Technology addiction can be a problem for people of all ages. But to a child’s developing brain, vision, and sense of self-worth, too much screen time and social media can be damaging. There are ways to address your child’s technology addiction – without overwhelming or punishing them.
Technology is growing and changing just as quickly as our children. With constant exposure to screens, it’s only natural for a parent to be concerned about what all this screen time is doing to our children.
Research shows that the physical structure of the brain actually changes with repeated experiences.
But it’s not so much the experiences that are as important as what the child makes of them that creates this blueprint for brain development.
How Screen Time Affects Brain Development
Each time a child has an experience, nerve impulses are fired in the brain. With repeated experiences, these neural pathways are fired over and over again. The more frequently neural connections are used (impulses are fired), the stronger they become.
So, a child who watches TV, plays video games, or scrolls social media regularly will have a physically different brain than a child who doesn’t.
Similarly, areas of the brain that are not regularly used can fall out of practice. When neural connections aren’t fired habitually, they eventually stop firing at all. (Have you noticed that some children who text as their primary means of communication eventually develop poor face-to-face communication skills?)
This is the brain’s way of “pruning” neural pathways to maintain efficiency. Energy is focused where energy is used. In a developing child, it is important to provide experiences that fire connections in all areas of the brain so that it matures fully.
In order to teach kids the skills that will help them be successful in life, we must engage them in those skills on a regular basis so their brains will develop the appropriate connections.
What Does Technology Addiction in Kids Look Like?
Here are some signs your child is addicted to technology…
- can’t entertain self without electronics
- disconnecting results in tantrums or high level of irritation
- develops a negative attitude toward non-screen activities or spending time in nature
- can’t manage guidelines surrounding electronics
Older kids are entering a digital world with social issues connected to cyber bullying with texting, social media, adult content websites, and violent video games. We are just beginning to learn the trickle effect of advanced time spent connected to screens and children plugged into technology.
Once you realize that the very people who invented these addicting forms of technology don’t let their own children use them or social media, you’ll wonder why it’s ok for your child.
As a parent – and the one who buys devices, games, and apps – you control your child’s access to technology.
Sometimes things get out of hand before we realize what happened. Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s never too late to reframe your family’s tech rules from an attached parenting approach.
Here’s an exceptional guide to setting effective screen limits for your child.
How to Prevent or Fix Technology Addiction
These suggestions work whether your child has an actual addiction to devices or seems to be developing a less than healthy relationship with them.
The key is to be upbeat and excited about non-screen activities. Don’t use them as a punishment or you may end up making screens even more attractive to them.
1. Don’t view screens as shut-up toys
While there are sometimes situations where it’s easier to let your child watch a movie or play a game on your phone, let these be the exception rather than the norm. And try not to offer a device when your child is bored.
When my oldest child repeatedly asked to use my phone when he was bored, I would respond by starting a conversation that stimulated his imagination or would encourage him to go outside and play or explore. I told him I’m always open to talking with him and that I want to hear his thoughts and opinions. That conversation (and a few reminders) ended the habit he had formed of always asking for my phone out of boredom.
2. Give your child more freedom
The summer months are ideal for getting outside more and sitting in front of a screen less. This is the best tip for an older child who can’t get enough video games. Give them the freedom to free-range hang out with a trusted friend, visit a local park, or just to explore!
Start with short intervals and let them enjoy exploring on their own. As a mom learning to encourage free-range play, it’s difficult to not feel panic at first. I stay positive by thinking of free-range play as a gift I can give my children to help them grow and discover the beauty of play and nature through their own eyes and experiences.
3. Host electronic-free play dates
We’ve all seen the effect of one child pulling out an iPad and suddenly all social interaction is lost with a group of children. Request that electronic gadgets don’t accompany guests or play dates when you are hosting.
If you need some ideas for helping your child and their friends have low tech fun, try a few of these 50+ screen free activities for kids.
4. Use low-level technology to encourage a nature-averse child
Here’s where tech can be useful for bigger kids. Have an old digital camera? Children love to take pictures and you can create amazing eye-spy games and hunts.
Head out with an age appropriate nature scavenger hunt printable. Little kids can spend hours searching for treasures. And big kids like to get competitive or enjoy teamwork.
Another tool to getting kids outdoors is geocaching. It’s a digital style treasure hunt that involves an app, GPS, or simply following clues and instructions.
Time spent in nature is incredibly important for physical and mental health. If you need to take baby steps to get kids outside, every little bit counts.
5. Make meal time screen-free
Do you leave the TV on during dinner time?
It’s worth considering whether you use technology to occasionally enhance family time – like listening to music quietly during dinner, enjoying movies or online games that can be played together. Or is it something that distracts us from each other and only serves to connect us with people outside our homes?
Keeping meal time screen free encourages your kids to talk more. You’ll often get more information about your child’s day after they’ve had time to process it. And never underestimate the power of family meal time for bonding.
6. Encourage mindfulness
When you really think about it, our phones are the best way to avoid reality. Games, videos, and constant scrolling takes us out of the present moment. In fact, our phones have been compared to having a slot machine in our pockets – one that many people check up to 150 times per day for that little dopamine hit.
If our phone is escapism, the perfect antidote is mindfulness. Mindfulness is all about being aware of the present moment and conscious of what is.
