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How to reboot your middle-schooler

If you are parenting a Middle School child and want to make some changes, these 3 ideas can help you:
1) We didn’t know then what we know now, so go easy on yourself.
2) It’s not too late to make some changes.
3) There are progressive strategies to reboot your middle-school child’s tech habits. 

We Didn’t Know Then What We Know Now
Tech is changing so fast. When we handed our kids an iPad at 6 or gave them our old smartphone at 11, we didn’t know what huge headaches it would cause or that it might not be good for them. Cut yourself some slack, the research community didn’t know either, these devices hadn’t been around long enough for longitudinal studies to be done on the effect of screens on children’s developing brains.  Put any judgment aside and lets get cracking to make things better.

It’s not too late to make some changes
Think of the parents who let their kids ride untethered in the backseat of station wagons in the 60’s. “Unsafe at Any Speed” the book chronicling the dangers of auto accidents was published and those parents saw horrific crashes and the need for seatbelts and airbags. They took the new info and belted their kids in. The younger ones complained that their older siblings didn’t have to ride in a car-seat and the parents said,  “We didn’t know then what we know now, and we’re making some changes to keep you safe.” In a similar fashion, it’s not too late to change things up with your child’s tech usage (yes, even if they have older siblings who had more devices).

A Tiered approach to change

Executive Function Method
A parent of an 8th grader explained to me an approach that worked with her son. In the previous year he was failing a class, he admitted that he was gaming when he should have been doing homework. Compounding the issue, he was struggling with sleep because he was agitated and tempted by the computer in his room. She tried instituting limits– she would set timers and he would say he wasn’t playing, but he became pathological: lying about his tech usage and sneaking in gaming sessions.

They sat down and she took a different approach. She showed him the time he had every day to do homework, eat dinner, and enjoy some downtime. She took away the gaming time limits and asked him to manage his own time. “There are a finite number of hours each evening, you figure it out.” Her son’s evolving executive function kicked in, and she said he got control of his gaming. 

Automated Parental Controls
If the executive function route doesn’t work with your child, the next step is instituting parental controls like time limits on their gaming consoles and devices (XBOX, PS4, Apple devices. Or using a system-wide control like Circle that filters content (you can turn off YouTube completely), creates time limits (30 minutes a day) and schedules pauses from Internet access (bed time). Circle Go ($5 a month) can extend these controls to  the child’s cell phone data usage so it’s not just controlling their devices in your home on WiFi. Yes, you can set timers and tell the child to turn things off, but the reality is those methods don’t work for many families: we’re too busy, the kids know how to cheat the system, and it causes too many arguments.

Cold-Turkey Detox, Then A Small And Slow Return
If your child is still struggling with screentime overload, you may need to go a more extreme route. Some of the best science put into practice that I’ve found comes from a recent (March 2019) Stanford University article on addiction.

“Anna Lembke, MD ’95, medical director of addiction medicine at the School of Medicine and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, says she’s seeing more and more people struggle with behavioral addictions…. She advises a patient to abstain from the behavior for a month. This helps him end a compulsive cycle and reset his brain pathways. For example, if someone is addicted to video games, she’ll tell him to put away all devices, including his smartphone, which Lembke calls “the most portable and powerful conduit” to technology-related compulsions. The person should let others know he will be offline for this period of time.”

She adds that school-related tech use is hard to avoid, but should be monitored using controls or forcing the child to use tech in a public space. After the abstinence phase, the advice is to start small with automated limits in place, like parental control software, allocating 30 minutes of gaming or internet time. The cold-turkey approach may only be needed for the most extreme cases and especially since methods of communication with friends is so digital (in gaming chats or via social media) you may want to seek advice from a therapist or school counselor if you take this approach.

Middle-schoolers are not known for self-regulation. This is not a new phenomenon. They are hard-wired to try everything, seek thrills, communicate at hyper-drive speeds, and they crave acceptance from peers.  Technology does not create these tendencies, it amplifies them.  We as adults struggle to regulate our tech use, it may be too much to ask your child to self-regulate. Try the executive function route and if that doesn’t work, automated parental controls are the next step, and if that isn’t successful, try the cold-turkey method for rewiring their brains, eventually adding small and slow steps back into devices.


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