If you’ve been pulling your hair out trying to get your kids off their devices, you’re not alone.
“I have three boys and it’s been giving me a headache,” says Mathew McMillan, an addiction clinician and director of Addiction Advice Ltd.
Excessive screen time or excessive gaming is what McMillan describes as “an emerging mental health issue in young people.”
McMillan is usually approached by parents of boys aged 12 to 17, some of whom play 12 to 15 hours a day.
Screen time issues, he said, are an issue that will increasingly affect middle-class working families.
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“If you’re a two-parent household, it’s difficult because you often have different opinions about it,” he said.
“You are also both very busy trying to earn an income, you come home and you have to fight all this. It’s really hard to sort that out. »
The problem was that there was “nothing out there” for them – no sort of referral pathway to follow like with other mental health issues.
“It’s almost, ‘Well, they just need to sort this out,’ like, it’s not a real problem, it’s not a real addiction.”
McMillan said work was underway to look at the intersection between gambling and gaming at the bureaucratic level – “and I’m kind of like, actually, great if you can do it, but hurry up and do something” .
It’s impractical to completely remove screens, especially since they’re necessary for schoolwork and socializing.
The first step, he said, was to determine if this was in fact a problem.
“If you constantly have to say, hey look, it’s five minutes to get off, and they’re not coming down, that’s a problem,” McMillan explained.
Parents needed to think about it and be very clear about what bothered them about their children’s behavior, he said.
“Is it just that they are on their screen? Or is it part of the fact that they don’t contribute to the family, that they disengage, that they don’t help, that they don’t have other activities? »
If you took the phone from them and then they went to play on the trampoline or draw, for example, “they have pretty good balance,” he said.
For parents of young people with autism, it was especially difficult to control screen time and encourage things like sports or other social activities.
“If you’re on the spectrum, this screen is a world that you can relate to, you’re probably going to be on a lot more, you’re probably going to have fewer social interactions, because you just don’t like that world.
“So it’s very difficult to force someone who is on the spectrum to not be on a screen often and to get them out for sports or other social activities.”
The other issue parents needed to be aware of was the nature of the games themselves, which were ‘essentially betting’, using things like ‘loot boxes’ – virtual treasure chests containing surprise items that could be used in games.
You could pay extra for these items, but they were “essentially worth nothing”.
However, they did serve the function of keeping kids glued to their phones.
“The games they’re playing now require a lot more thought to keep you hooked, to keep you engaged. They don’t just finish. [Parents need to be] aware that it is not just a harmless product.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a game, or if it’s Facebook or TikTok, there’s stuff to keep you coming back because that’s how money is made,” McMillan said.
Some ideas for parents to try:
- Explaining to kids that parenting screen time is a job that needs to be done, it doesn’t give kids the right to go to screens themselves.
- Model well. Put your own devices away so you don’t constantly scroll around.
- Setting the duration of the screentime and the place of use – for example in the living room so that it takes place in a social setting.
- Discuss with colleagues what works in their family.
- Take a look at the games that children play themselves – and understand that these are not just “harmless products”. Google ‘lootbox’, for example.