This Is How Kids Will React to Taking Away Their Electronics (In Sequence)

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Every once in a while, every family needs to detox.

Collect all the electronics—the Kindles and iPads and iPods and Nintendo DSs and smart phones—and lock them away. Pull the plug on the television and the PlayStation and the Xbox, too. Don’t do it secretively. Announce it. Tell the young ones you’re going a week or a month or whatever without Minecraft and Netflix and Halo.

Beware, though. Because when you do, something will happen….

  1. First, they’ll begin to spasm and screech, as if possessed by a demon. What do I mean by that? Well, picture a demon possession. Got it? That’s what it will look like. There will be a significant amount of overlap with how an addict responds when you take away their crack. That’s not coincidence. They’re addicted and you’re taking away their crack.
  2. They will hate you.
  3. You’ll tell them they’re kids and that’s how they’re supposed to react. It’s your job to do what is healthy for them, and it’s their job to hate you for it. For about thirty years. Or until they have kids of their own. Whichever comes first.
  4. That will make them angrier.
  5. They’ll negotiate. And they’ll be cunning. You’ll discover they understand more about how you and the family work than you ever fathomed. They’ll probe at every crack and fault line. They’ll turn passive-aggression into an art form.
  6. When you fail to cave in, they’ll up the ante. They’ll get angrier. Make threats. Scream louder. Doors will slam. Demon possession may or may not reoccur.
  7. They’ll try to guess the passcode on your mobile phone. It may not have games on it, but at this point, they’ll settle for anything that can bathe their little faces in the the cold blue wash of LED light. They’ll try and fail until it locks you out for an hour. Maybe even forever. You’ll have to restore it to factory settings. And if you still don’t cave…
  8. They will still hate you.
  9. Their social life will suffer. They will not be able to communicate with friends via iMessage, text message, SnapChat, or Xbox One. They will plead with you, telling you they are becoming social pariahs. They probably are. They’ll tell you their friends think your evil. They probably do. And when you still don’t cave, they will suddenly resort to the antiquated ritual of sitting at the family computer. At a desk. And Facebooking. You will limit that to thirty minutes a day, too.
  10. So they will hate you even more.
  11. Then, some time later—the exact timing will vary depending upon the extent of their addiction, the stubbornness of their personality, and the amount of hormones coursing through their blood—you will start to notice a subtle shift in energy. They will still hate you—at least a little—but they will be somehow more present. And they will also begin doing other things. They’ll find two old Matchbox cars in a drawer and they’ll start a chase scene in the kitchen, complete with little-kid-explosion-noises. They’ll pull an old dollhouse out of the closet and you’ll hear imaginary banter coming from their bedroom. Imaginations will reawaken. Creativity will be resurrected. Someone might even go outside. Touch a basketball. Climb onto a bike. Caution: unused muscles may get unusually sore. Thumb muscles will begin to shrink back to normal size.
  12. They’ll slowly stop hating you. They won’t like you. But they will stop fantasizing about your sudden disappearance.
  13. Whereas before, these young minds were being filled up from the outside and absorbing all sorts of electronic stimulation, they will now fill up from the inside and begin overflowing with the natural stimulation of their own interior world. They may start to talk. A lot. You’ll begin to see parts of them you haven’t seen in a long while. Maybe ever. They will be brilliant. Like the face of a diamond.
  14. You will have to put down your phone to listen. (Be careful what you ask for.)
  15. Over time, their brains will begin to settle down, into their natural rhythm. They will no longer slip into a stupor when faced with anything that doesn’t light up, flash, or explode. They will begin to find homework less excruciating, boredom less torturous, and silence and solitude less terrifying.
  16. They’ll finally give in and start communicating with their friends face-to-face again. They’ll play board games. Go out to McDonald’s and look at each other instead of their phones. They’ll lay out under the stars together and wonder. They’ll discover, when you use more than 140 characters, you see depths in another you never knew existed.
  17. They may hug you. Because tangible human contact is beginning to feel meaningful again.
  18. Eventually, you may want to put down your phone more often, as well, because as you see the spark being fanned to life in them, you will wonder if, maybe, just maybe, you have a spark like that still alight somewhere in you, too.
  19. They’ll graduate high school, go off to college, and actually not flunk out. They’ll look their professors in the eye. They’ll understand the importance of etiquette and actually use it. They’ll discover a passion inside of them that does not begin with “videogame” and end with “designer.” They’ll give their passion to the world.
  20. And then, one day, many years from now, they’ll come home and it’ll be the day you told them about so long ago. The day they’re finally grateful you took all the mind-numbing devices away. Or maybe they won’t be grateful. But either way, you’ll be grateful you did it. Because you’ll know, regardless of how it turned out, you did the hard thing so they could have the best shot at the best of things: the opportunity to be fully human and to launch themselves headlong into this thing we call being alive.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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33 thoughts on “This Is How Kids Will React to Taking Away Their Electronics (In Sequence)

