Coping with screen time and anger issues

Does your Tween have problems putting down a video game?  One parent asks the PSP advice list about dealing with screen time and anger management issues with their Tween.

From the Original Poster:

My 10 year old son has shown all the signs of "addiction" regarding his video games. He is allowed to use them after finishing homework, and for a couple of hours on weekend days. Any system we set up seems to quickly implode although there are a few ground rules. One is that everything be turned off by 7 pm (bedtime is around 8:30), and two is all homework has to be done before he starts. The biggest struggle points are when I ask him to get off (often huge meltdowns at this juncture), and getting him to transition to other activities. Lately it's gotten so bad that he has pushed me or hit me when I ultimately shut it down (when he fails to end the game). He also calls me names, refuses to cooperate with any next step, etc. Obviously, all of this is unacceptable, and my only retaliation is to then withhold further gaming for the next period (the rest of the day, or few days). Then he slams doors, kicks things and shows general signs of anger. He tries to manipulate the situation and it often escalates to ugly fights between us.

Once he regains his composure, it's as if all this never happened.

He has been in therapy before, but does not want to go back. Does anyone have a good general approach to this that is neither banning gaming all together nor being totally permissive about it? So much of his social life revolves around the XBox, Minecraft and I don't want to take it all away from him. But the fringes of his game time have become extremely bad for him, and for our relationship. Naturally, I'm concerned that he shows signs of an addictive personality, and that he will be "abusive" in his future relationships. I also need to consider if I'm fueling this behavior by my own reactions and approach.





Tip 1: set clearly defined boundaries while removing yourself as the enforcer:

First, I assume that the computer is in a central part of  your home, where all activity is NOT private. 10 year-olds  can stumble across a lot of "stuff" on the Internet, and  they are less likely to "explore" if they have reason to  believe that they are being watched.

You need to do two things:

1. Ease the transition by adding a clear, 30 minute countdown

Many kids to have transition issues, and unmanaged transition issues cause anxiety, frustration and anger. Further, games create a conflict between wanting to play for another minute and the desire to not stop in the middle of a round (the kid will always choose to start another round if he has any reason to  believe that he will be able to complete it).

Setting up a count-down eases the transition and teaches the child to anticipate and prepare and eventually be ready. You  can set-up a timer on the computer, in his email calendar, or on a stand-alone mechanism that will give him a pop-up warning  at 30 minutes, 15, 10, 5 and 2 minutes. It is VERY important  that the count-down must require him to acknowledge it by  clicking on a pop-up or hitting a button. 

2. Remove yourself as the enforcer!

If the machine shuts-down on its own, you are off the hook as the enforcer. More importantly, the mechanical shut-down is unstoppable and therefore non-negotiable.

You can either set the computer to shut down on schedule via parental controls (give him a child ID and password protect your admin ID), or you can kill the power to the computer via a mechanical device such as a vacation timer.
I also recommend that you use the same devices to limit his start-time, so that he is not tempted to sacrifice the quality of his HW to get more screen time.


Tip 2: Abolish screen time during the week and an earned privilege.

"If these two measures do not improve the situation dramatically, I highly recommend discontinuing ALL screen time on school  nights, and making weekend screen-time a clearly-defined, earned privileged, rather than an entitlement that can be taken  away.

Contrary to what your son might report, MANY families do not allow electronics on school-nights.  My sister discontinued electronics after a Thanksgiving weekend public display of brattiness. At Christmas, she reported that she is delighted to find that her 9-year-old has transferred his addiction to his Legos and the 7-year-old won't put down her books to come to dinner!!"

Another parents offers a similar solution:

"We've struggled on and off with this. What we came up with was no more than an hour on weekend days and no gaming on weeknights at all. We didn't blame, or make it a huge conversation, or talk about addiction or anything that would lead to our son thinking he could do something different to change it. What we said was this "we know you love video games, and we want you to be able to do what you love, but we've learned that they aren't so good for the brain during the week and therefore we aren't going to play them on weeknights."

Another friend took a different tack, but same conversation. They allow 30 minutes after dinner. Period. With a timer so the child understands when time is coming up.

We also offer little opportunities for our son to earn some, for example with five checks on his chart, he can build up weekend time (he earns 5 minutes for every 5 checks, which adds about another 15 minutes on the weekends for him.) Good luck, it's hard stuff. We've found a family therapist for US is helpful with these kids of things, our son doesn't even need to go."


Tip 3: Have a clean break:

"Have you considered having the XBox "break", thus deflecting his anger at it, and going for a few weeks without it? (Until it's "fixed"...) You'll be amazed at how quickly they forget about it once they accept it's not available."

Another parent agrees to have a computer game "detox":

"I think a couple of hours on weekend days sounds like potentially a lot - what about tv, does he have other screen time on top of the gaming? 

I confess I'm very much not a fan of gaming personally and luckily my husband has also been ok not getting a gaming player or wii for our third grade son so far. That said he has done one after school class about game design (to me that is the upside of playing games, if it leads to a fun or interesting profession later), and he plays games on our smart phones every chance he gets - minecraft or other games - and I think he also has screen addiction issues in that when he is watching tv or playing a video game on the computer or phone and we speak to him he doesn't seem to hear us. But he is also like that when reading books since in all cases he is engrossed. He also never gives our phone or computer back when we ask. And sometimes he gets upset when we force the issue.  But not violent.

I'm sorry you are dealing with this. Perhaps take a week or two away from screens as a family to detox a bit (we have done that sometimes especially when my son does something egregious  that causes him to lose screen time for longer periods of time). Perhaps consider a rule about no screens every other day or most school days. And/or sign up for more weekend activities to prevent too much unstructured time for a while during a detox period.


Tip 4: Take control over the computer settings and restrict access:

"We have boys around the same age, and while we don't have the physical issues, it certainly is a hot button for us, and I feel your pain on all counts. I don't have the answers, but two things we've done that have worked to a degree:

For our 11yo, my husband made himself an admin on our son's computer and set time limits so it can only be used in a designated window and for a certain amount (eg one hour between 5 and 7 pm). Otherwise it locks you out and only the admin can override it (which he sometimes does for an especially good grade or family citizenship etc)

For our 9 year old, he plays on the family computer with us nearby. We put a timer next to it and he must start the timer before he plays. When it goes off, he's done.

I don't love the settings solution because I'd like it to be more voluntary on his part, but we do it because with both that and the timer I'm trying to make the stopping point be more external, not coming from me. And I try to be present when it goes off but not involved, so it's just this immutable event like the sun setting. Early on I've also done things like walked by and said, as soon as your screen time is over we're all going to Pinkberry, so it's not such a negative void--there is life after Minecraft.  Anyway, these are just some ideas. I sure wish I had the answers for you, and for me! Good luck."


Tip 5: Consult

"Collaborative Problem Solving as created by Stuart Ablon at is a powerful way of working with challenging kids. It is no panacea. Nor does it promise immediate fixes. I have however found it to be transformative in terms of my approach to problem solving, building relationships with my daughter and my students and in skill building. I have no professional interest or connection with Thinkkids, just personal experience and an appreciation for their method."


Related Reading on Park Slope Parents:

Technology and Kids

iPhone etiquette and Tweens

Handling Hurtful Kids