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Insights from the Behavioral Science Guy: Five tips for parents of electronics addicts

Published: Tuesday, June 17 2014 5:05 p.m. MDT

Updated: 6 hours ago

Use behavioral science tactics to help children take control back from the game controller and other electronic devices.

Ashley Lowery, Deseret News

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Editor's note: A previous version of this article was published on vitalsmarts.com.

Dear Joseph,

My 14-year-old son seems to be addicted to electronics. If we let him, he will spend 10 hours a day on his tablet, computer or Xbox. I want him to choose to do other things and to do something worthwhile over the summer. Is there a better approach than forced deprivation? — Parent of an e-addict

Dear Parent of an e-addict,

I like the way you framed your objective: “I want him to choose to do other things.” That’s a completely different influence problem from “I want him to stop.” As a father of six children, I have often been tempted to go for the quick fix of the latter rather than the steady influence of the former. The latter could be accomplished by simply spilling orange soda on the problematic devices and then feigning remorse as they short out in a puff of smoke. The former will require not only more thought but also more patience and character on your part.

Here are five tips.

1. Consider if the problem is the problem. Before you decide that electronic games are the problem, do your best to determine whether games are a way of medicating against or isolating from some other problem — like bullying, depression, anxiety, loneliness or other social or emotional problems.

2. Interview, don’t lecture. Don’t begin a conversation on this topic with your teenager using conclusions and wisdom (e.g. “I think you’ve got a problem” or “Reading is better for your brain”). Instead, come in with curiosity and a desire to connect. Show an interest in his interests. Spend time with him. Affirm him. And when sufficient safety exists, broach the topic. “Josh,” you might say, “on a scale of one to 10, how satisfied are you with the way you spend your time?” He might be defensive when you first ask this — assuming your real motive is to impose your judgments. If so, reassure him it isn’t. He might answer, “Maybe a six.” You now have some common ground to discuss. “Wow. Really? I would have thought you’d say a 10. What makes you less than perfectly satisfied with how you’re spending time?” Your only hope of helping him make different choices is to honor his feelings and autonomy. Interview. Don’t lecture. This does not mean you can’t express opinions at times, but keep your airtime in careful balance with his interests.

3. Wake him — don’t make him. In order to sustain bad habits, we must maintain ignorance of their consequences. If you want to help him “choose” differently, you’ll have to help him experience the downside of his habit as easily as he now experiences the upside. What he knows today is that grabbing a controller and logging into a game (if he plays online games) is associated with feelings of engagement, enjoyment, social connection, mastery and perhaps safe solitude. If he is to choose something different, he will need to feel that other choices will create better consequences. This is tricky, but it’s also a fundamental problem you need to solve.

4. Suggest an abstinence test. To help “awaken” him, you might invite him to experiment in discovering his own way to discern healthy gaming and unhealthy gaming by attempting a brief abstention experiment and recording his feelings during it. Discuss openly how it felt and what that means to him.

5. Don’t force — but don’t enable, either. Realize that you are an accomplice in his choices and are subsidizing those choices by maintaining home duties for him, providing the equipment, providing the comfortable environment, etc. So have boundaries with everything you offer. Providing food doesn’t mean you have to serve up Twinkies every time he wants them. You get to say, “Here’s what I’m willing to offer — and no more.” Now, because your objective is to influence his choices, not control his behavior, I’d suggest you strike a balance by differentiating between boundaries and advice. You might say, “I think it would be wise to limit your use to an hour or so per day. That’s something you’ll have to decide. However, I am willing to provide the opportunity for you to play up to three hours per day — and five on weekends — provided your grades are good and your homework is finished.” (Note: I offer these numbers as an illustration, not as a sound position to take.)

Your best hope of influencing him for the better is to keep your motives right, maintain reasonable boundaries and focus on helping him learn to recognize consequences in his own life.

Joseph Grenny, the Behavioral Science Guy, offers practical tools for dealing with humans. His insights span three decades of learning and research from the world’s leading social scientist.

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