  1. Oh yes, the demon screech is a common sound here. I am not sure who is louder, me or the kid. ….

    • I disagree, Ismat. Adults don’t let go of their resentment about not getting what they want nearly as quickly as kids. ; )

  2. Radical humaning. I love it.
    My favorite part, though, is the near-limitless paths it can take us on.

    • Radical humaning. Dang, you always find a way to do that, Shel! I’m awaiting the book of that title, written by you.

  3. Hi,thanks so much for posting this.We have 4 children aged 16,13,11&11 and trying to control technological timing limits is so frustrating & difficult! You have described it exactly as it is
    And it makes me feel just a little
    Better knowing you experience this way too!

    I would like to feel relaxed & simplify our family life!:
    I feel frustrated that media and technology appear to have so much effect on our children’s lives. Me & my hubby would like to be the main people to hopefully positively influence our kids lives & not the negative side effects of tecno/media etc which appears to be overflowing their brains with way too much information!
    Perhaps I’m exaggerating & realise that it’s often my son’s use of the Xbox that can cause frustration & upset on both sides ( he’s aged 13)

    Generally I’m finding it very frustrating & almost impossible trying to find out/gauge the amount of time that could be acceptable on any given day for a child to be active with technology( covering all the exhausting outlets be it TV,Dvd,computer,phones,iPad’s,Xbox,wii etc etc….!? )
    Having 4 children at home aged between 11-16 with various activities & being at home sometimes at different times, it is incredibly difficult to try to monitor how much each child has been on what piece of technology & for how long! This frustrates me immensely! Is there any one “thing/device…” that can effectively monitor/follow for how long they spend without me trying to hover over each one or write down numerous lists or mental lists to try to make sure each child isn’t excessively accessing technology!? Also, when our eldest 2 children are away from home, again I can’t monitor how much time they spend accessing the Internet with their phone etc…..
    My only thoughts for now are turning the wifi at home off by a certain time each day ( however my husband often works from home & speaks to clients global time which means the Internet connection needs to be on) So perhaps the only other idea would be to allow certain times of the day/evening for techno time perhaps? Although this then becomes quite prescriptive and doesn’t resolve the fact that sometimes the kids get home at different times if they have had an after school activity or are busy elsewhere for example or doing something else….(I can’t see any other ways round it for now) also my husband Jacques thinks that as technology is here to stay ,we need to educate them more around them themselves limiting their time,rather than us banning it,as this just increases their desire for it!?

    Any ideas would be much appreciated!

    • Cat, I think so many of us can resonate with what you say. And the truth is, there aren’t a lot of solid answers about what is best for kids. We’re just beginning to understand how all of this everyday technology affects neurochemistry, relational attachments, worldview, etc., so it’s impossible to make informed recommendations about how to use it. It puts parents in a tough position. You will have to trust your instincts regarding amount of technology use. However, just this week, I ran across a fantastic new product that should help a ton with implementing your preferences. I’m including the link below. Essentially, it’s a relatively inexpensive device/app by Disney that regulates, by device, exactly when each device can access the internet, for how long, and what content. Of course, cell phones can still draw upon data plans, but it’s a huge step forward and I’ve been hearing good reviews. I hope this helps!

  4. Or you could teach your kids that their electronics are not the world and to spend time DAILY without them. Take them to places where they can learn and see the world without having to go too far from home unless of course you can afford to do so, show them that you too are able to walk away from electronics and read a real book with paper pages and covers you can look at and think about what you read, like we do. If you raise them to use electronics but also how to live without them, you wouldn’t have to take things away. There are no such things as detox. Ever. For anything. It’s a false promise.

