Screen Time

My Son’s Story of Electronics Addiction and Recovery

“If your child were addicted to drugs or alcohol, would you let him have just a little bit?” It was this question from Matthew’s cognitive behavior therapist that started my head spinning. My child was addicted to video games, and I wasn’t doing enough to help him recover. That is where the honesty — and the detox — began. Here is how we went cold turkey.

Video game addiction among kids with ADHD

My 9-year-old son, Matthew, is an addict. Matthew is addicted to video games and electronics. And although it might not sound like a big deal, it is.

On Super Bowl Sunday, I allowed my son to binge play on his iPad so I could watch the game without being disturbed. He was out of my hair, quiet, and happy, so why not? What happened after the game is why I will never allow that unfettered play again.

My son has attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), which is difficult to manage on a regular day. Throw in an overdose of electronics and it’s is a recipe for disaster. After the Super Bowl ended and his gaming session was over, he could not get himself to sleep. This had never been an issue before. He was so over-stimulated that he was unable to regulate his body, behavior, and mood, which caused him to be nasty, irritable, and downright miserable. The next two days were an absolute nightmare, not only because I did not allow him to play video games but also because he was coming down from the negative effects of binge playing. He was truly having symptoms of addiction withdrawal.

Rewind to the prior week. I took my son to see a presentation called Digitally Distracted about the negative effects that electronics have on the brain. During his presentation, Thomas Kersting listed warning signs of addiction: Loses track of time when on electronics; becomes agitated when interrupted; prefers to spend time using electronics rather than playing; does not follow time limits; loss of interest in other activities; seems restless when not using a device and preoccupied with getting back on; avoids homework and chores because of spending too much time with electronics; sneaks a device when no one is around and lies about it.

Throughout the presentation, Matthew sat with his arms crossed while glaring at me. He did not want to be there. So I was surprised when, during the car ride home, he stated, “I am addicted to video games.” He was neither angry nor argumentative. He did not yell or say it in a mean tone. As a matter of fact, he was very quiet as if reflecting on what the presenter had to say.

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I was completely taken aback that he recognized this within himself. Isn’t admitting you have an addiction the first step to healing? I knew then that I had to take action. I was relieved that he understood what was going on and acknowledged his feelings and told him that we would make a plan to help him.

Like a lot of parents, I didn’t believe I was permissive or overindulgent with electronics. I set boundaries. I was that mom who only allowed video games on the weekends, and maybe, if he earned it, an hour a day after school. But when I looked at things honestly, it was much more.

He would bring a device to school, which meant he was spending time on his electronics before school during morning care, at recess, and during after care. When we were out to dinner, he was allowed to play on a device while we waited for the food. On the weekends, I would set a timer for an hour, but after push-back and negotiating, one hour would turn into two hours easily, twice a day. At times I would stand my ground and fight with him to turn it off, but other days I just did not have the energy. Especially if I was cooking, doing laundry, or trying to read a book. Sometimes it was easier to just let it go because I had time to myself, and he was being quiet.

But, after sitting through that presentation, and then seeing the very real-world consequences come to life with my son, I knew we had to make some serious changes.

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Even with all this information staring me in the face, I still contemplated allowing my son some gaming time on the weekends because I dreaded his reaction and I did not want to deal with it. Plus, I did not know where or how to start this detox plan. And then I realized, like with any addiction, I needed to seek help from a professional. In this case, I turned to Dr. Lori, Matthew’s cognitive behavior therapist. After telling her about Matthew’s comment, and then relaying the events of Super Bowl Sunday, she gave me very sound advice: “If he were addicted to drugs or alcohol, would you still let him have just a little bit?” At that moment, I truly understood that this was a real addiction, just like any other, and resolved to completely cut off Matthew from his electronics cold turkey. No iPad, no DS, no Xbox, no computer, no Nintendo Switch, no access to my phone. Nothing.

