Controlling Tech Use: A Smart Playdate Strategy

In a tough spot, Jordan E. Rosenfeld accidentally comes up with a way to keep tech-free time for her son and his pals.

Illo of building blocks with three hands building Illustration by Andrea D'Aquino

The day I heard myself say OK to my son Ben's first request to play a video game, I felt a slight quiver of dread. It was a year and a half ago, and Ben was five. I sensed that his request to play Minecraft signaled the beginning of a new and challenging era.

Granted, I was raised in the 1970s and '80s, when screen time consisted of watching cheesy sitcoms that were easy to turn off.

As I'd feared, it wasn't long before Ben had succumbed to the addictive allure of the simple, blocky graphics of Minecraft. Even a half hour of game play had a powerful effect on his mood. Asked to turn off the game, our mostly reasonable child would cry and flail on the floor as though we'd told him he was being sent away. This brooding little tyrant could replace Ben for up to an hour.

So my husband, Erik, and I used a timer system to limit Ben's screen use -- and we hoped the fascination would pass.

But then an entirely new issue cropped up. During playdates, Ben's buddies, ranging in age from 6 to 9, became increasingly antsy to get on the computer. "Can we play Minecraft now?" came the inevitable whine, often just a few minutes after the playdate had begun. And how could I blame them, when the wizardry of my smartphone is always calling to me with its siren song?

Erik, a psychologist who worked with addicts for years, wasn't surprised by the playdate problem. As he put it, expecting young children to be able to resist these games' stimulating effects is like asking them to put down ice cream mid-lick: destined for failure.

I pondered a solution. But in the meantime, the boys kept asking. Finally, one day when they came at me with "We're bored; can we play Minecraft?" out of sheer desperation I hollered, "Don't ask me again for fifteen minutes!"

When a quarter of an hour passed, I braced myself for their renewed demands: "Now? How about now?" Instead, they were engrossed in building a Lego fortress. Thus, the "15 more minutes" rule was born.

Under this new regime, if Ben and his friends start wheedling, they must wait a quarter of an hour before turning on the video game.

During that time, they aren't allowed to ask again; if they do, they wait 15 more minutes (otherwise, they get their screen time).

To my surprise, that period of enforced waiting almost magically sparks the kids' imaginations. Thrown back on their resources, they've turned a roll of paper into a treasure hunt map, transformed bunk beds into a stuffed-animal hospital, and set up a bowling alley in the hallway with a ball and plastic bottles. Sometimes, by the time they ask again, the playdate is over.

Navigating this tricky new terrain, I've realized, requires some classic parenting skills. I need to support Ben as he learns how to say no to things that are easy and fun but not necessarily good to do all the time. With practice, I hope, he'll be able to stretch his mind toward the magic of the real world, the one beyond the digital screen.

    The Rosenfeld family of Morgan Hill, California

    The Rosenfeld family of Morgan Hill, California

      Originally published in the March 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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