How do parents distinguish and manage child behaviors? Should adults join in on the “techno ban wagon” and go cold-turkey to take a break from their technology gadgets too?

Recently, I have been observing our son’s behavior change over this past year, in particular, while he was playing Xbox LIVE video war games, specifically, “Call of Duty”.  I know I may have contributed to his intrigue and advancement with technology especially since I purchased most of it in our home, starting at his early age of about ten year’s old however he succumbed to a certain level of intrigue or hype for the “game” all on his own. And since he played with this type of technology just about daily, it has been extremely challenging for him to put it down.

Not only did he play video games by day and night, but when I would ask him to call it quits, or to simply take a dinner break, he would not adhere to numerous requests.  He was at the age when reprimanding was becoming ineffective, and time-outs were no longer applicable for a child of his age.  Consequences became the new name of the game but still they fell short.  He would return from the Xbox gaming system to our kitchen, dragging the laptop in hand, cords on the floor, and headphones glued to his ears – basically all the gear “plugged in” with the world around him “tuned out”!  A constant battle – we had our own internal wars beginning, we didn’t need the influence of the “game”.

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One day when requests went unanswered, after about the twentieth time, I had had enough.  To him war games became his life – they were intense and filled with drama, energy, and exhilaration.  The games are so engaging and a simple diversion for this so-called “digital world”, a media thrill.  Technology and innovation were at his fingertips.  While I wanted him to learn and thrive, I did not want him to obsess.  There had to be limits.  His I-Phone was also glued to his hip, just like the other products, and he could not let go of any of these devices.  When he would put the Xbox device down he found the next gadget . . . a laptop, smart phone, and so on. He had other software games but these were top of mind.  In my opinion, I saw severe change in behavior, attention span, eating and sleeping habits.  I was concerned he was getting “addicted” to inappropriate software gaming at this young age, and addiction is of concern, no matter what age or type – he was obsessing about it.

Although our son has always been a smart student, he was ‘perfecting the game’ (he said), in a lieu of focusing on enhanced learning and improved grades.   His “A” performance at school dropped in a few classes to a “B” or “B-“, and although one may think that’s not bad, he was nonchalant and indifferent.  My ex-husband and I were not thrilled with what we were experiencing.  We were more than annoyed about his behavior and also concerned about his grades dropping.  It was a spiral effect happening very quickly it seemed.  6 - 8 hours turned into 8 - 10 hours a day, or sometimes even more!   Adolescence was setting in too.  He was growing and becoming bigger than me; intimidation wasn’t a game in our household either.  But, who was the boss?  As a young adult, I was always brought up to respect your parents, no matter what.  This behavior needed to end – FAST!

My concerns exacerbated so I found resources and involved my ex-husband, family counselor, pediatrician, and school counselor.  They all agreed no more than 1.5 – 2 hours per day was the recommended use for technology or TV watching.  Even though we always had family guidelines and chores for our kids in each of our homes, responsibilities taught them accountability, but rules were rules, and children were to respect all individuals, especially their parents.  The family guidelines became less and less important or significant to the young teen.   My son and his friends were always thrilled with joy when the next best gaming invention came on the market.  Their excitement was primarily about that – not much else.

Our digital home advanced from your typical middle-class family providing young children educational learning tools such  as the LeapFrog and LeapPad, Nintendo DS, Rock Band Music PlayStation, Nintendo Wii, MP3 Player, I-Pad, Music Headphones, to Xbox LIVE, various desktops, laptops, and tablets, and even an HD PVR?!  You might ask – what in the world is that?  A High Definition personal video recorder for making real-time H.264 compressed recordings from cable TV and satellite set top boxes at resolutions up to 1080i with a mic!  Huh?!  I realize most kids are not even quite familiar with this technology but my son and one of his best friends were.  They researched the device and he knew the exact model they wanted.  I helped them hook it up to the television and computer system. They filmed themselves playing the “war games”, recording their moves, and made their own home videos, uploading them to anonymous YouTube accounts, at first.  Once I realized what they were up to though, it didn’t take long, maybe a few days, before I caught on and shut them down.

These kids had no idea what they were doing and with whom they might be communicating with in our infiltrated world of strangers, online predators and technology.  I thought they were going to make silly, fun home movies – what was I thinking?!  They were loose cannons out on a mission to divide and conquer as new entrepreneurs on a learning quest.  Exciting – yes! Scary – even more so with what they were exposing themselves to at this young age and the resulting implications were much more frightening.  His friend’s parents were informed, also unaware of what the boys were up to, of their creativity and ultimate “gaming” play.

So just a few months ago, I decided to give my son a break.  I took away all of his technology -- cold-turkey(!), mind you, including the Xbox LIVE, HD PVR, laptops, and restricted use of the smart phone primarily to reach our family.  His privileges were reset. I bought him a book on the use of the Internet.  He was asked to watch specific YouTube videos and read a few magazine articles.  He claimed he read certain chapters in the book and that was a step in the right direction.  I continued to highlight the important facts I read in the literature which I had researched to make my point as well.  It was amazing to see this young boy transition from an Internet addicted kid (in my opinion) with a Digital Media technology flair, back to being my son again.  It was not an easy time. Some parents said “You did what? I would love to do that with my child!”  I responded, “You should!”  Oh, they all knew it wasn’t a fun time by any stretch of the imagination but it was a necessary process to bring happiness back into our home and ensure he was focused on all the right stuff!