The first week was absolute torture. Initially, he thought he was going to be able to handle it, probably thinking I would eventually give in. But after 24 hours of no electronics, withdrawal set in. And it was a true addict’s withdrawal. His morning and night routines were awful. He was so angry at me and so mean to me that I often cried on the way to work. He fought, cried, screamed, begged, and asked every 10 minutes. At one point he got so angry that he trashed his room, something that he had only done once before, which was also in reaction to the consequence of losing access to video games. I lost my cool and yelled at him. It would have been easy to give up and I came close to my breaking point, but I thought back to the question that Dr. Lori asked me and found the strength to say, “No.”

After about 5 days of anger, his emotions transitioned to sadness. When he asked for his electronics and was told no, he no longer stomped off angrily: he cried instead. And as he went through his emotional process, so did I. I questioned myself constantly and wondered if I was doing the right thing day after day. Still, I kept thinking about Dr. Lori’s words, and how this would not only help him now, but also in the future.

In order to combat some of these emotions, we created a list of fun things to do instead of playing video games. Slime, puzzles, board games, cards, coloring, mazes, word searches. You name it, we did it. I became his playmate. We played a new board game daily and became experts at playing cards. My involvement was completely hands on. When it was time to cook, he helped peel potatoes. When I had to do laundry, he poured the detergent. He was kept busy all day. Every time he was “bored,” I referred him to the list.

Sometimes he entertained himself, but many times he searched for a social interaction with me, his father, or sisters. This was probably more exhausting than listening to him cry and complain because I needed to keep him occupied. These were the moments when I wanted to bend the rules and allow him to play for a little while because I just wanted some time to myself. Thankfully, I held strong and did not give in. Because as we started to spend more one-on-one time together without the distraction of electronics, we began to also experience moments of joy. Laughter while playing a game. Or a sense of connection while he helped me with chores. And, just the genuine closeness that you can’t have unless you are fully present with the other person.

During the third week, acceptance began to set in. He began to admit to people that he was in a video game detox. Family members started taking notice that he was more present and conversational. He was and is a happier, friendlier, funnier, more pleasant Matthew. He feels better about himself and admits he doesn’t miss it. Occasionally he will ask to have access to his electronics, and when he is told no, he still sometimes gets angry. But when I remind him of how great he feels and that I am proud of him, he lets it go.

Matthew has not had access to video games or electronics for four weeks now. Not that we haven’t had missteps. He played on an iPad for about 30-45 minutes on day 24 of his detox at a friend’s house, but that did not seem to set him back at the time. However, two days later he asked again and we got into an argument over the reason why he could not have access. More tears, more frustration. He was very persistent and only wanted to play for 15 minutes. I was on the verge of saying yes, because this entire experience has been exhausting for everyone, but I knew 15 minutes would turn into more and more and more. So I pulled out a deck of cards and started paying by myself. Soon enough, he was right next to me having a good time.

Because of Matthew’s addiction, electronics limitations have been placed on our entire family (my husband and myself, plus two older sisters). The bond that this has created for us has enriched all our lives. When we go out for dinner, we actually talk to each other and find things to laugh about. If there is a lull in the conversation, we play cards or Spot It while we wait for our food. Board games are an everyday occurrence in our house now. We are happier and more socially connected, and we enjoy each other’s company so much more. Plus we are all so very proud of Matthew.

As necessary as this journey has been, by no means has it been easy, and I’m not sure that it ever will be. There were moments that I wanted to give up and give in, and I continue to fight that battle, particularly when I’m tired and frustrated and just want some time to myself. I was angry with myself and my child for allowing this to happen. I was resentful of other parents who didn’t have to go through this and of their kids who seemingly dangled electronics in my sons face. I was frustrated at the school for allowing students to bring in their handheld video games. I hated that I cared so much. And I still fear that my son may have an addictive personality and worry what the future challenges may be.

Will I be able to keep electronics away from him forever? I realistically know that I cannot. What I hope Matthew does learn from this though is that he can live a fun, happy life without electronics being a priority or a crutch. Like any addiction, recurrence is very real when surrounded by your vice. I hope that eventually, Matthew can develop a healthy relationship with his electronics without addiction setting back in. And while I’m realistic that this will be a process full of pitfalls, knowing how far we’ve come, I’m hopeful that we can figure out a way forward.

