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Our three-year-old screams when we take away his tablet


Illustration by Maisie McNeice

Illustration by Maisie McNeice

Illustration by Maisie McNeice

Clinical psychologist David Coleman gives advice on use of electronic tablets for children and how to talk to a child who has seen pornography.

Question: Our three-year-old son has huge tantrums every time we take his tablet from him. He can be a bit of a handful occasionally, but coming up to bedtime, particularly, he gets angry and will be screaming and crying at us when we tell him to finish up on the tablet. Apparently, he is really good in crèche but from the moment we pick him up he just whinges for his tablet and is never satisfied until we give it to him. He even lashed out at my husband the other day. We get cross with him but it doesn't seem to stop the tantrums. What should we do?My first question back to you is why does your son have his own tablet? I think you may have created more of a problem for yourselves by giving him a tablet at just three years of age!

David replies: My first question back to you is why does your son have his own tablet? I think you may have created more of a problem for yourselves by giving him a tablet at just three years of age!

There is lots of research available that highlights the negative impact of screentime on children's development, especially in their early and formative years.

It may have seemed tempting to give him his own "entertainment" system to keep him busy and occupied at key times. However, I think you are now experiencing the downside of electronic babysitters.

I would imagine that he doesn't have access to screens in the crèche and is kept busy and occupied with the normal routines of day, with plenty of time for structured activity and unstructured free playtime.

Because he has no expectation of having this tablet in the crèche he doesn't even miss it. However, I'd bet he strongly associates being at home with having his tablet and so gets very distressed when he isn't allowed to have it, or when he is told to finish playing with it.

Computer games are hugely addictive and playing them is highly self-reinforcing for children. Once they get a taste for playing computer games they are drawn back to playing them time and again.

His tantrums sound like they are his three-year-old way of trying to tell you how upset, cross or disappointed he is that you won't let him drift off into a digital world. He is, I think, simply protesting loudly and intensely that you are stopping him doing something he loves.

The solution to the difficulty, I believe, is to take the tablet away from him permanently.

He doesn't need any electronic or digital stimulation. He doesn't even need the TV. He needs to have fun, playing and exploring in the real world. He needs, with the longer evenings, to be out and about getting mucky and tired running, climbing, crawling, lifting, building and creating.

Your aim is to give him play experiences that help to build his imagination. So choose toys that he can use to pretend, where there are a few ways to play with the toy. Think of toys like action figures, animal figures, puppets, lego, blocks, playdough, vehicles, old clothes for dress-up…the list is endless.

I really believe that if you dump the tablet and actually get down on the floor and play with him more, using lots of toys that can allow you and him to make believe, work together and chat, that you will find his tantrums fade away.

Naturally, in the early days when the tablet goes, he is likely to be very upset. So, for a short period of time his tantrums may increase in intensity and frequency. But this really will be a case of getting worse before it gets better.

As soon as he realises that the tablet is gone and isn't coming back he can let his dependency on it fade away. This will be helped if he learns that his solo play on the tablet is replaced by more interaction and play with you.

Having no electronic babysitter will place a higher demand on your time. But the reward for that will be greater opportunities to build a warm and intimate relationship with him through play, or reading stories or getting him to help you around the house.

The closer and more engaged you are with him the more he will tolerate correction and limits from you and your husband. Even when he does have a tantrum (because he is only three) you will find that you can deal with it quicker and easier.

The more interaction he has with you and the less interaction he has with a screen, the easier your family life will become.

I think my son (10) was looking at porn and I don't know what to say to him now

Question: A boy in my son's class has been suspended for showing sexual images to other boys in the schoolyard. My son is in fourth class in a small school and the whole community is shocked. Apparently the pictures were quite extreme. I am pretty sure my son was part of the group of onlookers, because he was friendly with this boy, but he hasn't said anything. I know I probably need to say something to him, but I don't know what. I certainly wasn't planning on having "the chat" with him at this age. How should I approach this with my son?

David replies: It strikes me that there are several things that you need to talk to your son about. If you think he has witnessed strong sexual imagery then you definitely need to have a talk with him about whatever he has seen.

It makes most sense to incorporate this discussion into a wider chat about sex, sexuality and relationships, or "the chat" as you euphemistically call it.

It can seem disappointing to be forced, by circumstance, into discussing sex and sexuality before we might have otherwise chosen to do it. However, age 10 (as I am guessing your son is if he is in fourth class) is a good age to talk to children about sex.

Indeed, many children will have asked questions about sex before this age. In lots of ways it is great when children do enquire, as it provides a natural and easy opportunity to talk about sex.

The key thing in talking, now, with your son is to be able to contextualise what he might have witnessed in the images being shared in the schoolyard. You have the chance to bring your values and your "spin" on sex and relationships to him.

Even though he is only 10, it is no harm for him to have proper and correct information about sex. As this experience shows, it is easy for 10-year-olds to be exposed to sex.

Even without children seeing pornographic images, our culture is highly sexualised and so it is good for children to be able to make better sense of what they see and hear.

I can imagine the manner in which this incident has rocked the community. Despite our awareness of the prevalence of pornography on the internet we still don't expect children as young as 10 to be looking at porn.

But this is increasingly a significant problem. The ease with which porn can be accessed and the pervasiveness of sexualised images in society generally mean that children are primed to become interested in sex at younger and younger ages.

When it happens, however, it still catches us by surprise. This boy's parents are probably mortified that he was not only looking at the porn himself, but that he was sharing it with other children.

Thankfully, you don't have to worry about how to respond to him, but you do have to have a "stand" in relation to his behaviour, such that you can give your son a point of reference.

So, for example, you need to decide if you disapprove of this boy's behaviour. You need to decide, too, if you are going to be stern with your son for joining in with the crowd who were captivated by what may have seemed to be "illicit" pictures.

The best way to decide your response is to frame it all in terms of what you believe to be right and good in terms of sex, sexuality and relationships. So, again, your values will determine how you talk about this boy's behaviour and your own son's behaviour.

It might also be worth talking about pornography, more generally, and the unrealistic, degrading, aggressive and detached way in which in which sex and relationships are typically portrayed.

Whatever other messages he takes from the images he saw, it would be nice to think he didn't come to believe that the pornographic images are natural and healthy.

Upsetting though it may be, you have no choice but to talk to your son, since you have to contextualise his experiences in the schoolyard, into a more wholesome and holistic understanding of sex, sexuality and relationships.

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