I bought my first smartphone about a year into my journey as a widow. At the time, it felt like a lifesaver.

I was a stay-at-home, single mom of two toddlers. My son, Ben, was 3 years old, and my daughter, Katherine, was around a year old. I had very little time away from my kids, and my social life consisted mainly of church activities. So my smartphone companion gave me friends to talk to at any moment, a connection to the outside world.

There was another important benefit that my new smartphone gave me: babysitting. It was like a magic pacifier—especially for my little boy, who was very active and high strung.

When Ben screamed in the grocery store, all I had to do was pull out the smartphone. He sat quietly in the buggy, blissfully occupied for as long as I wanted to shop. When I needed some quiet to deal with business, it gave me hours of peace. It was useful in any situation that required calm—church, doctor’s offices, government buildings … The smartphone provided a guaranteed win over the battle of fits.

I heard all the rhetoric about the dangers of screen usage and how children were turning into zombies.  But I reasoned that my child must be exceptional because I saw no signs of problems. All he did was play child-friendly learning apps and Sonic the Hedgehog. I restricted what he could and could not view, especially after the time he discovered YouTube and came across a hodge-podge Barbie video screaming b****.

Other than content, though, I didn’t understand why people were concerned about kids and smartphones. After all, my brother and I played games like Sonic and Mario Brothers as kids. Our brains didn’t turn into mush. What was the big deal?

Trouble brewing

I relied on the smartphone throughout my son’s preschool years. My daughter enjoyed it, too, but not to the same degree. (Even though she could work the phone as easily as I could by the time she was 18 months old.) My son almost couldn’t live without it.

Each day, we fought over when and how long he could use the smartphone. It was a good bargaining tool, though, because he would do almost anything to get the chance to play with it.

It wasn’t until he started school that I began to see the effects of prolonged device usage in my little boy. The fits he used to throw to get phone time as a toddler turned into violent rage. When I picked him up after school, his first question was, “Can I use the phone?” and the begging didn’t stop all evening. If I didn’t let him have the phone as much as he wanted when he wanted, he would kick, scream, and sometimes even threaten to hit me.

For so long I had excused similar behavior. I thought he was still grieving from his father’s death, or maybe it was an issue of “boys will be boys.” But I started to worry. Instead of maturing and showing signs of developing self-control, he seemed to be getting worse.

The teachers at school noticed his lack of self-control. Even though he reined in the rage at school, he received pink slips almost every day for everything from not keeping his hands to himself to talking while the teacher talked.

One of his teachers told me to talk to my pediatrician, insinuating I needed to put him on meds for ADD or ADHD. But he was so young. I didn’t think it was fair to medicate him when I hadn’t tried anything else.

Noticing a pattern

I put him on supplements, vitamins, and tried other diet restrictions. I started looking into therapy. In the meantime, I spanked him and lectured him, took away toys and privileges in order to get him to pay attention and behave. Nothing seemed to get his attention … except losing phone privileges.

His reaction to taking the phone away was like I had declared I was going to chop off one of his fingers. He begged, pleaded, cried, made a zillion promises, and when the nice stuff didn’t work, he started threatening to hurt me, his sister, or break my things.

It scared me. Such violence from a child was mind boggling to me. But I pushed through and stood my ground.

Then I began to notice a pattern. On the days when I gave him phone time, he was unreasonable and out of control. But when he lost phone privileges and went 24 hours without access, he became a different child—calm, loving, forgiving. He paid better attention and did what he was told without lashing out. We were able to have rational conversations.

So I experimented a little. I would take away the phone for three or four days and then give it back to him. Without fail, his actions and attitudes matched his phone usage. I couldn’t even give it to him for 10 minutes—just that bit of stimulus was enough to ruin his attitude for the entire day.

It was clear. My son had to go cold turkey. No more games of any kind.

Life without games

I sat Ben down, looked him in the eyes, and lovingly explained that his screen games had to go away. He was crushed, of course; indignant, even. I asked him if he believed I loved him more than anything in the world. He said yes. I asked him if he knew I only do what’s best for him. He said yes.

And then I told him he was losing his phone privileges. He begged, pleaded, and promised a zillion promises, as usual. But this time, I was resolved. There was no more begging, no more chances. I explained he wasn’t being punished. I was doing this because the phone was hurting him.

It took about two weeks for my little boy to recover from his addiction. Like a junkie, he experienced withdrawals that resulted in outbursts, tears, and anything else that would get that phone back.