Electronics addiction is very real, particularly for children and their developing brain. And, it can have lifelong repercussions if is not addressed. I hope I wasn’t too late helping my son. I hope that we both have the strength to continue to fight this battle. And I’m sharing our story in hopes that it helps someone else not be too late in helping their child.

[Brilliant Idea Alert! An “Ethics Manual” for Your Teen’s Electronics]

Updated on October 11, 2019

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  1. I can’t adequately describe just how very offensive I find this article.

    The signs of Video Game Addiction that you refer to-
    1. Loses track of time when on electronics; becomes agitated when interrupted;
    2. Prefers to spend time using electronics rather than playing;
    3. Does not follow time limits; loss of interest in other activities;
    4. Seems restless when not using a device and preoccupied with getting back on;
    5. Avoids homework and chores because of spending too much time with electronics;
    6. Sneaks a device when no one is around and lies about it.

    These are ALL common symptoms of ADHD!
    1. Hyperfocus on things of interest
    2. Hyperfocus on things of interest, avoidance of less stimulating/boring activities
    3. Hyperfocus on things of interest, avoidance of less stimulating/boring activities
    4. Avoidance of less stimulating/boring activities
    5. Hyperfocus on things of interest, avoidance of less stimulating/boring activities
    6. Maladaptive coping strategies

    People with ADHD have addictive personalities- true. Electronic devices (especially video games and social media) are addictive- true. But simply going by the list of addiction symptoms above, ADHD people are addicted to literally anything they find interesting. I am, therefore, addicted to books, learning new things, axe-throwing, video games, listening to music, spending time with my significant other, going to work, and any other number of hobbies/activities that I enjoy doing.

    Your child may have been presenting addictive behaviours, MAY have been, but your ‘overdose during the superbowl’ hypothesis is both laughable and, again, offensive. I, personally, have spent entire days, and even weeks, doing mostly nothing but playing video games. Currently, I’m in a dry spell- they’re just not as interesting to me at the moment as they have been in the past. This has been going on for about two months. I’ve done precisely the same thing with books in the past- read incessantly for days/weeks, then not touched one for months.

    Use of electronics is not actually DANGEROUS for a child unless:
    a) no limits or restrictions are placed on their usage
    b) the child is not taught to prioritise other daily living activities over electronic usage
    c) the child begins to substitute solitary electronic usage over shared activities with others (bear in mind that you can play video games with your friends nowadays, even when you’re in different houses).

    It’s natural for people with ADHD to lose track of time, to get agitated when interrupted doing something they enjoy, to not want to obey time limits, lose interest in things other than their passion of the day, get restless when doing things that do not stimulate them sufficiently, avoid homework to do things they enjoy, and to sneakily do more of what they enjoy when they think they can get away with it. This is par for the course with ADHD!

    To actually compare a 9-year old who simply enjoys a hobby to a substance abuse addict is offensive on so very, very many levels, even if the child thinks he’s addicted himself. If this same child felt the same way about books, or martial arts, or some other sport, you would likely not bat an eye. The only issue here is your own in-built prejudice towards video games and electronic forms of entertainment.

    Don’t get me wrong here- I think it’s wonderful that you’ve managed to get your son to engage more with the family, conversing, playing communal games, and spending more time together and around each other- these are vital things for any child, especially one with ADHD (I wish I’d had a mother who wanted to spend time with me), and if his gaming was becoming an issue in the home, it’s great that it got resolved. But the tone of this article is needlessly inflammatory and disparaging, and offends me on many multiple levels. Your son is not a recovering addict, your son is a person who got very engaged with something you disapprove of. He picked up on your disapproval, went with you to an event where the activity was disparaged by a figure of apparent authority, internalised this negativity, and rejected the activity for fear of losing your approval.

