Sunday 16 June 2019

Dear David Coleman: I've taken away his screens and now my son is furious

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Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I've a 12-year-old who's addicted to screens. He's a fine lad, but he's the youngest of four children and we may have indulged him over the years. It was often easier to let him at it as I was so busy.

However, things have started to get bad and he has low self-esteem, seems depressed, lacks concentration, and is prone to very angry outbursts. I'm devastated to say the least, as I feel I should have been more careful. I've started taking his phone, his tablet and I've eliminated the XBox. Naturally he's going mad to get them all back. Have you any advice?

David replies: My best advice to you is to stick with your current plan. While it won't be feasible to restrict his use of technology indefinitely, it will certainly be of benefit to him to have a period of time in which he can relearn how to amuse himself without a screen.

I can imagine that your situation with your son will resonate with a huge number of parents. The infiltration of technology into children's lives has been insidious and, in my view, largely harmful. Screens of many sizes, and for varied purposes, have become the staple for children's entertainment, play and social interaction. That's not healthy for them.

You may recall that recently a school in Co Kerry, Blennerville NS, in agreement with their parents introduced a school and home ban on phones and social media for their sixth class pupils. This was a direct response to a rise in disharmony caused by the pupils' interactions on social media.

I certainly don't think that it is a school's sole responsibility to introduce, or to police, such a restriction on their pupils' activities outside the school. But my understanding is that parents strongly welcomed the initiative, because the school ban allowed parents to feel that there was community support for pulling back from screens and social media.

I've been in touch with the principal of the school since, and apparently the pupils are calmer and more relaxed within themselves. Parents also feel that stress and tension has reduced for themselves, as conflict about their use of phones and social media have been taken out of their family dynamic. Not using social media is the new norm in the school and children seem to have accepted this.

In my clinical practice, and similar to your own query, the majority of parents feel that they are a lone voice wanting to restrict their child's access to social media, gaming (particularly since the arrival of the game Fortnite) and screens generally. They feel huge pressure from their child to allow them unrestricted access, because "all" their friends are doing it. Many of those parents cave into the pressure, against their better judgement, and would love to feel that there is community-level support.

So, I think you are to be celebrated and supported in your own efforts to rebalance your son's leisure time. You describe key outcomes of an unbalanced access to computer games and social media, like aggression, depression, poor concentration and low self-esteem, which I think many parents will see commonalities within their own children to a greater or lesser extent.

You describe that your son may have been indulged in the past and so he may be used to getting his own way. I'd imagine that means that he has probably protested more strongly about your removal of his screens - especially if he isn't used to such a hard line being imposed on him.

You may find that he will ramp up the emotional and psychological pressure on you to return his screens and allow him to resume his old habits. However, that increase in frequency or intensity of his protest should be short lived (about a week to ten days) as long as you are able to stick to your guns and be consistent about the decisions you've made.

That consistency can be applied with empathy, where you can recognise he probably really misses his screen time and that the hard line you are holding might be hard, or frustrating, for him to accept.

Guilt is a powerful emotion, but you may be better to focus on how you can make good decisions for, and with, your son in the future, rather than getting stuck regretting the decisions you may have made in the past.

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