ASK MOM

Award-winning column encouraging parents to tackle the hard stuff.
by Mary Follin and Erika Guerrero

Fredericksburg Parent & Family Magazine

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ASK MOM: SON BORED UNLESS HE’S IN FRONT OF A SCREEN, MOM SAD ABOUT IT

by | Sep 15, 2023

Son bored unless he’s in front of a screen, mom sad about it

by Mary Follin and Erika Guerrero
Read more ASK MOM on Fredericksburg Parent & Family ​

THE PROBLEM: I worry about my (8 yo) son and his addiction to screens. Even though ‘addiction’ is my word, I’m scared that it’s really what I’m seeing. He’s totally restless unless he’s playing a video game or watching TV. I often make him do something else—Legos, drawing, reading etc.—and he’s sweet and agreeable about going along with it. He just doesn’t seem to enjoy these other activities, which makes me sad. I feel like he’s not going to have fond memories of his childhood, because the only thing he really loves to do with a passion is whatever’s online or on TV. I’d appreciate any ideas. 
 

MARY SAYS: It will be interesting to see how the field of psychology and the passing of years treats the issue you describe, for indeed, it’s endemic in our culture. Are we, as humans, changing into a species that lives partway through computers? Will we eventually have chips installed in our brains? Will we ‘evolve’ into cyborgs?

Regardless of where this goes, today’s children are on the front line and may be suffering greatly for it. There are still enough people on the planet who remember the joys of living without the aid of artificial intelligence to make us feel alarmed about the number of children living through technology.

You want your son to “be quiet near a little stream and listen,” as children’s author Maurice Sendak so beautifully puts it. You want him to experience the scraping sound of roller skates on pavement, the waxy smell of crayons, the sparkling brightness of a snow fort that took hours to build.

You don’t want him to just do these things; you want him to love them.

So how does one get over being a screen junkie? Many people who have done this will tell you the way to stop is to, well, just stop. But before that happens with your son, he will most likely need a motivation to do so. The trick is to find out what motivates him rather than what scares you.

Here’s a few you can try:

  • Talk about boredom. Most of life’s moments are spent off-screen, and if your son isn’t aware of how restless he is when he’s not being entertained, he may simply think that’s ‘just how he is.’ Kids HATE being bored, so if you could inspire him to find entertainment in his real-life activities, he may be willing to put some ‘umph’ behind his non-screen world.
  • Ever hear of ‘gamer regret’? Children have an inner guidance system that tells them when things aren’t quite right. Don’t underestimate your son’s intelligence. Ask him how he feels about spending so much of his time on screens and how uncomfortable he feels when he’s not in front of one.
  • Do some research about social issues among children who spend too much time on screens. An overabundance of screentime can make shy people even more shy and less likely to get out and socialize, and even if your son is an extravert, he can still lose some of his social skills for lack of practice. Communicate your research in such a way that your son feels empowered to develop himself as a growing boy rather than escaping behind screens into a fantasy world. Kids care deeply about having friends!

If your son is willing to work with you on this, he’ll need something to reach for when he needs a screen fix. Try really, really hard to figure out what he cares about and where his passions lie—animals, art, sports, cooking. Help him develop something into a deeper level of engagement. While it may take a while for your efforts to pay off, you’re planting seeds for your son’s future and sharing a value with him that he’ll eventually grow to appreciate, that the real world is way more interesting than what’s happening on screen.

ERIKA SAYS: I worry about this for my son also, and I happen to be dealing with the issue even as we speak. My son’s constant need for electronics frustrates me, mainly because it’s never been an issue in our household before. I’m working on solving this, and I’m happy to share my experience with you.

The first thing I did was to try and figure out why? I believe our ‘why’ boils down to this: my son is overwhelmed by the number of toys he has in his room. I also share custody with his father, who has different rules when it comes to electronics. While my son’s time away is not significant, it’s enough for him to realize electronics are earned and monitored in one household while he has free reign in the other. (A discussion for another day!)

If you don’t already have rules for TV, tablets, and video games, establish them now. In my home, video games are only for weekends (and timed); the iPad is also only allowed on the weekend (also timed). My son gets 30 mins of TV on school days to help him settle down while he eats an after-school snack. One condition: whatever he watches has to be educational, not nonsensical. (I’m not heavily attached to the educational part; I just don’t want him watching content that isn’t age-appropriate or uncensored.) I find it easier to narrow his choices down to either PBS or a few preapproved TV shows. I’m more lenient with weekend TV time, but everything is screened and has to be mommy-approved first.

So what about the boredom part? My son often whines that he has nothing to do, yet, he has a room full of toys. I believe he has too much to choose from and is overwhelmed by the readily available choices, as most children are. We solved that problem by doing a significant cleanout and creating a rotation system. After donating a bunch of toys, I took half of the remaining ones and put them in bins, out of sight. Every few weeks, I swap out a few toys from storage. Although they aren’t new, my son has forgotten about them, and they feel new when he sees them again. So far, this has worked well for us.

Another thing I did was create a schedule for my son during the week, which looks something like this: an after-school snack plus TV time, chores, reading/homework, playtime (outside), dinner, clean up, and bedtime routine. A full after-school schedule doesn’t give my child time to think about electronics; he’s too busy with the other things he has to do. He also has a responsibility chart that allows him to earn smiley faces for every completed task: chores, keeping his room clean, showing respect, not whining, etc. He earns three minutes of electronics for every smiley face on his chart, which can be up to an hour and a half in a good week.

The more I kept my son from his iPad, the more he requested it, and the more frustrated I got. When I shifted my approach from keeping him away from it to moderating his usage, I noticed my son stopped asking so much. Allow your son to enjoy these activities but cut down on the time he spends on them. (And by the way, be mindful of how much time you spend on your electronic devices!) Encourage outdoor activities, family-themed fun, board game nights, and electronic-free playdates with friends. Be creative; I like to think of things I did as a kid and share those activities with my son.

ASK MOM offers parents two perspectives on today’s child-rearing issues—one from a mom with grown children (Mary), the other from a mom raising a small child (Erika). If you’re looking for creative solutions, or your mom isn’t around to ask, drop in! 
If you have a question for Mary and Erika, we’d love to hear from you! askmomyourquestion@gmail.com

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About Mary Follin

Mary is the author of TEACH YOUR CHILD TO READ and ETHYR, winner of the Moonbeam Children's Book Award and the Gertrude Warner Book Award. She is mom to two grown sons and enjoys sharing her more seasoned perspective  with parents of younger children. 

ABOUT ERIKA GUERRERO

Erika Guerrero is a freelance hair and makeup artist, Erika K. Beauty, single-mama to one amazing boy, and author of She’s Not Shaken, a blog offering hope and encouragement to women in all walks of life.

ABOUT SUZANNE JOHNSON

Suzanne Johnson, mother of five children and grandmother of eight, is an illustrator, book cover designer, and author of the Realms of Edenocht series.

ETHYR

M.P. Follin
​Gertrude Warner Book Award
Moonbeam Children's Book Award

An adventure for kids ages 8-12— especially if they like video games!