My child is "addicted to screens": Working with families with concerns about technology use in their child

One of the most common stressors for parents/caregivers in 2018 is managing their children's device or technology usage.  This is true for all families, but particularly true for families with children with behavioural, social and emotional challenges.  It can be particularly difficult for these families because:

  • Children are sometimes managing their distress/overload/stressors by using screens/devices/gaming to cope

  • Parents/caregivers of these children are dealing with more stress than average and find it hard to have the emotional resources required in managing this issue

  • These children are more likely to experience strong frustration and disappointment

It's not surprising then that putting limits on these activities is extremely difficult for parents/caregivers and children.  Most parents understand they need to do this – but it’s one of the hardest issues parents face.

As professionals, we will often hear (if we work with parents/caregivers directly) about this distress.  Here are statements commonly heard:

  • I can't get my children off screens

  • Is he/she addicted?

  • What do you suggest? What can we do to reduce his/her gaming?

  • I'm sure that you know as well as I do that there are no easy answers. Unfortunately as professionals parents are often desperate for help, and it can be tough working with these families when we don't have any quick/easy fixes for them.

As with all issues in this job, I remind myself that there is no "one size fits all" solution.  I feel my role is to not give advice about this topic but instead work through various options with families. 

I start by asking many questions of parents/caregivers to help them identify their biggest concerns, previous strategies and what they most want from me.  For example:

  • How much/when/what is your child doing on devices?

  • What are the different concerns you have about device/tech use (getting at least 3 or 4 specific problems - ie not enough sleep, exposure to violence, potentially increasing defiance, sibling conflict, no creative activities etc etc)

  • If you had to choose 2 of these which concerned you most, what would they be?

  • Is there anything you'd like me to do/What would you most like my support with?

  • Do you have specific questions for me about this topic?

  • What have you tried?

  • What has worked to some degree, and for how long?

  • What else have you considered (in terms of their response/ways of managing) - and what makes it hard to do this?

  • What do you think is the next step?

I tell parents/caregivers that there are a range of different ways families manage this issue, and encourage them to experiment with these approaches to see what works best for their family.  

Here are 10 ideas which I've used with different families.  Please note that I’ve listed these as “ideas”, not as “rules” – as not all of the points below will be useful or essential for all families. 

Idea 1. Help parents/caregivers to talk positively about screens, gaming and technology – at least some of the time.

I talk with parents/caregivers about the fact that when adults cheerfully acknowledge the benefits that screens offer children (they can be challenging, interesting, fun, stress-relieving, brain boosting, co-operative, and social skill building) then this makes them feel better about managing this issue in their children.  Given that parents/caregivers of children with extra emotional/behavioural/social needs are already dealing with a lot of stress, anything that makes them feel even slightly more relaxed is often helpful.  Sometimes after sessions parents/caregivers will tell me that they have decided to not do anything drastically different - but they just feel better about the issue.

As well as making parents/caregivers feel more hopeful, talking positively about screens, gaming and technology often relaxes children who feel that adults “get” their enjoyment of screens. It can also make them more co-operative and willing to hear concerns.

As always, I find it helpful to be really specific with parents about what talking positively might actually "look like" and I give them potential sentences which MAY be useful for their family, eg:

  • Wow, that looks fun.

  • Tell me about where you are up to on that game?

  • It's great you can talk to your friends so easily.

  • That video/channel/show makes me laugh.

  • Looks like that game tests your brain.

  • What an interesting show.

  • It's helpful you can ask for help/get ideas on your homework so quickly.

I also talk with parents/caregivers about the potential drawbacks of frequently using sentences like:

  • I hate those screens

  • What a waste of time

  • I wish I'd never given you a (ipad/device/computer)

Idea 2.  Help parents/caregivers to talk calmly with children about the problems and pitfalls that screens, gaming and technology bring to children – in an ongoing, “non shaming” way.

Sometimes parents/caregivers will label device use/tech/gaming as “all bad”.  They are unable to identify the specific problems, one at a time, with children, and instead talk generally about their strong concerns.    This is often less helpful than them calmly talking with children about specific problems.

Parents/caregivers sometimes need help with identifying particular problems.  It can be helpful for us to help them articulate what they might be.  For example, device use/tech/gaming can bring about specific problems such as: sleep issues, reduction in family time, reduction in physical activity/interests, reduction in creative time/interests, increase in exposure to violent or inappropriate material, conflict with peers and exposure to dangers. 