    He’s an addict once he turns into a teenager/adult who will not leave the house, will not wash, will not study, will not eat, drink, or socialise, and becomes AGGRESSIVE when limits are imposed. It’s awesome that you started with limits early- I’m going to do the same thing with my own kids, because that’s when they build their relationships with different things- but he is not an addict. Addictive behaviours are ones that manifest as a result of a harmful relationship with a thing. Someone who enjoys going out and drinking and gets annoyed when they can’t go out is not an alcoholic, someone who has an unhealthy relationship with or attachment to alcohol is an addict. Someone who enjoys playing video games and does not want to be interrupted or stop playing is not an addict, someone who lets games rule their lives is an addict.

    To sum up: The tone of this article is offensive. The assertion that a long stint of electronic usage can cause addiction is offensive. To compare ordinary ADHD symptoms when stimulating activities are removed to substance addiction is offensive. As someone with ADHD, for whom video games were one of the only escapes I had from an extremely horrible life, to be called an addict over them (however indirectly) is offensive.

    Well done on getting your son to engage. Don’t look at his hobbies as something dirty.

    1. Space boy 99. When it involves ADHD if you dont have the problem dont criticise. I am a female adult and am also addicted to video games. I go to bed at night and let time fly by. Many times its dawn before i quit. I am in counseling but she is not helping. U need help.

      1. Hi Kathi47. I appreciate your honesty. A gaming disorder/ video addiction is very real. People who criticize are not ready to admit it to themselves. I know a student who failed out of college because he could not put the controllers down. This is very real. If I didn’t intervene, that student could be my son one day.
        I really hope you get the help you need. Please contact the presenter I mentioned in the article. He works with people trying to recover from video game addiction. Good luck! I wish you nothing but the best!

      2. To add Spaceboy99, this is an article, not a book. The mention of the superbowl behavior was the turning point, not his only down point. For the sake of time, I did not dive into other moments prior.

    2. First and foremost, Thank you for reading my article, and I apologize if I offended you. The point of this article was to bring awareness to a real addiction that our children face. Gaming disorder is very real. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified gaming disorder in their International Classification of Diseases. Having a video game addiction/gaming disorder is very real. Students are failing out of school because of their video game addiction. Dozens of families have reached out to me in support of my article because it opened their eyes and they are now setting strict limits. This was not solely for children with ADHD, but our ADHD children have an even harder struggle because of the challenges they face in regards to hyper-focusing on things they prefer.
      My son admitting that he was addicted to video games was very telling and I would not change a thing. An addiction is an addiction. Call it what you want, but the bottom line is, doing anything that limits you from performing functionally on a daily basis is a problem.
      I’m so glad I took action and I’m so happy that I have helped other families.

  2. Wow. You can turn anything into an addiction these days. Replace “video games” with “teddy bear” and suddenly you’ve got a teddy bear addiction. Kid sneaks his teddy bear at night. Loses track of time while playing with his teddy bear. Did you ever think that perhaps that’s just adhd and it doesn’t matter what the interest is? When I was a kid it was art (still is) and music. I’ve spend countless hours creating. When I was away from it, it was all I could think about. I could’nt wait to wake up in the morning to make music or art. I had a hard time going to sleep and getting my brain to turn off because I had (still have) adhd. Not because of an art/music addiction. You probably don’t play games with your kid. You’re probably the kind of family with one gaming console that you look at like it’s some kind of alien thing. The problem isn’t your kid or video games, it’s your perspective. We’re a 4 console family. We game together, we game apart. We set boundaries, though. No electronics at the table, tablets go on the charger in the living room before bed. Do my kids wake up and go straight to gaming, yeah, sometimes. But not always. Right now my adhd daughter is reading a book (swap video game for book and it looks like your “addiction”) while my neurotypical son aggregates her to go play outside.

