Do video games and screens cause my son’s poor behavior?

video game, screens, behavior, kindle, ESS, Electronic screen syndrome
Nate on his personal screen

I’ve written about Nate before. His inability to pay attention, oppositional behaviors, and lack of confidence have been ongoing challenges. The one thing he reacts to without hesitation are screens, primarily hand-held games like those on an iPhone. This has led me to use games and screen times as both stick and carrot. Taking away his games has been a threat and giving him additional screen time had been a reward. Looking back, it might be a horrible system doing more harm than good. Could video games be the cause of my son’s poor behavior, atleast be negatively impacting it? Have I been making things worse?

Always looking to grow and learn more, I read & listen a lot to blogs, books, and podcasts on everything from my personal growth to raising an engaged,well-adjusted boy [7yrs old as I write this]. Googling through some of Nate’s issues as I often do after a particularly bad experience I went down the rabbit hole of video screens and gaming. This led me to the audiobook “Reset Your Child’s Brain” by Victoria L Dunckley MD.

Right off the bat I will defend and say that the same way I don’t think Nate is clinically ADHD or ODD but has some of those traits. I have a hard time with the severity of Electronic Screen Syndrome [ESS] and some other electronic effects as explained by Dunckley. But I will say that I find she makes a compelling case that video games worsen underlying issues and might be the cause of some.

Nate is a wonderful child with an imagination that is exciting to watch in action. He can be the kindest little boy, caring and considerate. But on a dime, it can turn. I couldn’t allow myself to see it as video game or screen-based, I think partially because like many parents I can rely on screens as a built-in babysitter or distraction. But mostly, because I thought it was normal behavior for a kid with Nate’s personality.

It had to be more complicated than simply video games, with elimination being the fast solution. We live in a time when websites, ads, and infommercials promise 20-minute rock-hard abs and every personal shortcoming has a 5-step, 10-day program promising success and a new you. And Dunckley makes the same claim right on her cover, “A Four-Week Plan To…”.

But the correlation between screen time and behaviors is becoming undeniable for me. While playing video games or watching TV, he does seem to be more focused. But what I’ve witnessed is his worst behavior comes out when he’s told he can’t play or screen time has ended. It’s like the game is some sort of drug for him and without it, a dark side of his personality can immerge. Yelling, hiding, or hitting at times. Even the way he can make empty promises to secure a fix is reminiscent of more serious addictions.

Dunckley lays out a compelling argument that video gaming is a problem. I struggle with the idea of a complete gaming ban for Nate, as she calls for, and as of right now do not intend to take games away completely. Additionally, I’m not sure I understand enough about computer-aided learning and her assertion of the negative impacts of the use of screens in those cases. I did, however, find her explanation about handheld videos and especially gaming having a more negative effect than say a TV screen to be accurate in my own experience. When Nate does have games or screen time it will no longer be of the handheld iPhone kind and be on the family TV.

Even if you were not to agree with some of Dunckley’s assertions as being over the top in some regards, it’s hard to deny that she is definitely on to something. And is a unique voice in the realm of child psychology.

I want to understand more and Dunckley sure has given me some things to consider. But I also believe we can make responsible use of screens and we need to consider how we’re using them, the types of games our kids play, and whether it is appropriate for their age or not.

I’m currently listening to Reset our Child’s Brain for a second time and am sharing my experience. This is not a review of the book but my sharing of the impact Dunckley has had on me as a fatherand Nate as a boy. I can say that she gives great insight, which is easy to understand, in her explanation of the science behind the drug-like effects of games. Throughout listening to the book I was able to understand some things about my son that I hadn’t seen. As Dunckley was explaining exasperation of behavioral symptoms I was seeing it unfold right in front of me with Nate. With her writing in the back of my mind, I was able to change my reaction to my son or even pre-empt behaviors.

I’ve decided to no longer use added screen time as an incentive or reward for good behavior and completion of tasks. There is no more earning game time or the use of it as a stick as much… as much. Screens will continue to be limited for Nate to an even greater extent, no longer are they used in restaurants to quell behavior and I’ve decided to be honest with him. That I’m not sure screen time is good for him. Like anything else in life, moderation is important. And that if I see his behavior slipping and think it’s due to screens I’ll take screens away. Not as a punishment but as you would take away anything that was creating a negative effect. I thought Nate understands that too many sweets are not healthy. That they can weaken your body and teeth. So why not explain to him, in simple terms, what I’m learning about ESS?

We’ll have to see how it goes… Right now, as I said earlier, I don’t think a complete removal of electronics is necessary on a long-term basis. With that said, as I write this Nate does not have screen time as he has been getting aggressive when told he can’t have games at that moment. But he was watching Curiosity Stream on the family room TV. He stopped to eat breakfast and is now at his Lego table building some set only he truly understands and talking out the action. In a bit, we’ll head out to Devil’s Tower for a hike and maybe grab dinner out after. The 40-minute drive free of screens will likely be a bit of an issue and we’ll have to see how unsettling dinner might be without a video game. Selfishly it will be a bit hard for his mom and me as we can’t expect him to sit quietly while we talk about things of no interest to him. There will, however, be some Lego characters so maybe we enjoy some time.

I do however, realize that Nate will continue to struggle with his lack of confidence, defiance and inability to hold attention for too long. That there will often be the suffering before the joy as I wrote in “The Long Climb For The Short Rip“. And that’s OK, but if a reduction or elimination of personal screen time helps him on his journey, than that is what we’ll do.