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Regulating cell phone hours can teach young adolescents to manage their frustration. Psychotherapist Didier Pleux, author of Développer le self-control de ses enfants (Develop your child’s self-control), provides advice on the issue.
Why do parents find it so difficult to regulate screen time?
Didier Pleux: Unlike television or computers, teenagers carry their cell phone on them like a piece of clothing. It allows them to live their own lives, even escaping from family and relationships. It’s an extreme case, but I just met with a mother who had limited the time her young teenager spent on his cell phone because his grades were slipping, and he went to the police station to complain of parental abuse. We have to explain to children that the cell phone is a tool for communication, not an inalienable right.
Can parents go so far as to take screens completely away?
Yes, when a teenager is not able to control his screen usage by himself; for example, if he is surfing the web for pornography. In general, parents should be empathetic with their children, but parents also have the right to disagree and contradict them. With an autonomous child, who uses his cell phone to send messages to friends, managing screen time is not a problem. The problem concerns the more susceptible children, those who are easily influenced and those who do not tolerate frustration well. Without adult mediation, they go to sites that are immediately suggested or play video games for hours, engaging in the principle of immediate gratification. If the youngster surfs in sites forbidden to minors or uses it in an abusive sense, why should we let them have the cell phone?
If we take away their smartphone, they will be able to use Internet at a friend’s house, which defeats the purpose.
Yes, but having to do this somewhere else and without parental approval makes all the difference, because they know they are disobeying their parents.
What would a “family code of good conduct” for the smartphone look like?
It would be a contract decided on by the parents, which would specify the time for using the cell phone, similar to the hours for other activities. Giving a cell phone without limits implies self-regulation, but will an 11-12 year old child left to their own devices naturally choose the right thing? Sexual solicitations, for example, are numerous on the internet, and ill-intentioned peers are happy to explain to novices how to connect to these sites.
Once you have regulated the schedule for internet access, how can you help them manage the frustration they feel with this?
You have to start soon, otherwise it becomes a constant war. Limiting their freedom on the internet is not meant to punish, deprive them of freedom, or provoke tantrums; it is meant to raise the child’s threshold of tolerance, to teach them to learn to do this on their own. Do they help at home, take part in meals, take care of their dirty clothes? If they have no regular schedule or duties to do and are fed whenever it suits them, how could they suddenly accept a total deprivation of their cell phone? Parents must teach their child the rules of real life and a sense of effort, in accordance with their age. We can authorize their access to the internet after having discussed it with them and asking them for what they intend to use it for.
Do you mean that at some point it’s too late to limit your child’s screen time by taking away the cell phone?
If the parents are themselves plugged into screens all day long, it will be more difficult. It is also less consistent to take away the screen if the children have no limits in other areas, if their ego has been overdeveloped, if they are unable to learn in class. Everything in a child’s life is connected, and if he or she is still living in a world of easy pleasure, even the slightest amount of frustration becomes intolerable. If the child is self sufficient in having fun, aren’t they capable of walking the dog, setting the table, being responsible for a family task, earning pocket money? These small actions help them avoid developing an intolerance to frustration. The Scouts, for example, is an excellent school of life. Making a fire, setting up camp, preparing food: scouts derive greater pleasure from learning how to do things themselves versus idle teenagers to whom everything is served without question. In the same way, a religious education makes it possible in principle to transcend the law of the ego, to feel that one is not somehow above everything.
How does frustration work at the psychological and neurological level?
The primary emotional brain is programmed for pleasure, eating, survival, and sleep. If a child is not used to postponing pleasure, the cortex, that is, their rational intelligence, weakens. Flooded with immediate pleasure, unable to resist it, he or she then becomes more likely to develop an addiction. The immature child needs a moral authority to stop their impulse (the “id” in psychoanalysis). At first, the parents are in charge of that; then, the conscience normally takes over. The balance between pleasure and displeasure is learned—it is not, contrary to what we typically hear, innate—because the child is naturally inclined towards pleasure. The child is a being of emotions that can be educated and, moreover, children lacking significant adults feel a strong contempt for their absent parents.
Limiting screen time creates a much stronger sense of frustration than other areas. Why is screen-related frustration more intense?
Screen addiction is already being treated in specialized centers. According to the lawyer Joël Bakan, author of Nos enfants ne sont pas à vendre [Our children are not for sale], the screen has as much addictive power as a hard drug. When torn from their favorite video game, children can be overwhelmed by anxiety, anger, and depression. These are the same symptoms that a heroin addict has when the drug is taken away, because the use of a screen causes stimuli in the emotional brain that make you lose track of time and prevent you from disengaging. That’s why it’s not a good idea to remove all the screens at once. Regulating the cell phone allows the child to develop the ability to discover greater deferred gratification.
What specific use of the cell phone and screens would you recommend?
Not responding immediately to text messages allows more time for actually talking, concentrating on school assignments or on the present moment. Not responding immediately to messages allows the child to humanize and defer their desire, like the joy of getting their cell phone back on the weekend. It is also necessary to explain that the cell phone is not just a simple tool. You should not allow them to have access to the internet when no adult is present in the house. Giving them free access will create a lifestyle habit that will be difficult to get rid of. As long as a child is in school, he or she must devote themselves to their schoolwork during the week. On the other hand, you can allow one hour on Saturday and one hour on Sunday, and maybe on Wednesday, if they have finished their homework. Psychiatrist Serge Tisseron recommends prohibiting internet before the age of 9 and social networks before the age of 12. And afterwards, to consume them in small doses.
Interview by Olivia de Fournas
Teens and screens: How to avoid internet addiction