Ever since the first Atari game console entered the first American home, parents have struggled to get their kids’ attention. Recently, one of psychologist Dr. Joe Dilley’s teen clients offered his parents a novel solution: “Come tap on my headset, and I will talk to you.”
Dilley says those parents were almost ready to say yes, not realizing that they were becoming subservient to their son, who had become subservient to technology. Their story and countless others inspired Dilley’s new book, The Game Is Playing Your Kid: How to Unplug and Reconnect in the Digital Age. Here are three lessons from the book.
See the big picture. If you and your son are constantly fighting about screen time, there are bigger issues at play in the family. Perhaps you’ve ended up with a reverse hierarchy like the family described above. Perhaps you and your partner are over-functioning while allowing your son to under-function. Perhaps you’re sending mixed messages by checking your work email at the dinner table right after dragging your son out of his room to eat. “The game is not the enemy; it’s just a symptom,” Dilley says.
Dilley compares families with fishbowl ecosystems. Every member affects and is affected by the quality of the water in the bowl, and cleaning the water is a necessary part of any solution.
Focus on ‘response costs,’ not on bribes and punishments. If your son won’t turn off his game when you ask him to, you might be tempted to punish him (by yelling at him) or bribe him (perhaps by letting him continue playing if he promises to do his homework later). Dilley says a better approach is to assess a response cost, which he describes as “the loss of something good instead of the presence of something bad.” A poor report card might earn your son less screen time than a good report card, for example, while visiting inappropriate websites might lose him the right to keep his computer in his room.
Response costs can put kids in control in a good way. For example, you could let your son spend tomorrow’s allotment of screen time today — but at a hefty interest rate. When you do, Dilley says, “You’re training him to function in the real world.”
Hammer out a contract. With an older child, Dilley recommends establishing a contract that spells out which home and school behaviors will earn him the privileges he wants. Doing so codifies your system of rewards and response costs and lets your son control his destiny, much like performance objectives at work help you control your future earnings.
What if your son lives up to his end of the bargain and earns a screen-time bonanza? “Problem solved,” Dilley says. “He’s figured out how to balance fun with school and home; he’s figured out how to balance the three jobs of being a kid.”
One note: Computers should remain in the “common” areas of the house where parents can easily watch what their children are doing.