Managing kids with computers and smartphones - defense against the digital distractors

My children use the Kindle, iPad, iPhone, skype, computers and Xbox better than I do and I work in the industry. For years, we have restricted the amount of time they are allowed on a screen – 2 hours per day on the weekend, no time except for schoolwork during the week.

They loose track of time on the machines. They are angry when told that they have to stop using the machines. And they are distraught when machine time is over because they worry that they’ll have nothing to do.

It’s compulsive behavior and when your child hides their usage, lies about it or simply is unhappy unless they are online, it’s scary (although it is not a DSM-5 mental health disorder so I'm not sure "addiction" is the right word and I'm certainly not using it in any clinical/diagnostic type way - just descriptive). For some background on the topic, please see internet addition in teenagers and depression, ADHD and internet addition

It’s not new – we had video games when we were kids and some people spent hours on them.  The difference is that the machines are pervasive today. And a lot of our kids don’t have the judgment and discipline to moderate their use of the devices.  Virtually every parent I talk to is struggling with how to manage the pervasive digital onslaught.

My son’s school gave him a MacBook in sixth grade (which is an incredible privledge). And he is distracted by it, constantly. Even if its just switching tabs in Chrome, he’s compelled to do it in the middle of a sentence and loses his train of thought. He races through his work so that he can sneak more time watching YouTube movies of Minecraft and Pokemon.   He’s too young for Facebook and we didn’t let him put SnapChat on his phone. He doesn’t write down what he has to do for homework because he can check the computer – and then he doesn’t remember what he reads on the computer and has to check again.

It’s terrifying. 

We’re trying to teach him that he needs time to focus and complete his work. We’re trying to figure out how to motivate him to do a good job – not race to get to the finish line so he can do something more entertaining with his computer or phone.

We needed to create times when playing with the computer is simply not an option. One option was to watch him (literally, over his shoulder) do 1-2 hours of homework a night and ensure he isn’t stroking his pleasure cortex with movies or games.  Not a sustainable option - so we’ve been implementing tools to help set boundaries that I can slowly loosen as he develops judgment and digital self-control.   It may not be what is right for every family, but hopefully this information can help some of you.

First – dealing with the smartphone he used his birthday money to buy.

  1. We have the password.
  2. No phone in the car, so that he communicates with the other passengers. 
  3. No phone in his room.
  4. ParentKit, a subscription iPhone app, lets us control when he can use apps on his phone (or download apps, make in-app purchases, etc.).
  5. Verizon FamilyBase lets us control when he can text and call – and who he can always text and call. That would be me, my husband and our au pair.

Second – the computer.

  1. The phone is not used in his room.
  2. We have the password.
  3. Skydog, a networking device, will control what URLs he can visit and when.  It will also show me what URLs he has visited.

Computers and smartphones are powerful tools and they distract adults with the maturity to better allocate their time.  How many times do you realize you’ve wasted 30 minutes or more when you thought it was five? Magnified by the maturity of an adolescent.  What tools are working for you?