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Electronic Attention Suckers

Every family struggles with ways to manage this generation’s darn distracting devices. Here’s our best trick for keeping video games from taking over our teen’s life.

When we got Enzo his first handheld video game, he was too young in my opinion, but still much older than most kids these days are when they are handed their first Electronic Attention Sucker (E.A.S.). We had held off as long as we could for several reasons:

1. He had plenty of toys already that he could never find enough time for: Legos, paper airplanes, and, um, trains.

2. He already didn’t spend enough time outside, and every minute you are in front of a screen is a minute you could be spending doing something usefully dangerous, like building forts or burning things with magnifying glasses.

3. We knew the power of a screen to suck away one’s life force.

[Free Download: Too Much Screen Time? How to Regulate Your Child’s Devices]

Because it had happened to us. My husband, who I shall call “Dave” in this blog, has for years made a daily hour or two of collecting rings, battling bad guys, or building civilizations part of his life. And “Dave” still teases me about my 1996 Mardi Gras Tetris-and-chocolate-cake bender before I gave both up for Lent.

It had also happened to people we care about. Enzo’s talented Uncle Art, for example, lost four years of his adult life gaming in every free moment before he chose to spend every possible moment painting and building a career.

The thing is, video games are actually designed to make you want to keep playing. The tasks are stimulating and challenging. There is always a level to beat, and when you beat it, your reward is to start another level. There is no such thing as a game that will come to a satisfying end just before dinner time. Even game creators are now realizing they have done damage to childhood, and telling kids to go outside more.

It was only fair that Enzo would get his own Electronic Attention Suckers though. We did not want to deprive him of the adrenaline and dopamine-fueled pleasures of his generation. But before we let him put his twitching thumbs on the thing, we set up a Video Game Agreement that said things like he could play age-appropriate games for two hours on a weekend, if he asked first, and so forth. The deal was: if he couldn’t play by the rules, he would have to turn the game off, period.

[“How Much Screen Time Is Too Much?”]

The best rule on the list was this one: When we call your name, you need to pause and look up. The fact that he would lose privileges for 24 hours if he did not hear us and respond motivated him learn how to shift his attention gears, make good eye contact, and mind his manners — all things that can be incredibly difficult for hyperfocused kids with ADHD. But the immediate reward of getting more dopamine helped train his brain in a good way.