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Screens and Self-Control

Modern society struggles with self-control around the use of devices and technology. At home, if you parent, these struggles intensify as adults and kids react with irritability, anger and hostility when interrupted on a device, or told to turn off a device to do homework, get dinner made or get to bed.

“It’s like my kid is a drug addict,” says one parent. “The more she consumes technology, the harder it is to get her to turn it off.”

An adolescent commented, “My dad says not to text and drive, but that’s what he does driving me to school in the morning.”

girl-691105_1280The University of San Francisco’s (USF) Center for Child and Family Development, recently hosted an event showing Screenagers, a documentary about the impact of technology on family life. The event attracted over 240 parents, kids, teachers, professors, graduate students, clinicians and those working with kids in many different capacities.

Screenagers is trending across the country because the message strikes a chord with all of us who parent, teach, counsel or support kids in any manner. This film compiles research, presenting it in a way that has shock value for parents, yet is digestible for kids. One shocking  study done in 2005 with eighth graders found that a developed ability of self-control  is a better predictor of success in school than intelligence.

If we have known for over a decade that self-discipline is important for kids, why aren’t we teaching it in schools? Parents are starting, and rightly so, to question how schools are managing technology. A parent recently asked me why schools don’t manage devices, such as phones, more. We have to move past blaming anyone and start supporting schools, parents and kids with holding boundaries and developing self-control, to model what we are trying to teach.

professor reflected to me recently, “I have all but given up. The other day, I showed a 15 minute TedTalk to my freshman college students and within three minutes, about 90 percent of my class was on a device.” He went on to say, “I teach to the ones who have the self-control to learn.”

I see many adolescents in my practice who know how to get past settings on school tablets, to download apps or hide apps they like to play while “doing homework.” Many kids trick parents by saying that homework needs to be done with WiFi on, so at the same time, they can chat with friends, watch Youtube and maybe, just maybe, finish that essay or complete a few math problems. These kids are losing sleep and not getting enough exercise.

While the case is strong for alarm, let’s shift our gears and accelerate into action. How do you address technology in your home? First, think about the technology rules in your house. What time do devices get turned off? When is WiFi allowed? What apps are on the device; are they age appropriate? Where is the device used?

In your home it is important to establish reasonable rules regarding technology. Many kids need technology to complete homework because a school has issued a tablet or laptop. However, the schools are not usually assigning hours of YouTube watching.

If your kid has lied about technology, you are not alone. The lying is a part of hiding the behavior, to “protect” the adolescent’s ego because s/he knows s/he is violating a rule around it in your home. Move past the lying dialogue and start addressing the issue.

These devices are addictive, and an adolescent brain is craving the stimulation the device provides. The brain gets rewarded when using a device. Think about your own device use. Your kid may feel pleasure, zone out, be entertained or feel more relaxed. These are powerful reward experiences to pull away from, when homework or a project loom.  

The main thing to remember is NOT to expect a kid to manage screen usage on her or his own yet.

Build your kid’s awareness around consumption of device usage. One kid acknowledged to his parent, “I get distracted when I look up something up on YouTube and start watching a cool video.”

Talk openly and honestly with kids about device use, including your own struggles. Think of device use as “consumption.” Kids know from health class that too much sugar or caffeine may make them physically feel different and is not healthy in large amounts. Screen time works the same way. So, kids need to learn not to consume too much screen time, but to prioritize other things in life, such as sleep, spending time with friends, schoolwork, physical activity and finding balance.

Find a good time to begin the conversation, to start talking calmly with your adolescent about healthy habits regarding the use of technology. Make a plan together, and get buy-in from your kids. It’s going to be tough at times to hold to the house rules, but eventually, kids will learn to appreciate and understand that having balance works out in their favor to reach their goals!

Guess what, the parents I see who are NOT struggling, all have one thing in common: they talk to their kids, and they hold fast to a plan, enforcing agreed upon and reasonable rules about devices use in the home. You can, too!

Maryellen Mullin

Maryellen Mullin

Maryellen P. Mullin is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC45966) in San Francisco and runs Messy Parenting: providing workshops, strategies and methods for those who bravely parent to make family life less muddled and more joy-filled!

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