    • Angelina, you had an intense reaction to this post, and I respect your opinion. I don’t agree with everything you’ve said, but I don’t disagree with all of it, either. In fact, I’m working on a post that is essentially a meditation upon why I’m going back to reading paper books exclusively, rather than relying on an e-reader. So, here’s to paperbacks and long walks outside!

      • My problem with what you wrote is that you are implying that if kids do not get rid of their electronics they will not graduate high school or get into college.
        You are also saying they have to give up their devices while you sit there with yours? And that their lives will be better without all the electronics messing with their minds.
        You do know in order to get a good paying job you are going to know how to work with some electronics. Mainly computers and cell phones as employers like to be able to reach their employees in case they are needed. Many of the newer jobs coming out have to do with electronics. Many things are now done on or with computers. So if you pull all of these devices and things away from your kids, how the devil will they succeed in their future life? A good balance is the only answer but what you are implying, well that’s just the stuff that comes from a bull’s rear end!

  5. Yes! Ten years ago we pitched TV when my husband was in Iraq and I realized that his nightly calls shared the opposite of every news station! We decided the power of the lies in the media outweighed the good. Our 5 youngest have no devices (except for the 13 yr old: a flip phone, IPod for music and iPad for school all closely monitored.). No devices in car and only a little monitored gaming on weekend.
    People always ask me how we get so much done, it’s because devices aren’t clouding our days and isolating us from each other and play!
    Problemish: wherever the 10,8,8&7 yr olds and I go, they play, run, create, bring board games…and adults get annoyed, because almost all other children (and adults) are quiet on devices!
    Sad that that’s others response!
    Joy: we have FUN and we have TIME!

    • Grace, it sounds like you’ve done a great job of not being totalitarian about technology, but also finding a healthy and moderate middle ground, as Angelina suggested below. Thanks for modeling it so well for the rest of us! And, yes, kids not on devices are exponentially louder than kids on devices. As a guy who likes peace and quiet, it’s one of my main reasons for letting the kids overuse when I do!

      • Lots of interesting responses, love it! I’m such an extremist that I know I must be reasonable with technology. If I’m reading from paper books, chasing my children on the playground, engaging at a device-free dinner table, so are they. If I’m writing a comment here on my phone and they’re watching Phineas and Ferb, they’re modeling me, fine. What we do they do, so with everything, the question is, are we doing what we hope they will do? If not, detox starts with me…reasonable detoxing! 🙂

  6. Parenting is exciting and being tough for kids and for marriage is a real deal worth every cent. Sometimes appreciation and words of acknowledgment may come from our kids when we may be six feet deep under the tomb stone. Well written, Dr Kelly.

  7. We don’t do a lot of screen time with the boys (9 and 7). We have always made the effort for screen time to be something like Bill Nye, Nature Docs, How It’s Made, and even Mythbusters. Imagine this, road trips with no DVD players or Ipad’s!!! While on a recent hockey trip I was astonished at how many kids stare at there tablets. Most of them were watching junky Youtube videos of nothing.

    These other kids barely interact with each other and it is very sad. When they do it is a contest of who can talk over who. There is very little listening or interest in each other’s ideas. A 9/10yo should still engage in imaginative play. My boys have some pretty intense battles with a variety of imaginary opponents. We wrestle.

    Even with the effort we have put into this there is amazing power in screen devices. We were told that Minecraft was educational a couple years ago and let them play it. My little one literally chose to pee on himself instead of stop to use the restroom. My kids still feel entitled to have my phone sometimes or watch a show. There is still incredible attitude when they feel their “screen time” has been slighted.

    Like all things, it is a balance. Playing games on an Iphone or watching Garfield every now and again is no big deal as long as the kids are still developing the ability to reciprocate emotions with their friends.

  8. I’m blessed to have kids, 3 of them, who are not addicted to this stuff, my radical detox is not for a day week or month. It’s been for life. That’s how i raised them. We always had a small humble (unattractive) tv which we, parents, ignored, and the kids were allowed to watch videos on, or very limited programs in very limited times, so, they ended up not getting interested altogether. I don’t even know how a video game works, we never had them in our homes. Instead, lots of art and craft material, music and music instruments, nature, creative games, and activities bushwalks, camps, cooking, board games, writing and reading, dancing, plays, gardening were the replacements. Today, the older boys are grown ups and my youngest – 13, still prefers climbing on trees then pressing her fingers against a screen. She does’t have email, facebook, stupid smart phones or any of this and uses computer at school, or occasionally at home to google stuff… She is not bullied or discriminated for being so, pretty much the opposite, lots of friends say she is cool and that too much technology indeed sux. And some are even following the model! So, IT IS POSSIBLE to have kids techno free. this is NOT meant to judge anyone, its meant to say that you can act BEFORE the addiction takes place.

