Q: My 10-year-old son plays mostly role-playing games, and has a 90-minute screen time limit per day. Overall he's a great kid—does well in school, is active in sports, has plenty of friends—but we have limited his screen time as a consequence for poor behavior, which is mostly related to abusing screen time limits. He contends that he is trying to resist but can’t help himself, tearfully complaining that we just don’t understand how hard it is. He wakes up as early as 3 am to use the computer surreptitiously. I don't know whether we are being unrealistic in our expectations and if we are inadvertently incentivizing him to sneak time on the computer. He acts like he is addicted. What should we do?
–World of Worry, Berkeley, CA
A: Dear World,
Many parents are struggling with variations of their kids getting “stuck” on screen media like computers, but fortunately, there are ways that you can help. Start by reframing screen time as part of your son’s everyday life, to be used in focused ways and managed in coordination with his other daily activities. This way he won’t view the computer as a reward (or, through its removal, a punishment), but as a tool he will be using, hopefully productively, for the rest of his life.
Work with him to find a solution that is both healthy and his own:
- Talk with him when there is not an immediate conflict to resolve, plenty of time, and few distractions (I recommend car rides).
- Lay out his 24-hour day and work with him to build a time management plan from the ground up: Include at least 8 hours of sleep (remind him that that’s when he grows taller…), school time, snack, physical activity (preferably outside), a sit-down meal with family, and homework.
- Plan how to use the remaining time, whether with focused, mindful media use or with other activities that have a planned end time. To help him stick to the plan, you can offer to use timers to remind him or even, if he really feels he can’t control it, to ‘lock off’ electronics at certain times—not as punishment but as a regular part of the routine.
Then, gently inquire why he is on the computer at 3 AM:
- Is he using it to do things he wouldn’t do if you were there? If so, perhaps moving the computer to a public space such as the dining room will help.
- Is he waking up and unable to get himself back to sleep? Or does he feel that he needs to be on the computer and wakes up at all hours to fulfill that desire? If either of these is the case, seek out the help of a pediatrician or child psychologist – he may be struggling with anxiety, depression, or even problematic, addiction-like computer use.
If you can discuss this in a respectful and nurturing way, you’ll learn a lot about what’s going on with him. He is trying to figure out how to manage the world and how he should behave in it and deserves a lot of credit for acknowledging that he is struggling. Now you can offer to work with him toward a solution.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,