It takes a family to tackle tech addiction

A negotiated plan can help monitor screen usage in the household

It seems a century ago that kids were playing outside in the hot sun, screens forsaken for more salutary pursuits. These days, as the chill winds blow, it’s doubly difficult to separate kids from their screens. Some days, it seems they’ve been surgically attached to their electronic devices.

Short of screaming fights or perma-nagging, what are parents to do about kids’ addictions to their screens? Shall we throw in the towel and just let them do it?

Hardly. Our obligation as parents is to direct their positive growth and development. We didn’t breed to be their BFF, but rather to parent them toward well-adjusted and constructive adulthood — which does not include an addiction to screens.

Let’s start with what doesn’t work. Nagging our kids to get off-line is as useful as all the other nagging we do. Homework, house chores, getting up on time, remembering to schlep their lunch, sports equipment, etc.: Nagging is a sound they become expert at tuning out.

I do a behaviour management session every summer before camp with our youngest staff, using an air horn and candy. Every 30 seconds or so I blow the air horn — in their faces — and every minute or so I throw candy at them. The air horn is incredibly loud (almost painful), and yet, after about five or six times, they begin to ignore it. As for the candy, they become increasingly excited, and by about the fifth “candy throw,” they’re lunging for the Aero bars. Why? Because humans quickly learn to tune out repeated negative reinforcement, and they become increasingly responsive to positive reinforcement.

This truth of human nature helps us know what not to do about screen addiction. It underlines that fighting and nagging about it won’t work.

So what does?

Step one is to look at what you’re modelling, because monkey see, monkey do. What goes around comes around. Yell at your kids and they’ll be yellers. Be sarcastic and judgmental with them (or your spouse) and they’ll be that way too. It’s the same with screens.

What’s your “screen hygiene”?

Do you text at the dinner table? Check out your emails during family time? Talk on the phone while you’re driving with the kids? So will they.

So screens aren’t a kid problem. They’re a family problem. Your job is to decide if you want them in your life like that. Thinking about it is a good idea because you don’t want to look back on your way home from driving your kid to university and say to yourself that you squandered your time together on-line.

This calls for a family meeting. Like any other big decision that you want everyone in the family to honour, people take better care of a policy they create. Even a four-year-old can speak to this point. Small children have surprisingly clear opinions on their parents’ behaviour; we ignore them at our peril. A formal family meeting with a chair and an agenda will help everyone voice and clarify their thinking and wishes about “family screen policy.”

Let a kid chair the meeting and let another kid take minutes. Putting the parents in the back seat for once empowers children, which increases their investment in the process. A sample agenda might read:

What are our family screen habits? List them on paper for each person.

What does each family member think about these habits?

What does each person want, screen-wise, for themselves? For other family members?

A written negotiated plan for everyone’s screen use — when we do it and when we don’t. The “Family Screen Policy” will include everyone’s agreed-upon screen usage — and the negotiated consequences for breaking the policy. These (consequences) need to apply to parents as well as kids, or they have no effect.

After the family meeting, the Policy should be typed and posted on the fridge. Follow-up family meetings once a month will help keep people on track and allow for renegotiation of troublesome points. This is all about giving children voice, awareness of how their choices affect others … and responsibility — the big three of life skills.

Parenting columnist Joanne Kates is an expert educator in the areas of conflict mediation, self-esteem and anti-bullying, and she is the director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park.

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