We can have conversations ourselves with children we work with.  For example, I will often ask questions like:

  • Let's talk about the tough things that can happen to our sleep when we use technology too close to bedtime

  • I'd like to tell you about the problems that can occur when we don't do enough exercise during the day

  • Let's talk about the disadvantages of not having enough creative activity for us as humans

  • What do you know about the dangers that can happen if you play games with people you don't know?

  • If you just used your ipad/did gaming for 7 days straight, are there any not great things which would happen in your body? your brain? your friendships? how you go at school? your sleep/your safety/how you get on with family?

  • Are there any particular times of games/apps/videos some kids watch/play/you play which you think are not great for your body/brain/friendships/how they go at school/their sleep/safety/how they get on with family?

    By the way, I remind parents that it is not the “job” of any child to know this – this is our job as adults. Like all complex problems (think about learning to be a better driver, or good at writing essays, or a good footballer) - this takes many calm (not shaming or angry) conversations over many years. This means we need cheerfully and calmly remind and educate them about these issues rather than speak resentfully to them about it as though "they should know this". I'm not saying that this is easy to do - of course we will feel resentful at times as parents, but our goal should be to try to remind ourselves: "this is my job, not theirs".

Idea 3. Talk calmly with children about the benefits of non screen-based activity.

This is a similar idea to talking about the problems associated with tech/device usage - but there is a subtle difference.  Here the focus is on the good things that will happen for the child when having time away from the screen. 

For example, I talk with children about the fact that extra sleep will help them feel happier; extra creative tasks will mean they develop new hobbies; extra sport will help them be faster and get less sick and so on. 

I often ask questions like:

  • What cool/good things might happen if you spent a bit more time every week on (choose a non-screen activity - eg a sport, drawing, talking with friends)?

  • What cool/good things might happen if you never had any arguments with family about device use/gaming?

  • What cool/good things might happen if you moved your body more every day?

  • etc

I also ask parents/caregivers to talk about and ask their own children about these topics.  

Idea 4. Help parents/caregivers to talk compassionately about the difficulty in reducing screen and technology use.

Stopping or reducing what we perceive as fun, relaxing, interesting activities and potentially having to start a less interesting, hard, or lonely activity is always going to be tough – let alone when we are in the middle of a competitive and fascinating battle, conversation or journey.   

There is a lot of understandable disappointment and frustration for all children when they have to turn off their devices.  When we are talking about children who might be going through a tough time, don't feel like they have many other positive things in their life, are managing their distress by using screens, who have strong feelings of independence and frustration - etc etc - it becomes really tough.

Unfortunately parents/caregivers find it hard to notice/see this in the midst of their own strong worry/frustration/exhaustion when children are continually upset about turning off their devices.  They understandably respond harshly at times to their children's distress.  This exacerbates the problem.

If we can help parents/caregivers act in an understanding way about why and how it is hard to for their children to turn off devices (without "giving in") then their relationships with their children stay positive, and they feel better.

Potential sentences for parents/caregivers to use which are compassionate about this issue might include (depending on the situation):

  • I'm sorry this is tough.

  • I find it hard to reduce using my phone too sometimes.

  • Let's talk about "device turning off time" - what can I do to help it be slightly easier?

  • Bummer, it's that time of day again...

Idea 5.  Help parents/caregivers create several specific tech/device/gaming rules and apply them consistently.

Many families find that the great number of very specific rules, systems and routines they put in place, the easier children find it to manage this issue.  For children with emotional, behavioural and social challenges, the more predictability there is in life, the easier life becomes.  For example, there might be rules for when the screens are turned off, which games are played, what apps/programs are used and when tech is used or not used. 

For example, some families might have "Two hours of gaming a day unless we are going out, in which case 90 minutes - half before 12 noon and half after"  OR "Gaming every afternoon between 2pm and 5pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday this week"  OR "Gaming happens for 1 hour max, 4 times during the day, on 3 days this week".  

Other families can't think this far ahead and just tell their kids and teens the night before what their gaming/device/tech use times will be the next day.  But in both cases these families are giving kids some details about what/when needs to happen.

I used to just "talk" with parents/caregivers about rules and routines, but now I actually get them to create a draft of them in the office with me - or email me a draft of some they've created at home.  I find the accountability of providing them to me, or the assistance I can provide in motivating them to do this tough task - means it is more likely to get done.

