Do conversations in your house sound like this?
You: "We're going to grandma's house this week."
Your child, texting: "Mmmmm." (Tap, tap, tap, tap.)
You: "Be sure to do your homework first."
Your child: "Mmmmm." (Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.)
You: "Are you even listening to me? You need to..."
Your child, looking at the phone, horrified: "She said what about my hair??? OMG!" (Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap...)
If this sounds familiar, you're not alone. My friends and I joke that our kids have "smartphone ADD." And when they aren't texting, we'll frequently find them posting on Instagram, playing Candy Crush, or battling demons on World of Warcraft.
And you know what? I'm perfectly okay with that. That's because our kids also have real lives. They play baseball. They write stories. They act in school plays. They get good grades. And if we say "turn off the video game," they do -- with a little grumbling.
But here's the problem: For some kids, playing with electronic toys isn't just a part of life. It's the only thing in life. In fact, child psychologists are reporting more and more cases of electronic "addiction" in teens, children, and even toddlers.
These young addicts include 3-year-olds who scream when they can't have their tablets, middle-schoolers whose grades nosedive because they can't quit texting or posting on Facebook, and high-schoolers who compulsively play online games. And scariest of all, they include children who threaten to shoot their parents or kill themselves when their moms or dads try to cut down on screen time.
It's no surprise that kids of all ages can get addicted to their electronic toys. That's because every text that a kid sends or receives, every Facebook "like," and every point scored during a video game creates a little hit of the feel-good chemical dopamine. This is the same rush that a drug addict gets from a hit of cocaine -- and the same rush you get from having sex or eating a chocolate doughnut.
What's more, heavy exposure to TV or other rapid-paced media may rewire kids' brains to crave constant stimulation. So over time, it can get harder and harder for them to enjoy slower-paced activities like reading. For many kids, real life is a bore while virtual life is a high.
How serious a problem is electronic addiction? Consider these statistics:
• Children ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven hours a day with mobile or online media.
• Kids are exposed to an average of four hours of TV a day, and many children watch TV from the time they get home until they go to bed.
• Research suggests that between two and ten percent of children who play video games are addicted to them.
• Parents are now paying thousands of dollars for "digital detox" programs for kids who refuse to turn off their devices.
Kids and teens who get addicted to electronics pay a high price. This habit does more than hurt their grades; it can also make them sick. Children who are addicted to video games are more likely to gain weight and feel depressed or anxious. And heavy TV and computer use puts kids at risk for metabolic syndrome, the first step toward diabetes.
So how can you decide if your own child is addicted to electronics? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
• Is your child restless, irritable, or moody when there isn't a screen around?
• Does your child skip family activities or cut out early so he or she can get back to the computer, cell phone, or TV?
• Is your child's schoolwork suffering because he or she spends too much time gaming or texting?
• Do you catch your child "cheating" on the limits you set for screen time?
• Does your child seem to crave more and more screen time?
If these warning signs ring a bell, it's time to take action -- just as you would if your child got addicted to cocaine or alcohol. Here are the steps you can take:
• Write up a contract specifying how much screen time your child can have each day and spelling out consequences for breaking the rules.
• Make a rule that during homework time, at dinner, and one hour before bedtime, all electronic devices get shut off. That means yours, too.
• Use parental controls to limit your child's cell phone, TV, and computer time.
• Find out what's going on in your child's life. Kids who are stressed or depressed are more likely to develop a screen addiction.
• Create ways for your child to get a healthy hit of dopamine and serotonin out in the real world. For instance, go shopping, horseback riding, or rock wall climbing.
• Insist that your child spend at least one hour a day playing outside.
• Get your child involved in volunteer work or organized sports.
• If your child keeps breaking your new rules, or threatens to become violent or resort to self-injury, call a therapist. Look for one who's experienced in dealing with "digital detoxing."
Also, set a good example yourself! No matter how much you're itching to read the latest text or watch tonight's episode of The Mindy Project, resist the urge to cheat. Don't even sneak into the bathroom with your phone in your pocket. Seriously. Whatever rules you set for your child, follow them yourself.
And finally, be prepared for tears, tantrums, and even "I hate you." Giving up an electronic addiction is hard for a kid, and that kid will make it hard on you as well. Just hang tough, and eventually, your child will discover that the real world can hold its own against tweets, texts, and even -- yes --World of Warcraft and Candy Crush.