Protecting Your Child From Screen Addiction – 5 Helpful Tips

Many parents are worried about their kids spending too much time on electronics these days. Whether watching youtube videos, playing games on a smartphone, or surfing some website that their teacher assigned, it seems that screen time has become ubiquitous. While some parents accept this as the new status quo, others really want to do something to change the path that their little ones somehow got on. These parents often didn’t intend for electronics to become such a big part of their child’s upbringing, but now that it’s happened they don’t know what to do about it. If this is you, read on to find out how you can wean your child off so much screen time and literally change their life— and keep in mind, it will change your life too!

1. Avoid using electronics as a reward for anything.

When we do this as parents, we are sending the message that electronics are so wonderful that they deserve to be placed above all else, and given the status of “reward”. The child already gets this message from the rest of the world- but you can send another message. There is only one thing that children naturally place above all else: you! Time with you, playing with you, going out omewhere with you, and having you enjoy them is the biggest reward for your child – although you both may have forgotten this.

  • Make yourself the reward by choosing ways to have fun together as rewards for whatever you are now using electronics for.
  • If you have been using TV, iPhone, etc. for rewarding good behavior, phase out the electronics rewards first, wait a week or two, and then begin your new rewards system that basically shows your child that they more they help out, cooperate, etc., the more time and energy their parents have for them. And then make sure that you give them the reward of uninterrupted time with you— and don’t bring your smartphone. See our blog on effective rewards programs for more details on how to make reinforcement most effective for your child.

2. Model a non-electronic existence at least part of the time.

Do as much of your texting, emailing, surfing, etc. out of your child’s presence. When you have time at home together, intentionally plan other activities for yourself that show your child what more there is to life than plugging in or zoning out in front of a screen. Read. Cook. Organize a shelf. Roll coins. Sew or knit if you know how. Learn to sew or knit if you don’t know how. Glue broken things back together. Do the things that you want them to learn to do and invite them to join, give them a job that they can do (and mess up) on their own, and resist the urge to correct how they do it…let them just get comfortable with doing things that take time, practice, and patience without instant feedback like their video games give them.

3. Be willing to let your house get messy— and stay messy.

Parents often say they are willing to do anything to get their kids off the hours and hours of electronics. Well, one thing that consistently looks different about homes with children not addicted to electronics is that the home looks lived in. There need to be art supplies, a craft table, reading nooks (and books at their developmental level and slightly above), building toys, board games, cards, etc. etc. All of these things will look more messy than a smartphone or computer. Ask yourself what is more important to you: having a perfectly tidy home or your child learning to do things other than sit in one spot and look at a screen? If this is going to work, parents need to be willing to allow their child to interact with aterials and with the environment— and you can worry (or not) about the mess later. Or just designate spaces for ongoing projects and work on dealing with your anxiety about messy places 

4. Plan stimulating off-screen time.

When you decide that it’s time for your child to start doing something other than rely on artificial intelligence for their stimulation, you need to replace this with other stimulating activities. At first, it’s very much like you are taking away a drug or a crutch from someone used to using it— you need to have things in place to replace it. Also, our kids are not used to filling up their own time with creative activities—they may not have had much practice with that. So a little help with it will go a long way.

  • Think of what kids do and play when they aren’t hypnotized by screens…outdoor play, roughhousing, imaginative play, following adults around, reading stories, writing stories, getting into mischief, getting out of mischief, building something, spending time with their friends.
  • Now think of all of the 2014 obstacles to your child actually doing these things…your fears about their safety playing outdoors (see next item on this list), your worries about them knocking something over when they get too energized indoors, the fact that their toys are somewhere neatly hidden, that you’re not used to having a kid follow you around when you need to make dinner, email that client, pay that bill, and haven’t used your gym membership in a week so you are super-stressed, etc. etc.
  • One step at a time, address each obstacle. For example, designate time to complete the tasks that you really need to be alone for when your child is busy with something else (at first, this may take a while, because you may both be so used to them getting busy with electronics). The other tasks, such as making dinner: get them involved! Give them jobs. Remember how you had to help your mom check the credit card statements each month? Or help your dad re-organize the tool box? If you don’t remember these things, you are likely younger than I am— so take it from someone older and wiser: kids need to learn to do these things and the best way is for you to let them help you!

5. Find a way to get your kid outdoors.

In 2014, children in Canada are not free. They aren’t free to walk to a friend’s house, to the store to buy gum, to the park to play, or even to school and back. Why? If you think it’s because the “world has changed” and “it’s just not safe anymore”, think again. The fact is, our children are literally the safest children who have lived anywhere in the world at anytime in history. Children in Paris skateboard around the city when they are 7 or 8 years old; children in the suburbs of Rome go out and play football for hours when they are that age or younger if an older neighbourhood kid or sibling is with them. Yes, life is different here in Toronto and it’s not always for the better of our kids. We hear all the time that kids need more outdoor play, more unstructured time, more physical activity. Trouble is, they can’t get it in our society unless we (or other adults) are out there with them. So even if we can’t get ourselves to give our kids a little of the freedom that children all around the world enjoy, we need to get out there with them! Or, do what some parents have started doing in the city: having one adult take turns watching a group of neighbourhood kids as they play, and rotating this so that the kids get more outdoor time and you keep your sanity.

Try these methods out and give it time— most likely, having your child occupied with electronics has become a habit for both of you. But if you really ready for a change and want them to enjoy some time off the screens, you have the power and influence to make it happen— and may end up with a much healthier and happier kid for it.