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Internet Addiction

What to Do If Your Child Can't Stop Using Screens

9 strategies to use when your kids become too attached to screen time.

Key points

  • Technology companies design products that encourage children to stay engaged in screen time, even when it stops serving them.
  • Variable feedback, an absence of "stopping cues," and artificial goals can motivate children to stay on screens and may trigger compulsive use.
  • Kids and adults who recognize how tech companies want them glued to screens may feel empowered to resist, but often need strategies to do so.
  • Creating stopping cues, setting boundaries, and prioritizing other activities can help minimize problematic screen use.

Katie loves her social media. At the age of 16, there is nothing more important to her than her friends. She is on her phone and checking her social media from the minute she wakes up until the moment she falls asleep—and sometimes even in the middle of the night.

According to Katie, her grades have dropped because of the drama of her social media feeds and her inability to get away from her screen time. When her parents finally decided to take her phone away every night after dinner, she lost all emotional control the first night. She ended up in the local emergency room, where the attending physician suggested that she was showing emotional symptoms similar to those of addiction.

What should a parent do if their child can't seem to stop using screens? Probably not blame them! Many of the seemingly "addictive" behaviors kids and teens display are the result of technology companies doing everything in their power to keep people engaged in screen time.

By twenty20photos via Envato.
Source: By twenty20photos via Envato.

In his book Irresistible, The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, marketing expert Adam Alter describes the business model of companies such as Google, Facebook, and Apple as designed to keep people on their screens. He notes that they have “an army of people who are doing everything they can with considerable resources, with access to huge amounts of data, to ensure that we spend every spare minute on our phones.”

Alter identifies five characteristics of screen-based technologies that can lead to compulsive or seemingly uncontrollable behavior. These are elaborated on in other posts in this series and include:

  • Variable feedback—the uncertainty of when you’ll get a reward
  • Portability—the accessibility of our technologies
  • Absence of stopping cues—the lack of endpoints to let us know we are done
  • Artificial goals—the creation of goals that keep us on screens
  • Unresolved cliff-hangers—the need to know what will happen next on our screens

For many kids and teens, the lack of stopping cues in social media or in games like Fortnite—where as soon as one game ends, the next one starts—not only keeps them glued to their screens, but away from more important parts of their lives. The Time Well Spent movement has publicized how the lack of stopping cues keeps people from other fulfilling activities.

Fortunately, some companies, under pressure, have begun to introduce stopping features. For example, Instagram has a “you’re all caught up” message. The Screen Time app for Apple devices and the Family Link app for Android devices are examples of tools that provide regular feedback about the amount of time spent and the quality of one’s screen time.

However, information alone is not enough to manage the lack of stopping cues that can lead to overuse or compulsive screen time. If you can help your child experience a sense of outrage about how major technology companies are manipulating them, you take the blame away from them and begin to empower them to act on their own.

Here are nine strategies to use when your kids can’t stop screen time:

  1. Encourage them to play more games that include stopping cues and have clear endings, or that can be finished in one sitting.
  2. Let them create their own stopping cues with a timer. Be sure they make a habit of using a timer for online activity.
  3. Designate times for them to check social media for a set number of minutes.
  4. Set an example by binging only when you have time and it serves you—for example, on a rainy day or after a long week of studying or work. Ensure that they follow your example.
  5. Make sleep more important than screens in your home. To help prevent technology from dictating your family’s health, remember what Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, said: “Netflix is competing with sleep.”
  6. Turn off the lights, internet, and phones at a set time every night. You’ll need cooperation from all family members.
  7. Serve small portions of online time as if they were eating dessert. They have to choose to go back for more.
  8. Make other activities more important. When other leisure time is more compelling than screen time, it’s much easier to stop.
  9. Do not allow in-game purchases. These purchases prolong games and make it easier to continue play.

Getting your kids to see themselves as “victims” of technology companies can be a mixed bag. But once they see themselves as having the power to build their own stopping cues, they can take charge of their screen time, rather than vice versa.

More from Randy Kulman Ph.D.
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