My Kids Have Become Less Playful And Creative During The Pandemic

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Jonathan Kirn/Getty

We used to be screen-free. I was that mother who didn’t allow television or video games. Then a slow slide began, even before the pandemic. My husband bought our three boys an old school Nintendo emulator. They watched more Clone Wars. Then we began social isolation, and everything became fair game. Tablets, Nintendo, TV: they wanted it, they had it, because 2020 sucked and they couldn’t see their friends. Finally my husband bought our nine-year-old a sophisticated computer game system for his birthday, and I decided for good: I hate my kids being electronic-addicted.

Electronic-Addicted Kids Want Them All The Time

I wake up to children playing on tablets. Angry Birds is a thing of the past; they’ve moved on to strange games I can’t name, things with growing dinosaur zoos and dragons. I try to enforce a no-electronics-until-school-ends rule, and we sometimes stick to it. At other times, it’s 4 a.m., my son isn’t sleeping, and I want to write instead of listening to him whine.

My electronic-addicted nine-year-old has decided I’ve set some arbitrary time for him to turn our on gaming system, so around 11 o’clock, he’ll start asking. “Can I turn the computer on?” I say no. He’s frustrated, but copes. Noon rolls around. “Mama, can I turn the computer on? I promise we won’t be mean when you ask us to stop.” Nope. By one o’clock, he’s angry.”Mama, it’s one in the afternoon. Can we please play the computer now?”

I took my youngest on a short drive one afternoon; I had to leave presents in a friend’s mailbox. But he had to bring a tablet. And not only did his tablet need to come along, but he whined for me to run a mobile hotspot so he could watch Netflix or play some internet-enabled dinosaur thing. His Kindle Fire stopped picking up my hotspot. He whined. I told him to deal with it. The poor electronic-addicted child had to play something he’d already downloaded.

Perish the thought. Our parents told us to look out the goddamn window.

During lunch, which they eat in the living room, our electronic-addicted children ask me if they can “watch something educational.” They know I’ll refuse anything else. But once Daddy comes home, it’s a tablet and gaming free-for-all. I want to talk to him, and we both want to work, and anyway, dark’s dropping down and we are exhausted.

Tablets it is.

They Can’t Play On Their Own


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Since our kids have become electronic-addicted, they seem to have, to some degree, lost their ability to play alone. They don’t draw. They don’t color. We kick them outside, and they spend hours there once we do, but we have to make them go out. Otherwise, they’ll sit in their underwear and play LEGO Lord of the Rings for nine hours.

Sometimes, when I refuse to let my two younger sons play on their tablets, they drape themselves over furniture and stare in the abyss. “What are you doing?” I ask. They tell me they are doing nothing. They say they are doing nothing because there is nothing to do. I reel off lists of things: crafts and drawing and reading and board games and LEGOs. Nothing, nothing, nothing, boring, boring, boring.

Once, I decided to see how long they could hold out. My electronic-addicted seven-year-old gazed into nothingness for 45 minutes.

There Are Good Reasons My Kids Are Electronic-Addicted

This is, first and foremost, our fault. We allowed a slow slide that ended with electronic-addicted kids. With boring, can’t-play-alone, no-I-don’t-want-to-do-art kids. I should have stopped my husband from buying that Nintendo. I shouldn’t have suggested buying a game system for our nine-year-old. We made them this way.

And it’s not as if we didn’t know our kids were prone to becoming electronic-addicted. They all have varying degrees of ADHD; according to Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, up to 25% of people with ADHD may be screen-addicted. We’ve always understood they were pre-disposed to becoming screen-addicted. And while my kids spend less than the average time using screens than CHADD’s median average (kids 8-10 spend more than eight hours a day “interacting with media”), they still use technology a hell of a lot more than I want.

But 2020 happened, and kids need to be entertained when they can’t see other children — and for various reasons, we continue, in November, to self-isolate. It sucks. But there’s very little to do, no matter how hard we try, especially as cold weather drops down. So they play with tablets. They play their computer games. It gives them something to do. There’s a pandemic. Who has the energy for craft night?

They Freak When We Take The Games Away

The new game system was used on a rotating basis between our kids until their tantrums began. An announcement that their turn had ended could spiral every single one, including my almost 11-year-old, into a tantrum (children with ADHD are prone to tantrums, and this isn’t unusual behavior for a non-neurotypical kid his age). The younger two screamed when we announced bedtime. Everyone fought over whose turn it was when, and an order to turn the game off provoked dawdling, huffing, and outright ignoring. They were truly electronic-addicted.

Then, because they’d used screens so close to bedtime, they were refusing to sleep. Bedtime tantrums became the norm. We couldn’t live with it anymore.

How We’re Helping Our Electronic-Addicted Kids

We’ve taken several steps to help our kids wean off the electronics. Some of it has been difficult. But some of it has been shockingly simple, and has had an incredible impact.

I’ve become very strict about no electronics without permission. Our kids are not allowed to play with their tablets or use their game systems without an explicit yes from a parent. They also understand that when I say no tablets or games before school, I mean it. This has them reading and playing more.

We’ve implemented a timer: fifteen minutes per kid (which sounds draconian, but they play together and we add times: two kids playing have thirty minutes). They have actually taken to using the timer on their own, for the sake of fairness.

And we had to prove we were serious: when they threw an epic tantrum, we took a three-day electronic detox. My electronic-addicted babies lost their minds on the first day, but meekly accepted it by the second. It helped them to play independently and spend more time outside, and once they proved they were detoxing, we gave it back. Now they know that when we threaten to take tablets and game systems and TV, we’re serious.

Because they know we’re serious, they’re careful not to scream and cry or dawdle when we tell them to turn the games off.

So they’ve become less electronic-addicted than before. But if I had my way, they wouldn’t play video games at all, and TV would stay educational (excepting The Mandalorian: I’m not Satan). When they had zero screen time, they drew pictures. They made art. They were overall more well-rounded and seemed happier.

But it’s the end of 2020, and nine months into total social isolation I can’t bear to snatch it all away from them. So they play more than I want. At least they’re better than before, and the LEGOs see more use. But I still don’t like it. And they don’t know it, but when the pandemic ends, I’m taking it all away. Again.

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