This was a heady time, and a very challenging 8 weeks of my life but I rose above it and got through it.  I reflected back to some best practices and the importance of family/life balance – how we need to tune into our children’s needs, treat one another with respect, the importance of positive communications in our family discussions, etc.  I reflected back to my son’s Tae-Kwan-Do (TKD) black belt certificate framed in his bedroom noting the respectful chant that was instilled in him in his younger days.  I discussed taking TKD classes with him if he chose to do that with me.  We brought him to family counseling but he chose not to continue with that and instead, we supported his decision at his young age.  I was coached on better parenting tips in family counseling and worked through the process.  He may have thought I was the “worst” mother in the world, or the “Grinch who stole his Xmas gifts”, but in essence, I was just his loving mother, who cared so much, that I took a step back to assess and care for the welfare and the well-being of my son.  I knew there would be a great payoff.  The defiance ended, rebelling, disagreements, and overall family disruptions came to a halt.  His family, education, and other priorities were better aligned. He showed improvement with his grades and a concerted interest to work with us.

In the end, about 60 days later, my son got his gadgets back and I got my son back!!

While my son rebelled against his loss of technology, he was becoming an adolescent at the same time.  It was a fine line to walk then, but my ex-husband and I as co-parents took control.  We were on the same page – a very important step in the process of family co-parenting when your children live in two homes and need the same guidance and household routine daily.  The negative effects that tone and attitude had on our family, especially at meal time or while I was driving, was unbearable and I just knew I was determined to make a positive change for all of us.

As a media and tech exec throughout my career I have been quite adept with technology but never obsessed.  In today’s techno-world, kids become engulfed with digital media and lose sight of time and the world surrounding them, including their own family.  I brought back my son by leading by example, by setting guidelines, and instilling “consequences” and realistic goals.  Since he was too old for time-outs, and that sort of discipline is most effective with younger children, he had to be held accountable for his actions as a young adult, and deal with the consequences if he chose to break his pattern of behavior.

Since my son’s birthday falls a few days after Christmas, I often spoil him for the holidays for fear that he might feel cheated with the number of presents he receives because these dates are so close together.  If he asks for an expensive gift, and only one thing, he typically gets it from me.  In fact, this year he received a small flat screen TV for that Xbox LIVE system to share with his sister, and a new basketball hoop to get some physical exercise beyond playing video games.  For those wintry days, I even bought him a portable basketball hoop for his bedroom door, so that there were no more excuses – we now had fun limits and the “new game” had changed!  He wasn’t thrilled but he did like his new “sports”.  He has always been a good soccer player but with the off season upon us, he needs to keep busy and active.  We signed him up for more sports courses including an agility course and soccer camp.  As co-parents we are focused on the amount of time in front of the tube or computer gaming system, balanced with physical exercise, he is responsible to “clock” himself.  It’s tough to “watch” or “log” his hours, but a necessary evil, until it becomes routine for him.

In a short period of time, my son returned to being the courteous, respectful young teen that I have always loved and cherished.  He maintains guidelines in both homes where we have co-parenting plans in place.  He follows through on requests and is courteous and respectful to all and is adhering to the new plan, where it is taped to our refrigerator as a quick reference reminder J.   The challenge going forward is to stick to the plan, and to ensure that he does – we provide rewards for good behavior, and follow thru on the consequences by taking away privileges when he does not comply. 

Our role as parents is never easy, as you know. You must always stay attentive to your child’s needs – listen, communicate openly, pay close attention to their behaviors and changes as they grow and learn to become young adults.  I will continue to let my son thrive in technology and learn to be innovative with proper supervision and parental guidance and controls in place on digital devices where needed.

Then this brings me to my next question . . . “should we, as adults, go cold-turkey and join in on the techno ban wagon with our kids too? Do we need a break from our smart gadgets?” I know it was a difficult time for me not to utilize any digital media during the weeks of Hurricane Irene and Sandy and other recent storms, but it somehow grounds us as individuals and brings us back to the basics.  In my case it felt like a form of withdrawal with nowhere to go, sitting at home during a storm, without electricity, and no technology, no one to communicate with. We are so use to so many forms of communication in our daily life that it seems strange without all the tools. I found there’s nothing wrong with living without the microwave, or cooking on a gas stove top, sleeping by the fireplace, spending more quality time with your family, or simply taking a long break from our digital media products such as living without the use of wireless devices or the net for a period of time.  Sometimes we may do that while on vacation and perhaps that’s by choice, and typically fingertips away. But when it’s not by choice, we are challenged in different ways. So maybe we should make it a New Year’s resolution for all and give it a whirl!  It’s ‘good food for thought’ anyway; or should I say ‘smart techno advice’.  After all, a few “big kids” (adults) might enjoy the game. 

 @Jean_Criss is an entrepreneur ~ focused on delivering digital media solutions in the marketplace. She is a new author, energetic, multi-tasking mother of two teens, a breast cancer survivor, and passionate about many causes.

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