We are living in a day and age where the explosion of electronics is impacting every part of our life, and our kids are exposed to things that were unthinkable even a decade ago.  The family walls that used to shield them from the rest of the world are weakening and as parents we are constantly finding ourselves battling with our kids’ obsession and addiction to electronic devices and electronic media.

When my daughters were growing up, their main obsession was the TV.  It was developed at a very young age when they were left at home with caregivers when I was at work.  To battle the obsession, I signed Jane and Michelle up for all kinds of activities just to get them away from the television set.  When they reached school age, Joe and I set the no-television-on-weekday rule that was followed until they were able to watch everything on the computer and later laptop and chat online endlessly in their rooms.   So another rule had to be put in place: no Internet after 10 pm.  It was in effect pretty much until Jane’s senior year in high school although she frequently complained that none of her friends were subjected to such deprivation.  The side effect was that as the girls got older and slept later, they sometimes didn’t start their homework until after 10 am so that they could thoroughly enjoy the Internet access.

Learning from past experiences, we sent Jake to The Compass School, a project-oriented daycare that provided a safe and enjoyable early learning environment. Jake isn’t that much into TV.  His addiction is games.  This time around, we took a different approach: instead of usage prohibition, we try to instill self-control.

Both my husband I have noticed that Jake’s personality changes when he plays games excessively.  He became irritated, rude and sometimes even violent.  This happened almost every time when we went to China to visit families and relatives.  There were lots of gatherings either in the restaurants or at home where Jake was left to entertain himself.

I find the following 3-step process effective with instilling self-control in Jake.

1)    Awareness

Jake is made aware of his personality change when he becomes too indulged in games.  Even at the age of six, he is capable of deciding that he likes the normal Jacob much better.  And so when the monstrous Jacob starts to come out, he knows it’s time to take a break.

2)    Administration

On average, Jake plays games for about an hour a day.  Instead of letting him play for a whole hour non-stop, we break it into a few ten or twenty-minute segments.  Joe and I typically say ‘yes’ every time he asks if he can play.  If it is almost dinnertime, I’ll say to him “You need to stop when dinner is ready.” If he wants to go back to the computer too quickly, We encourage him to play with his Lego toys for a while or draw pictures by reminding him “If all you want to do is play games on the computer, maybe we shouldn’t buy all those toys because you don’t play with them that much.”  Jake’s other love is Lego.  When he gets all his Hero Factory figures lined up for war, he’ll forget about the games for a while.

Shorter intervals seve two purposes a) Keep him from getting too engrossed in the games b) Provide him with many opportunities to practice self-control throughout the day.

Jake’s computer is right next to Joe’s in the study.  We try to keep a close eye on his online activities.

3)    Awards

Every time Jake stops within a few minutes after he gets the 2-minute warning, he is awarded points. We also praise him generously, “Wow, Jake, you stopped when you were supposed to.  You demonstrated great self-control.  Mommy (or daddy) is so proud of you!”

If he doesn’t stop quickly, we would say to him calmly, “You have lost the opportunity to earn points this time. But there are plenty of opportunities later.”

The cumulative points will buy him the Lego toy he has chosen.

If you have young children and say to yourself “My kids will never be addicted like the others”, you may not be living in the real world.  All it takes is hand your child your cell phone when both you and your child are waiting in the doctor’s office or anywhere that his fussiness may cause a scene.  From that point on, your child is on his way to explore this fascinating and yet very dangerous electronic world.

So get ready and form a realistic strategy because the battle comes sooner than you think.

Please share if you have any strategies that have worked well.  Together we can fight and ultimately win this battle.