At the beginning of middle school, Melanie Hempe's oldest son, Adam, started trading his outdoor time for playing video games inside and she became a Game-Cop Mom. Since Adam was a straight-A student, Hempe let his bad habit slide.
"But his ninth-grade school laptop proved to be too much to manage," says Hempe, mom of four. "When he graduated from high school, I thought he would outgrow his gaming. I did not realize that little-kid hobbies become big-kid hobbies."
At the end of his freshman year, Adam dropped out of college due to his gaming. On the trip home, he said, 'Mom, 'World of Warcraft' did something to me. I've been in bed for the last week, depressed.' Knowing that she did not want to have a gamer in her house for the next five years, she asked a military recruiter to visit. Adam joined the U.S. Army where he could learn to shoot real guns instead of virtual ones.
Her son's experience set Hempe on a quest to understand gaming and screen addictions.
"As a nurse, I felt like there had to be a scientific explanation for what happened to my son," Hempe recalls. "I learned that gaming addiction is the No. 1 reason boys drop out of college their freshman year."
Like gambling, this addiction is hard to spot.
"After a great deal of research, I decided to present my findings to parents at our school," Hempe says. "I was shocked when over 100 parents showed up to that first meeting."
Families Managing Media was founded as an effort to help families prevent childhood screen addictions.
Think about your child's relationship with their screen:
» Is it the only thing that puts them in a good mood?
» Are they unhappy when you take it away?
» Is their usage increasing over time?
» Do they sneak around hiding screens?
» Do you know what they are doing on their screens; do you have all their passwords?
» Does their screen time interfere with family time and their in-person friendships?
If you answered yes to most of these, your child may be headed for trouble.
Hempe believes there are at least four things parents need to know about brain development to help with screen management. For starters, the prefrontal cortex (the reasoning center) is the last part of the brain to mature, and it is impossible to accelerate this maturity. Even the most intelligent child can have issues managing time or paying attention.
"Because Adam was smart, I expected him to be able to control his screen use," says Hempe. "I now understand that this is a task kids are unable to do. Children are not little adults."
Second, it's helpful to know that your child's brain development is based on the activities they are doing. Like dirt roads being paved, neuronal connections get stronger with use. The connections not being used get pruned away at puberty.
"Practice typically makes things better, but, unfortunately, with things like social media, practice makes it worse," says Hempe. "The longer a child is exposed to one type of experience, the harder it is to reverse that effect."
Video games and smartphones stimulate one area of the brain: the pleasure center.
Unfortunately, if the whole brain is not stimulated early, it's a complicated fix in adulthood.
Third, screen time is not a neutral activity. Dopamine controls the brain's reward and pleasure centers. When kids are on their screens, they get an instant dopamine rush from likes on social media, gaming, etc. The "dopamine feedback loop" is activated, and a craving sets in. The bad news is that, school and other "less exciting" things can't compete with the novelty offered by screens 24/7.
Fourth, screens replace many activities that are foundational to healthy brain development. Handwriting, real play and playing music are very important for a young brain.
"Movement is absent when your child is on a screen," Hempe says. "Without enough movement, children have a hard time maintaining focus and dealing with distractions. Even 30 minutes a day makes a huge difference."
Reading is the first activity to go when screens are present, and it is the No. 1 predictor of academic success. Sleep is another critical piece. Screen habits make it hard for teens to get the required 9.25 hours of sleep each night.
With this in mind, Hempe encourages parents to do the following:
» Delay access to smartphones and video games. This allows more time for a child to mature so that he or she can use technology wisely. "No" for now doesn't mean "no" forever. Social media and today's video games are very addictive.
» Follow their accounts and co-view their screen activities. Nothing is private in the digital world; your child/teen's digital activity should not be private to parents. Know exactly what they are doing on their screens.
» Foster face-to-face social interactions. Social media is not designed for kids. Try a family social-media account managed by you on a home laptop in plain view. They do not need six years of social media "training" to learn how to use it, but they do need face-to-face interactions with friends to learn critical social skills.
» Spend more non-tech time together. Teens with strong family attachments show more overall happiness and success.
» Help your kids choose and plan healthier forms of entertainment. They need your help. Don't give the smartphone and video games all the power in your home.
"Our teens need us now more than ever," Hempe asserts. "It is easy to detach from them when they are on their screens. They want you to help them say no to screen overuse. After all, the only thing they really want more than their virtual world is more real time with you."
For more information on screen addiction, reclaiming your kids and reconnecting your family, visit FamiliesManagingMedia.com.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Contact her at email@example.com.