    1. I am an avid reader and my son often tells me that I’m addicted to books. lol, I wish I had the time! A hobby, however healthy it is, becomes a problem if it is all consuming. Working out for 9 hrs a day, not healthy. Eating salad for 9 hrs a day, not healthy. Reading a book for 9 hrs a day, not healthy. Playing electronics for 9 hrs a day, not healthy.
      You can criticize my article and say I over-reacted by calling his obsession and addiction, but I stand behind it 100%.
      My brother is an artist, so I appreciate your story of how creative you were as a kid. I am not debating the difficulties a person with ADHD face. I simply stated the difficulties a child with a ADHD faces with video game addiction.
      Please don’t assume what my family life is like. Regardless of how many consoles we have, I think that comment was irrelevant and rude.
      If you read the entire article, I say I want my child to have a HEALTHY relationship with electronics.

  3. I think it’s important that this perspective is shared, at the very least because there are so many other parents out there struggling with the same things. I feel terrible about the backlash that I inevitably think the author will receive, because she’s put herself in a vulnerable position regarding a complicated issue.

    My concern is framing this type of problem as an “addiction” to a child. Even if it is, I fear the damage of the label in place of addressing the behavior itself, which is absolutely something that can and will shift to another obsession if it isn’t addressed. I’m an adult with ADHD and both of my children also have ADHD, and we all have to practice checking ourselves and our priorities on a regular basis. Recently my daughter had to establish limits for herself after she became old enough to set up her own Pinterest account! There are certain days of the week when I cannot even touch a book because I know I will ignore any alarms or limits I set for myself and I have too much to do. I do think it is incredibly important to address the fact that overuse of video games and electronics hinders our ability to deal with relationships and problems, practice waiting and patience, and avoid a lot. But so do a lot of things – that’s part of ADHD. It’s even more important that those of us with ADHD PRACTICE setting our own limits, turning off devices, and other self regulation strategies over and over again, even more than our non-ADHD peers, because it’s so much harder for us, and that we have help doing it.

    Overstimulation from video games is very real, but can also be related to sensory issues, which coexist in many children with ADHD and are still poorly understood. One of the best ways to manage this with my son is to give him his earned electronic time early enough In the afternoon that he can get outside and engage in some kind of physical activity afterwards.

    I’m so glad this conversation has been started, I truly hope the author doesn’t feel attacked, I just think this is a bigger conversation. My son genuinely struggles with the same issues, including connecting to people and many others described in the article, but electronics are not like drugs or alcohol – they are not something he can cut out of his life. Electronics are a necessary tool he will need to use in school and can be an excellent resource to help in his ADHD symptoms to make lists, set reminders, etc. My own son’s physical disabilities mean his electronic device is part of his IEP! It is an incredible amount of work on a daily basis, and it would be a million times easier ifor just get rid of electronics. But if we don’t practice these thing every single day now when we have so much more influence, what will happen when he’s 16, or worse, when he’s a freshman in college?

    1. evae1izabeth I appreciate your insight. Everyone will read this article with different lenses and their perspectives, be it positive or negative. My fear is when he gets older and can’t control himself. I have all the say now, but eventually, I won’t.
      I know this article has helped many people open their eyes to a growing problem, and for that I am grateful for writing it. I know I “offended” people by calling it an addiction, but it is what it is.
      I hope to be able to teach him how to manage his electronics in a healthy way.

  4. I applaud the parents of this article. The people who criticise do not have the problem. Lets give each other slack and encouage each other. I am a female adult and play games when i go to bed. Many times its dawn before i quit. My counselor is not helping me.

    1. I’m not criticising because I don’t believe in video game addiction. I’m criticising because she’s conflating ordinary hyperfocus on an enjoyed hobby with addiction.

      A fixation on a hobby isn’t addiction until it becomes problematic or harmful. Take your case- you start playing video games in bed, then don’t stop until dawn. That’s a problem. Though I do wonder if you have any of the other hallmark addiction signs (including withdrawal), because if not, you could possibly deal with this issue just using an oven timer or something.