Idea 6. Remind children about rules or systems before, during and after screen time.

Following on from the idea about creating rules and systems - is the need to comprehensively communicate with and remind children of these rules and systems.  I often talk with parents/caregivers who have wonderfully specific and predictable rules – but their children don't know what they are, have forgotten them, or find it hard to remember what they are when they are in the midst of gaming/device time.  

Children with extra emotional/behavioural needs often need lots of education, reminders and information about rules generally, and rules and routines about technology use is no different. 

For example, some families find that they need to remind the child about when or at what point the screens need to be turned off before each and every screen time starts.  Some families find that visual clues (e.g. a ticking countdown clock or timer so they can have a rough idea of when screen time ends) work well for them.  Some children need at least a couple 10 minute - then 5 minute warnings. Some families find that they need to review and discuss rules for tech use weekly (eg Friday night before the weekend starts).

Again, I find that brainstorming specifically with parents/caregivers about how they can remind their children of the rules and routines - and help them know when and how they are applied - at appropriate time points can be useful.

Idea 7. Focus on the minimum levels of “screen alternative behaviours” rather than the maximum levels of screen/device use.

I have found much success in working with families on "flipping" the approach to tech/gaming use so that they focus on what what they really want them to be doing, not what they don't want them to be doing so much of. 

In other words, I ask parents:

  • What are you worried they are missing out on because of their device use?

  • What are you worried they are not doing because of their device use?

Then we focus on making rules about that, or coaching children to do more of that - rather than just reducing tech use.  
For example, some families tell me they are worried their children are not playing outside, not talking with their siblings and not interested in anything other than gaming.

In which case we might set up systems to encourage and ensure children are playing outside for certain amounts of time, spend a certain amount of time playing with their sibling and developing non screen interests. 

Idea 8.  Coach children to cope with transition times.

Coaching children through the process of turning off screens can be helpful.  Many kids with emotional/behavioural/social needs really need coaching and practicing in this area.  For example, some of the conversations I have include:

  • Let's write down some “calm sentences” you can use when they have to switch off. Where can we put these to help you remember? How can I remind you of these before you start gaming?

  • Let's practice a big slow deep breath and shoulder relax to use when you have to turn your screens off. When can we practice this so you are good at it?

  • Let's get some other activities set up right next to your playstation/ipad so it is ready to play with/dothe instant the screens are turned off which might help you feel better. What can we do to make sure this is set up ready BEFORE you start gaming/screens?

  • Let's get some yummy and healthy food or drink ready for you to have straight after your screen time ends.

Idea 9.  Help parents/caregivers think through having screen/gaming free periods.

The question I have often got from parents/caregivers is:  "Should I ban it completely?"

Of course I can't and don't give this kind of blanket advice, but instead talk through the potential advantages and disadvantages of taking this step. 

Some families do choose to have days, weeks or even months where they completely “ban” devices and games - and it works well.  For other families, it doesn't work well (in my experience, the older the child, the harder this is to do).  It is also worth noting that banning devices entirely is likely to entail a lot of work from parents/carers, sometimes more than they suspect at the outset.

Idea 10. Encouraging parents/caregivers to be tech savvy and play games/be on devices themselves.

I find sometimes the more adults know about the gaming/apps/programs our children are using, the more positive they feel about their children’s screen time.

If we are working with children, I think it is really important for us to know what they are playing and doing.  We don't need to be on top of every latest phase, but spending time asking the children we work with what their favourite activities are is really helpful.  I also think it's important to encourage parents/caregivers to do the same thing.

Watching video/gaming/using devices with children also helps adults know what rules are reasonable, how to help children if they need to finish in the middle of a “level”, and of course to monitor the risks and dangers.

As I said in the beginning, there are no "one size fits all" approaches to managing device/tech/gaming use in children, but it's definitely a topic we need to be aware of when working with families, given the distress it can potentially cause many of them.


I'm really happy to say that I've just finished making a new 3 minute animation for children in Calm Kid Central called "Coping with Switching off Screens".  It includes some of these ideas (but written for a child, not a parent) and is designed to help children feel more positive about restrictions and rules about tech/gaming/device use.  There is also an activity sheet and poster which goes with the video, which can be helpful to work through with the child/download for them to stick up next to their computer.  Click below to see the video, and access the activity sheet/discussion guide.