I don’t want to speak for all parents, but I know with complete certainty that if I took my hand off the wheel, my children would use screens 100% of the time. They wouldn’t get dressed, and they wouldn’t go to school, and they wouldn’t interact with real people. They’d just sit there in front of a glowing tablet, half dressed, eating chips and string cheese, like mindless zombies.
My son is 12, and he’s the worst with this. No doubt about it. He doesn’t have ADHD or any other learning challenges. He is simply borderline addicted to video games and YouTube, like so many 2019 children. He cannot get enough screen time. He asks and asks for screen time to the point that it’s become the refrain of my adult life.
We’ve even turned screen time into currency, and he has to earn hours on devices by finishing his chores and doing homework. And yet, even with a clear path to get screen time, he’s always negotiating for more. I ask him to do something additional to help out the family, and his first response is “how much screen time can I get.”
He isn’t all that interested in money. He doesn’t want to get paid for his labor; he only wants screens. And I’ll be honest, this makes me nervous, because I don’t know what his life is going to look like when I am not there to say, “It’s time to shut that thing down and do something else.”
In a lot of ways it feels like we have the problem handled for now, but after reading a recent article in CNBC by Nir Eyal, author of “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life,” I’m starting to wonder if I should be taking a different approach.
According to Eyal, “[I]n the future, there will be two kinds of people in the world: Those who let their attention and lives be controlled and coerced by others and those who proudly call themselves ‘indistractable.’”
In order to get our children to grow up indistractable, they are going to need to figure out how to manage their own screen time. Sadly, I think this is one of the biggest challenges of raising children right now. (Again it’s important to note that this is in reference to screen time distractions, not diagnosed learning challenges.)
I work at a university, and it is not uncommon for me to see students enter with respectable to outstanding high school GPAs and test scores, only to flunk out within a year because they are so addicted to gaming. I cannot teach a class, or even present in front of a group of students without repeatedly asking them to put their phones away.
Eyal has a number of tips on how to create indistractable children, all of them center on the idea of open conversation with our children, and teaching them how to set their own limits when it comes to online distractions. According to Eyal, “The most important thing is to involve the child in the conversation and help them set their own rules. When parents impose limits without their kids’ input, they are setting them up to be resentful and incentivizing them to cheat the system.”
Cheating the system is exactly what I’m finding with my son. He is always on the lookout for some way to sneak in some additional screen time. But the question is: if I ask my son to set his own limits, would he ask for no limits? Maybe… probably.
According to Eyal, there are two things you need to be open with your children about when it comes to getting them to set their own screen time limitations. The first is to help them understand that people who benefit from online entertainment are interested in keeping you online. That’s their goal because that’s how they make money. Teach your children that although they obviously enjoy being online, they need to recognize that they are falling into an attention trap, and that they need to be smarter than that.
Second, when discussing screen time limitations, be real with them. Discuss how many hours there are in the day. Discuss that time online can take away from the time needed to do well in school, participate in sports, and enjoy the company of friends and family. Treat your child like an adult, lay out all the factors, and allow them to make a rational decision and set their own boundaries based on the information they are presented with.
Then, get into the details with them. Ask how they plan to hold themselves accountable. Are they going to set a timer? At what point are parents going to step in? Will it be when grades begin to slip? Or will it be when they have noticed they have been online for too long?
The most important part is helping your child understand all the factors and what is at stake early on. This in turn gives them the skills they need to hold themselves accountable — and ultimately, God willing — allow them to become indistractable as an adult, when you aren’t around to tell them to “put the screens down.”
After reading all of this, my plan is to try it out with my son. My wife and I are going to sit him down this weekend and discuss all the factors. We are going to give him the option to pick his own screen time limitations based on his own busy schedule. I think he will get it, and I’m hopeful that this will be the first step in helping him become less distractible as an adult.