      Also, in the past (and sometimes recently, I’ll admit), I’ll lie down in bed and start reading. If I don’t get tired, I can go for hours and hours, and I HAVE sometimes read right through until dawn. Would you likewise call me addicted to reading? Or is your assertion if addiction based on the negative perception of video games in society? Please understand, if you actually DO suffer from video game addiction, I have no intention of demeaning your struggles. I have a father who struggles with gambling addiction, I know how hard these things are. But I think the author is making an insulting mountain out of an ordinary molehill, because she personally doesn’t like the molehill.

      Finally, I DO have ADHD, despite what you suggested in your reply to me. So I’m qualified to talk.

      1. Spaceboy99 Insulting mountain out of an ordinary molehill? Interesting perspective. I understand addiction and I was not trying to be offensive. Perspective taking is a quality people need to have in order to have empathy. In my home, his gaming addiction was taking over and I needed to help him. He is a better kid because of it. I know I have helped numerous families by telling my story. I don’t know why I offended you so. I respect your opinion, but I would not change a thing about my article. I am not anti-video games. I am anti-video game addiction. My daughters played video games for years and I never had an issue with it. My son however, needed an intervention and I’m so grateful for people who are empathetic and supportive of our journey.

  5. Kudos to the author for writing this article. What she went through to help her young son take a digital detox took an incredible amount of energy and persistence. If you don’t have a child that loses himself in screens so much that it disrupts his life and his familiy’s life in extreme ways just to get off a screen then you don’t understand what it is like. Most kids now have an attachment to screens but she is speaking to a different level. I am surprised at the vitriol and defensive posts here- obviously she isn’t speaking to your situations. Comparing a reaction to getting your child to stop gaming vs. getting them to put a book down is a false equivalency. Additionally she is talking about a child, not an adult with years more emotional developement and who also didn’t have the kind of screen life we have now during their own development.
    My son is now 15 (with ADHD) and we have had the same issues. His generation was caught in the first couple years of being middle school age with smart screens— and with very few ways to limit time (no Circle, no iPhone or other parental controls through the devices). We basically had to literally pull it from him, unplug it, consequences, rewards etc. But Iit has been an uphill battle (literally).He has struggled greatly academically and socially due partly to the hold screens have had over him. We are continuing to try and find solutions but it is much harder at 15 than at 9.
    We also had about a 6 week detox at 11. It was great and he applied himself to becoming a very good skatebaorder. But it didn’t take long before we were having giant fights about limits again as soon as the detox was over. So I hate to say it most likely won’t just go away as he matures. Keep having the occasional detox and use those parental controls. I think learning screen use with the parental controls in place will help the younger kids a lot. Hopefully by the time they become young adults out efforts will pay off and they will have learned some self management. Good luck!

    1. Thank you becksmac. I appreciate your support. It sounds like you understand exactly what I was saying. My friend reached out to me about her child failing out of college because of his gaming addiction. It is a very real problem. I know I will have more battles to face with Matthew as he gets older, but I realize I have the strength to help him during the next hurdle.
      By writing this article, I meant to help parents, not offend. An addiction is an addiction. Denial is a terrible thing. I was not afraid to call it what it was with my son. I hope parents people understand that. Thank you or your positive feedback.

  6. Cynthia, thank you so much for being so mindful and thoughtful to write this article and share your experiences with Matthew. I have noticed how withdrawn my son had become during the winter time by virtue of playing video games. While at first I was not alarmed because this was a way for him to interact with his friends, I started to notice how my 9 year old figure out ways to sneak in some extra playtime. He also had started to avoid anything that will take time away from his gaming and his attitude and demeanor had changed around us. While we had pause to evaluate his gaming reading your article, reinforced our views. My husband and I really took action and made a very conscious effort to break him away from his gaming. It has been close to a month now, and we can see a big change on his attitude, my son is back to his normal self playful, loving and engaged with the whole family. Our next effort will be to figure out if we can allow him to play again and see if he can now have a positive relationship with his video games and be his normal self. I wanted to let you know your article has reached us and made an impact thank you again for your courage to write.

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