Dear Crucial Skills,
My fourteen-year-old son seems to be addicted to electronics. If we let him, he will spend ten hours a day on his tablet, computer, or XBOX. I want him to choose to do other things, and to do something worthwhile over the summer. Is there a better approach than “cold turkey”?
Parent of an e-addict
I like the way you framed your objective: “I want him to choose to do other things.” That’s a completely different influence problem from “I want him to stop.” As a father of six children, I have often been tempted to go for the quick fix of the latter rather than the steady influence of the former.
The latter could be accomplished by simply spilling iced tea on the problematic devices, then feigning remorse as they short out in a puff of smoke. The former will require not only more thought, but more patience and character on your part.
1. Is the problem the problem? Before you decide that electronic games are the problem, do your best to determine whether games are a way of medicating against or isolating from some other problem—like bullying, depression, anxiety, loneliness, or other social or emotional problems.
2. “Addiction” isn’t a metaphor. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry . . . . This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.” Some evidences that a behavior has become “addictive” include: “inability to consistently abstain, feelings of craving, and diminished recognition of negative consequences of one’s behaviors.” You don’t need to ingest a substance to develop addiction. Behaviors alone can similarly contribute to brain reward circuitry impairment. My personal belief is that many of us (including myself) have unhealthy relationships with technology that create negative emotional and relationship consequences. So let me applaud you for your sensitivity to the potential developmental damage technology can do to your son.
3. Interview, don’t lecture. Don’t begin the conversation with your son using conclusions and wisdom (e.g. “I think you’ve got a problem” or “Reading is better for your brain”). Instead, come in with curiosity and a desire to connect. Trust is permission to influence—and he controls the granting or withholding of trust. Show an interest in his interests. Spend time with him. Affirm him. And when sufficient safety exists, broach the topic. “Hugh,” you might say, “on a scale of 1-10, how satisfied are you with the way you spend your time? How confident are you that it is taking you where you want to be and creating the life you want right now?” He might be defensive when you first ask this. He may suspect it is a manipulative tactic to open the way for your judgment or lecture. If so, reassure him it isn’t. Be honest that you have feelings on the topic, but push your agenda aside, and sincerely open yourself to his feelings. If he answers, “Well, okay, I guess. Maybe a six,” you now have some common ground to discuss. “Wow. Really? I would have thought you’d say a ten. What makes you less than perfectly satisfied with how you’re spending time?” Your only hope of helping him make different choices is to honor his feelings and autonomy from the first conversation. Interview, don’t lecture. This does not mean you can’t express opinions at times, but keep your airtime in careful balance with his interests.
4. Wake him, don’t make him. In order to sustain bad habits we must maintain ignorance of their consequences. If you want to help him “choose” differently, you’ll have to help him experience the downside of his habit as viscerally as he now experiences the upside. What he knows today is that grabbing a controller and logging into a game is associated with feelings of engagement, enjoyment, social connection (if he plays online games), mastery, and perhaps safe solitude. If he is to choose something different he will need to feel that other choices will create better consequences. This is tricky. But it’s also a fundamental problem you need to solve. The first step is to help him engage in experiences that will awaken him to either the negative consequences of his current choices, or the positive consequences of other choices. For example, you could ask him to conduct an experiment to help him become more mindful of his experience.
Emotion tracking. See if he would be willing to keep a simple journal of how he feels before and after playing games for long periods. Be prepared in advance that some of his journal entries will confirm the positive emotions he feels while playing. Have him similarly experiment with other activities (some enjoyable family activity, an outing with friends, etc.) and report how he feels during and after. Talk openly with each other about this data as a way of helping him make more conscious choices.
Abstinence Test. Share the definition of addiction. Invite him to experiment in discovering his own way to discern healthy gaming and unhealthy gaming by attempting a brief abstention experiment and recording his feelings during it. Discuss openly how it felt and what that means to him.
What could be better? Invite him to think of activities that might create more enjoyment and health that could be far more fun for him than gaming. Encourage and support him in experimenting with a single attempt at an activity, then discuss his experience.
5. There’s a difference between forcing him to change and refusing to enable. Realize that you are an accomplice in his choices. You are subsidizing his choices by maintaining home duties for him, providing the equipment, providing the comfortable environment, etc. You need to accept responsibility for how you are providing a structural influence that makes gaming easy by providing devices. You don’t have to do this. In fact, you shouldn’t. You should have boundaries with everything you offer. Just because you provide a bed doesn’t mean you have to consent to him lying in it twenty-four hours a day. Providing food doesn’t mean you have to serve up Twinkies every time he wants them. You get to say, “Here’s what I’m willing to offer—and no more.” Now, since your objective is to influence his choices, not control his behavior, I’d suggest you strike a balance by differentiating between boundaries and advice. You might say, for example, “I think it would be wise to limit your use to an hour or so per day. That’s something you’ll have to decide. However, I am willing to provide the opportunity for you to play up to three hours per day—and five on weekends—provided your grades are good and your homework is finished.” I offer this as an illustration, not as a sound position to take.
I admire your desire to think about long-term influence rather than short-term compliance. My worst moments as a parent have been when I was more interested in behavior than growth. I believe that if you reflect on some of what I shared, and keep an eye on what you really want, you’ll find a way to help him grow in the way only a loving and discerning parent can.