I have two children and so I made a separate list for each child. From that list, I chose the three most important skills for each child. I also asked my children to talk to me about what they felt they needed to work on the most. This was an important step as I wanted to work together with my children to help them grow up stronger and more apt to deal with various situations.

The next step was choosing which skills were the most important and the easiest to moderate. Being polite, controlling their tempers, and keeping their voices down were the three we settled on to start.

I then created a monthly calendar using some Bristol board and a marker, and I bought some stickers as well. (You could use checkmarks or stamps if you would rather.)

We then agreed upon which good behaviors, specifically, would be rewarded with a sticker on the chart. For my children, we started by saying please and thank you, helping with a chore, discussing a problem calmly, and maintaining good table manners.

So, if my child said "thank you" without hesitation or being prompted. If they used their napkin while eating, they would get a sticker. If they brought their plate to the sink. If they held the door open for others, they would get a sticker and a thank you for their use of such good manners and being helpful.

My children put the stickers on themselves. I watched them and kept count at first, to make sure extra stickers weren't added by mistake, but they quickly learned to be accurate.

They also learned a real sense of pride. Each day they'd count their stickers and see the progress they made. Later, they paid less attention to the stickers and more attention to how other people would notice and comment on their manners, and how positive their reactions were. This was especially true when a waitress or parent at the school or someone else they didn't know well would comment on their politeness. (They even managed to score a scoop of ice cream once from an especially impressed restauranteur.)

So how does the reward system relate to video games? Video games, at least superficially, are the reward.

Cashing in

My children are no longer allowed to play video games (or watch TV) on their own. If they want to play, they have to use their stickers to "buy" time.

We negotiated how many stickers would equal how many minutes of video games or TV at the very beginning, and settled on one sticker per minute. We also settled on them needing to cash in 20 stickers at a time, no less, no more. That meant they could only ever play 20 minutes of video games or watch 20 minutes of TV on any given day, provided they had enough stickers and provided their homework was done.

As time went on, we slowly let them expand that to 40 stickers for 40 minutes of video games or TV. Again, provided they had enough stickers and that their homework was done.

If it's a birthday or a play date, we negotiate exceptions or make special allowances, but day in, day out, we stick to the system. Consistency is key for everyone.

My husband and I continue to evolve the system. The initial set of skills they were working on became habits, and so we moved on to new sets of skills. Now, they not only have to be polite but respectful. They not only have to help with chores but be organized.

Now, when they get enough stickers, and they're allowed to play games, they're not only proud of their accomplishment but appreciative of the time. They know they've earned it.

Success as its own reward

Because their video game and TV time are limited, it's also encouraged them to spend more time playing and learning. They build huge lego creations and write and illustrate their own comic books. They help with the garden and home and car repair. And they read books. A lot.

Since they're not getting instant gratification all the time from video games, and dopamine isn't hitting their system like a freight train, they're learning to be patient and invest their time rather than simply spend it.

I still love video games and so do my children, but video games have returned to being something they own, not something that owns them. We've empowered them to earn their play time and to choose for themselves when they're going to use it. It's made for a remarkable difference.

A while ago, out of the blue, my eldest turned to my husband and I and thanked us. He thanked us, he said, for caring enough to help him learn discipline and control. He'd come to realize just how important those skills were, and to value them beyond stickers.

As parents, that was our reward.


Senior Editor at iMore and a practicing therapist specializing in stress and anxiety. She speaks everywhere from conferences to corporations, co-host of Vector and Isometric podcasts, follow her on Twitter @Georgia_Dow and check out her series at anxiety-videos.com.