It wasn’t long, however, until he got into the car after school, and instead of asking for the phone, he told me about his day. The pink slips stopped coming home almost immediately. The rage and violence faded away, and my little boy was lighter, freer.

It has been about four years since I took games away. I have begun to give him access to a smartphone, but he only has the ability to play music and take pictures. The rest of the apps and internet access have been removed (with the exception of the weather app, which is a recent addition).

Since I took the gaming away, Ben has excelled in school and learned to control his compulsivity. He’s one of the teachers’ favorite students. Sometimes I can’t believe he’s the same child, but mostly, I can’t believe I didn’t see it when he was struggling.

My advice, for what it’s worth

I am not a technology expert by any means. I’m not a child psychiatrist. But I can recognize a pattern when I see one.

In the last six months or so, I have talked to a handful of moms who have confided in me that their sons and/or daughters are out of control. A couple of the kids are on all kinds of medication that has done little to no good. Another child was asked not to come back to church functions because she’s not able to control her outbursts. One child is young like Ben was, and he’s struggling in school and the teachers are suggesting medication.

Each time I talk to a mom at the end of her wits, I ask, “Does your child like to play video games on a console, smartphone, or tablet?” Without fail, mom gives a resounding yes.

As we talk about the issue, each mom begins to see the similarities in my child and hers. Her eyes open to the possibility that her child might have a game addiction. It’s hard to believe something seemingly so innocent—so helpful, even—could do so much damage to a child’s mind and emotions.

There is more research coming out daily about the dangers of excessive screentime for kids, particularly young children. The Center for Parenting Education reports children and teenagers who are on technology for more than two hours a day “may develop a stimulus addiction” and may display hyperactivity, aggression, fear, insensitivity, and an appetite for violence.
Here’s a quote from Psychology Today:

When every finger swipe brings about a response of colors and shapes and sounds, a child’s brain responds gleefully with the neurotransmitter dopamine, the key component in our reward system that is associated with feelings of pleasure. Dopamine hits in the brain can feel almost addictive, and when a child gets too used to an immediate stimuli response, he will learn to always prefer smartphone-style interaction—that is, immediate gratification and response—over real-world connection.

I can certainly vouch for both of these findings. Interestingly, not long ago, Ben went to a friend’s house for the first time after school one day. When I picked him up, I could tell something was wrong with him. I saw the same frustration and aggression from phone use. Turns out, he and his friend were playing racing games most of his visit.

Not all kids struggle like my son and these other kids. My daughter could play video games to her heart’s content, and she wouldn’t care to pick it up again for a month. But, in my opinion, the potential for bad outweighs the good. So, neither of my kids are allowed to play games on the smartphone or anywhere else. For what it’s worth, here’s my best advice to moms about screen usage:

1. If your child is struggling, take devices away permanently.
Before you try drugs or therapy, take away all devices. It never crossed my mind that the problem with my child could be outside stimuli. Give your child’s brain a chance to heal naturally. Stand your ground, and take it away for your child’s own good. Wait two weeks for improvement. If you don’t see progress by that time, then consider other forms of help.

2. Don’t worry about computer illiteracy.
Children get healthy, monitored screen time at school. They will probably get better computer literacy skills with educational programs than what they learn with video games at home.

3. Find out what your child likes to do (other than games) and indulge it!
I have discovered that kids with device addictions are usually above-average smart. The games are appealing because they can keep up with the child’s fast-paced thinking. The problem is that when the screen goes away, the world seems to slow down. It’s boring and under-stimulating. So, your child needs something to occupy his or her hungry brain.

My son has developed all sorts of hobbies that are far outside of my capacity for thinking. He has conquered about 10 different types of Rubik’s cubes. He builds complicated marble runs and elaborate domino towers. At one time, he was creating intricate mazes that filled an entire page, and another time he got on a map-making kick. Once, he taped six pieces of paper together and drew a detailed highway map with on and off ramps and figure eight interchanges. If you channel your child’s mind onto something other than video games, you may be surprised at what he or she can do that you never thought possible.

4. Restrict, restrict, restrict.
If your child must have a device (schools may require them, for example), use the restrictions built in to the operating system. Remove apps from the smartphone (It’s easy to Google, “How to take YouTube app off smartphone.”)

Your child won’t like restrictions. That’s okay. They don’t like it when we make them eat their vegetables, or make them go to bed on time, or force them to do their homework, either. But we do it because it’s good for them. We do it because we love them.

And one day, they will be thankful we did.

Copyright © 2018 by Sabrina McDonald. All rights reserved.