When we are mindful, we aren’t constantly trying to stifle our emotions or hide from an unpleasant thought or feeling. Meditation has been shown to be extremely beneficial to kids and an effective tool against technology addiction. Plus a recent study found that elementary school-aged children who practiced mindfulness training slept an average of 74 extra minutes a night.
Try reading one of these guided meditation scripts to your child before bed time or any time they’d like to practice mindfulness and deep relaxation.
7. Look at your own habits
What example are you teaching children with your relationship to electronics? When you have idle time – how do you spend it? If you are checking your phone and needing constant stimuli, it might be time to wean yourself down from your own technology addiction.
Need something to keep hands busy and productive? Take up a hobby like gardening, playing an instrument, yoga, or reading physical books.
Give everyone transition time from work or school to home life. An object in motion stays in motion. Consciously try to slow down a little and allow some decompression time to make the transition. Even 20 minutes can make a difference.
Watch yourself through the eyes of your child and show them that you are willing to detox from electronics, too. Sometimes we need to reevaluate technology and the huge advancements and accessibility to understand how connected we’ve become.
Righting the Wrongs of Allowing Too Much Screen Time
Here’s how writer and mom Whitney Fleming recognized her family was in an unhealthy relationship with technology since the pandemic and what she did about it (as posted to her social media):
I was chatting with some friends on our beach vacation, and they commented on how little time my teens were spending on their phones.
“I’d pay good money to get my kid off their phone,” they said. “How’d you do it?”
I replied, “It wasn’t easy. I had to show them that there were things worth doing that weren’t on their phones – even when I didn’t feel like it.”
And they countered: “But don’t you remember how we never had to be told how to fill our time? We just did it.”
That’s when I said, “Yeah, but we didn’t grow up with iPads on car trips and every toy lighting up and a phone to play with at every juncture. I know how hard it is for me to put my phone down, and I remember a time without them. They don’t.”
You see, when my kids were babies, I would watch my mom would get down on the floor with them and play. I just wasn’t into it and always wanted them to occupy themselves for a few minutes so I could do dishes or pick up a few things.
She would show them how to stack blocks and how dolls could have tea parties and how a box could become an airplane. She worked as a nursery school teacher many years ago and explained how kids sometimes need to be taught how to use their imagination and learn to play.
She used to say, “It takes time, but it will pay off later when they can entertain themselves.” And she was right. Eventually, my kids did learn to play by themselves more, and I was so appreciative my mom showed me how to do that.
About 18 months ago, I realized my teens were in a bad place with their phones from the pandemic. I often found them in their rooms mindlessly scrolling or watching videos for hours. When I asked them to put their phones down, they usually would, but only to roam around our house moody and sullen until I found them back up on their beds an hour later.
I knew something had to change. I had to teach them things to do without their phones.
So, instead of simply telling them to put their devices down, I would say, “Hey, let’s go thrifting.” Or, “I looked up a new trail to hike.” Or, “Let’s watch an episode of that show you like.” Or “Do you want to go to the bookstore with me?” Or “Sure, I’ll drive you and your friend to X.”
Anytime they expressed an interest in something that didn’t have to do with their phone, I tried to pounce on it.
When my daughter said she wished she didn’t quit piano, I dug our old keyboard out and showed her an app where she could learn her favorite songs. When another said she loved live music, I tried to find every opportunity to take her to some free concerts. When another said she needed volunteer hours, we did a few opportunities together.
Don’t kid yourself. My three teenagers did not welcome these opportunities with open arms and phrases like, “Oh, mom, you are the best! Thank you so much for limiting my screen time!”
It was exhausting for me to work and try to fill their phone void. I had to sacrifice a lot of my free time and the things that I wanted to do for myself. I had to endure a lot — A LOT — of eye rolls and sighs and how they could turn the word “mom” into three syllables.
But I kept at it.
And excruciatingly slowly, I noticed a change.
One day, my daughter asked if she could get some books from the library, so I dropped her off while I ran an errand. She plowed through an entire series, and I tried not to make it a big deal (although I was so happy I could have cried.)
A few days later, two of my daughters and their friends went to watch the sunset with a picnic for a few hours at a local park while the other had some friends over for s’mores. The only time I saw the phones out was to take some pictures.
They are now starting to fill their own voids in healthy ways.
Don’t get me wrong. They spend PLENTY of time on their phones still, but when I talk to them about it, they’ve definitely made progress.
I was surprised when at the beginning of the summer, one of my almost-18-year-olds told me she didn’t want to keep her phone in her room at night because she found it too distracting. And my other daughter said she took Instagram off her phone “for now” because she didn’t like the way it made her feel.
And now, when they have a bad day, or I can tell something is wrong, I don’t see them rushing into their bedrooms and sitting on their phones all night. I see them going for a jog, taking the dog for a walk, or sometimes even journaling.
I don’t think they would have made these healthy choices if they didn’t know what it felt like not to be tethered to their phones. They no longer use them to soothe their minds or hearts.
Here’s the thing: We can complain about technology, phones, and social media. We can focus on how different things were when we were growing up. We can try to put all the monitoring software and screen time limitations we want on their devices.
OR we can do something about it. We can teach them how to live life in a different way.
I’m not saying it’s easy. But I am saying they are worth it.
Find more from Whitney in her book, Loving Hard When They’re Hard to Love: Raising Teens in Today’s Complex, Chaotic World
You got this. It’s never too late to change the tech rules in your house, and it’s never too late to model the behavior you want to see. And it’s true – there’s no app that can replace the importance of time spent in nature and with other humans.