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What to Do About Screen Addiction?

Question

My 11-year-old son is obsessed with screens. If we tell him to do something while he is on his phone or iPad he huffs and puffs or we are told, “in a minute." Then he only gets 2 out of 3 chores done because he’s in such a hurry to get back on screens. When he is grounded from screens he expects us to entertain him because he is so bored and there’s nothing else to do. We did get him a phone because he is home alone and we don’t have a landline so it’s not really possible to take his phone away completely during the week.

Answer

Hello and thank you for your question. It is time to take control of those screens! Your son is not just obsessed, he is probably addicted, as are most people who have smart phones. It is time to break him of this and help him learn the importance of self-regulation and even more importantly, learn to respect and obey you. Listening and obeying is really the underlying issue at hand so it is extremely important to establish some ground rules going forward that will send the message to him that you say what you mean and mean what you say.

First and foremost, it is 100% important for you to understand that all of those screens (phone, TV, iPad, etc.) are in fact, not his. They are yours and you get to decide when and if he gets to use them. Second, you are under no obligation to provide him or any child with a smart phone when home alone. For safety purposes, they should be able to reach you or another trusted adult, be able to call 911, and know what to do in an emergency, all of which can be done with a dumb phone/flip phone, or a good old fashioned land line. If you are not able to get a land line or switch out his phone, there are a number a great parental control monitoring apps that will allow you to disable every other function of the smart phone except for making calls. Third, it is not your job to entertain him when all his electronics have been taken away or he is grounded. To my knowledge, no child has died of boredom so let him be bored. Being bored is good for his development and can foster his creativity if left alone long enough to stew in his own boredom. When he starts bugging you to be entertained, send him to his room or outside to play but do not entertain him.

Going forward I suggest you start with taking his phone away for a minimum of two weeks and telling your son that until he is listening to you and completing chores to your liking, he will not be using any electronics. Realistically, for you to really get this point across, this is going to take longer than two weeks. This is going to be hard and you can expect his behavior to get worse before it gets better, but you have to break him of this addiction to screens now. Next, it is time to establish stricter rules for using electronics if you plan to give them back at all. Set time limits and implement specific conditions for when he can and cannot use them. I strongly suggest expecting chores and schoolwork to be completed before having access to electronics for leisure use. Banning screens at mealtime, when in the bathroom, and on short car trips are other suggestions. If he had previously been allowed to keep electronics in his room at night, tell him that from now on his electronics will be sleeping in your room and take them away at least 2 hours before bedtime. Studies have shown that screen time at bedtime can inhibit falling asleep and reduce the overall total number of hours slept. Listening to music or reading books are better options that can help him relax and fall asleep.

If you are not using parental control or monitoring apps already, I highly suggest you start or do not allow him any unsupervised time on these devices. He is too young to be left to his own curiosity on these devices. Remember, you are trying to raise an adult and a healthy adult knows how to regulate their screen time in a way that it does not impact their day to day functioning. Right now, your son’s day to day functioning (not listening, not completing chores, etc.) is being impacted greatly by screen time so it is your job as his parents to help him overcome this.

Like I said, this is not going to be easy. Stay strong and do not give in to tantrums or cries of boredom. Often in life and especially in parenting, doing what is right is hard. You are no doubt approaching one of the tougher seasons of parenting, but we are here to help you along the way. If you have not read John’s book Teen Proofing, I highly suggest you pick up a copy. It is full of lots of tips and practical wisdom for navigating this season of parenting. Let us know how it all goes with taking away the electronics and implementing new rules for screen time and please reach back out if you need further guidance.

Lisa Woodman
Certified Leadership Parenting Coach
coachingbythecup@gmail.com

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