  9. In short, raise them by example. then you don’t need to prohibit anything. Technology has it’s place, of course, but we are still humans with heart and soul and mother nature is still full its wonders to us to enjoy, despite our constant destruction. PS > for anyone who thinks children will be “behind” or in “disadvantage” if they don’t use all this junk (overwhelming amount of devices with damaging rays emission and overwhelming – and often inappropriate – stimulation) you are wrong. They can catch up and learn in a day on how to use any of these devices and (anti)social media like faKebook, etc

  10. Dr. Flanagan, I really appreciated this post. We have our first baby on the way, and I have already felt the pressure for my husband and me to do a lot of thinking about how much of a role technology will play in our kid(s) lives, and how early on. As a student of social research myself, (I am a graduate student currently working on finishing my Master’s Thesis for my Masters in Public Administration) I know that the studies out there are primarily on the effects of TV screens, and that gaming and smartphone/tablet technology studies are still being conducted as to what effects they will have on children and their developing minds. I try to follow them and stay as current as I can.

    One of the interesting trends I have read about in this area is how couples deeply involved in the technology industry, such as those who live in Silicon Valley and work for the famous companies, also are known for being very strict and limited with their kids usage of technology. The Guardian ran a great article on this here:

    Anyways, theoretically I do get that there is and will be a need for some kind of balance, but practically speaking it is so hard to figure out exactly what that balance will and should look like. I have observed a lot of peers just ahead of us in the parenting of babies and toddlers all use technology in different ways. I’ve seen a lot of babies and toddlers already become obsessed and demanding of access to screens. I know that I have yet to enter this world, given our baby is on the way, so maybe it is still “easier said than done for me” but so many of my friends seem to portray that it is impossible to get anything done without sticking a screen in front of your young child and that it saves you from tantrums and public outbursts in stores and restaurants. I fear though that perhaps it might be this secret weapon that sucks you in to its convenience, while also severely limiting your child’s ability to learn things like focus, self-regulation, balance, self-discipline, and imagination.

    I don’t know. I have a plan in my head right now that I want to be very cautious, careful, and limited with technology in my kids lives so that it is a healthy addition versus an unhealthy addiction. Yet I also know that again that might be “easier said than done” right now.

    Thank you again for your thoughts on how the absence of technology in kids lives does open up a window to new creativity and space for connection. Do you have any thoughts for us beginners/young parents on how to start out with developing this kind of healthy habit from the beginning rather than addressing it only retroactively?

  11. The key is moderation. Don’t over-indulge, and follow the ratings system. I’m irritated to see so many parents that let their kids play/enjoy content way over their maturity level, then complain that it’s somehow the industry’s fault. No, content rated R or M is NOT suitable for your 7-8 year old.

  12. I’m having a hard time with my son. My husband and I got separated for awhile and i used to work long hours so i allowed my son to play computer games While i rest. Not having a family around and caring for him 24/7 was hard. He is 12 yrs now and addicted. I tried to take away the ipad, xbox, wiiu, DS, laptop ….etc but i keep caving in under pressure. A week ago, i stopped tv and internet service and i shut his phone service today and he is miserable. I’m so worried, he keeps saying he is going to kill himself because i took elctronics away. Im so worried.

  13. One example from our little family was a year without TV commercials. Previously we had access to public TV through an antenna. The programming was educational and had religious themes but there were still commercials geared toward toys and such for children. That Christmas was delivered by Santa with an “As Seen on TV” theme and I think we may still have one or two items that never actually got opened. We moved to a home that could not get the TV via antenna so the only digital entertainment was Netflix (highly monitored and filtered by us) and any apps we allowed on devices. The next Christmas the Children were more thoughtful about what they asked for and even years later they still play with and enjoy the things they received that year. I’ve not bothered to set up cable or even local antenna based TV since and don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything. We are once again facing addictive behavior as our children have taken a liking to YouTube channels where they watch other people play games. Its kind of weird but it is having an effect on them. I believe we are due for another purge.

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