If electronic devices are addictive for adults, what must be happening to our children?
New technologies can be a great help for many people. In my work as a neuropsychologist, I use various programs to improve the memories of patients with amnesia, give a voice to patients who cannot speak, or record the frequency and duration of epileptic crises.
However, we also know that these devices can interfere with normal brain functions, such as attention, concentration, or self-control, and that most experts recommend they not be used by children, especially during the first years of a person’s life.
Another aspect of the use of tablets and smartphones on the part of small children that worries many experts is that there are various studies that show that they can be addictive. This effect has been proven in adults, and, although it’s not known precisely what effect these devices can have on small children, we suspect that they can have an even greater impact, since children’s brains are still developing. If your small children use these devices, you may well have noticed how they demand to use the phone at all hours of the day, they get angry if you don’t give it to them, or they lose control when we ask them to give it back.
Now, maybe your child is looking at things on the phone and playing with it 5 to 15 minutes per day and does not get angry if you ask for the phone back, or doesn’t demand to use it at various moments and in various contexts throughout the day. If that’s the case, then maybe this post isn’t necessary for you, because it seems that both you and your child manage it well. But if at some point you’ve asked yourself how you can help your child “disconnect” from these devices, I have some steps that can help you.
Your first reaction might be to think that the easiest solution is to cut things short, take the smartphone away from your children, and forbid them to ever use it again. For practical purposes, this can be effective, but really, children aren’t going to understand the suddenness of this decision (“Why could I play with Mom’s phone all I wanted yesterday, and today it’s bad?”), and they could experience withdrawal symptoms that could be difficult to bear (both for the children and for the rest of the family).
The truth is, there’s no way to explain to young children who are practically addicted to a device the need to cut off or limit its use in such a way that they will accept it willingly without throwing a temper tantrum or getting angry. So the main goal is just to make the situation a bit easier.
1. Explain to the child what is going to happen
You don’t have to get melodramatic and use phrases like “never, ever” or “never again will you …” We can simply tell our children that they are going to use the tablet less, or that they will no longer be able to play with mom’s or dad’s smartphone.
2. Choose the right day
Normally, children have the habit of playing more with these devices when they are at home. In order to help them to disconnect from this habit, it will be very helpful to get out of the house or be in different environments. For this reason, it is better to start weaning children off the device during a sunny week when you can take them outside, instead of a rainy week you’re all more likely to be stuck indoors.
3. Avoid the circumstances
Since we tend to use these devices most in our own home, try to get out of the house, whether it be Grandma’s house or a park or playground. If your children are used to eating lunch or dinner in the kitchen and using the phone, move the meal to the living room, because the change of setting will help the child accept the lack of the device.
4. Avoid the trigger
It’s much easier for children to be calm without putting their hands on a tablet or cell phone if the device isn’t visible. It’s a matter of common sense, although some parents don’t take it into account. So, for a few days, the most sensible thing may be not to have smartphones, tablets, or game consoles in sight.
One of the reasons why it’s difficult for many children to detach themselves from these devices is that they see their parents using them. If you want to help your children to cope with the discomfort of not playing with the device, few things can help them as much as keeping your phone out of sight in your pocket or handbag, instead of having it in your hand all day — and playing with your children instead.
6. When you’re in the setting where the device is usually used, offer incompatible alternatives
The periods of time children spend indoors at home and other times when they are accustomed to playing with the device tend to be the most difficult. At those times, direct them toward activities that are totally incompatible with playing with the device.
Any activity that keeps their hands busy, such as drawing, modeling Play-Doh, playing “horsey” on mom’s or dad’s back, walking, climbing a tree, or riding a tricycle, is a good alternative. All these activities are “incompatible” with using a device, and will help children not to be thinking about their desire to be play with it. If the setting is dinnertime, substitute the device with games like “I spy” or singing songs.
You can also read them a story, because although you’re really still playing the distraction game … the transition will be easier, and books are more beneficial for children because they help them to enrich their vocabulary and their reading and writing skills.
7. Encourage your children to find alternative activities on their own
They will miss the devices when they’re bored. So offer alternatives at these times, and help them to use their imaginations and think of how they can entertain themselves. Ask them if they’d prefer to draw or play with LEGOs, or if they want you to read them a story, or if they’d rather play with their favorite dinosaurs; or, you can ask if they’d like to dress up, or make a fort in the living room, or play hide-and-seek.
8. Positively reinforce progress and screen-free time, using affection and play
Few things are so effective at helping children to feel good about themselves and strengthen their self-confidence, as receiving affection and playing with their parents. Rewarding device-free time with affection and with moments of quality mother-child or father-child time will make children associate device-free times with their moments of greatest enjoyment, and will help them to forget more quickly their “connection” with their devices.
9. Do not punish
Children, especially if they’re between 2 and 4 years old, can experience very frustrating moments if they’re accustomed to playing with devices at all hours of the day, and suddenly from one day to the next they find that they don’t have access to the mobile device with the same frequency as before. It’s totally natural and normal. They will get angry and frustrated, and will have temper tantrums. Instead of getting mad at them, the best response to help them overcome this frustration is to be patient, understand them, and help them swallow the bitter pill with love and trust.
10. Firmness, love, and patience
All children can overcome this habit and can live and grow up happily without using their parents’ phones or tablets at all hours of the day. In due time, they’ll be old enough to use a mobile phone responsibly. In order to achieve this, it’s just as important to combine clear limits, rules and, firmness with big doses of love, affection, and quality time. Acting with understanding, affection, and patience will help children to accept the new rules.
I know that sitting your kids down with a touchscreen can be very convenient from time to time; I’m often tempted as well. But as a professional, I encourage you to limit device use as much as possible. I have three children, and I know that sometimes it’s hard to feed them or wait at the pediatrician’s office without putting a screen in front of them, but I believe that it’s really an effort that’s worth the sacrifice. The “complicated” moment you experience today will have long-term positive effects, giving them a greater capacity for concentration and patience in the future!
This article was originally published in the Spanish Edition of Aleteia.