When my daughter, Mae, was a toddler, I did what many parents do when their kids get over rambunctious or bored to the point of being a pain in the tuckus – I handed her my cell phone. It was preloaded with age appropriate games and coloring apps, and I had it in a sturdy case with a screen protector, so I thought I was doing good. It kept her fairly quiet (except, of course for when she wanted to show my her accomplishments every two minutes), and I was able to complete my chores and errands with some sanity. Eventually, she discovered YouTube, and I responsibly installed the YouTube Kids app on my phone to keep her away from unsuitable material. However, as she grew older, what I thought was a dream solution, turned into a nightmare.
Mae wanted my phone ALL THE TIME, and she would become absolutely evil if she didn’t have it. She grabbed it from the charger when she woke in the morning. She snagged it from me as soon as I picked her up from daycare. She carried it with her throughout the house. She wouldn’t go to the bathroom without it. She even propped it in front of her as she ate. No matter how I tried to distract her from it with other things, she always came back to it the instant the activity was finished. She lost interest in playing with her toys, yet she was constantly begging me to buy the toys she saw being played with on the glorified infomercials that she would watch. If she saw another kid play with it, she felt she had to have it. (It’s amazing to me how many YouTube videos there are with ADULTS playing with toys. I know that it’s a marketing ploy, but it kills me that it actually works! Call me crazy, but watching a grown up trying to play with a preschool toy by themselves doesn’t get much more boring. Mae, however, would watch these ad nauseum.) It got completely out of hand, very quickly. I had an addict on my hands. Although I tried many times to break her of it “cold turkey”, it seemed to make her attachment to the device even stronger.
Now, something you should know about my house – we own a TV, but we do not have any kind of TV channel service or subscriptions. Therefore, our TV is only useful for videos. We have both a VCR and a Blu-ray player, and we occasionally pick up movies and yard sales and thrift stores. We also borrow many DVD’s from our local library. This saves me a ton of money, which is important for any single mother. But I digress…
I watched Mae, to try to understand what it was, exactly, that drew her so passionately to my cell phone. There were two things that I noticed: First, I noticed that she found the sound comforting. Some people need to have the radio or the TV on at all times, because they find a quiet house to be uncomfortable. This was something I could understand. I also notice that she would watch the same YouTube videos over and over… and over… and over… and over…
This was the most valuable connection for me to have made. I had been going to the library trying to find new videos for her to watch, when I should have been repeating her favorites. Now that I had these insights, I felt more ready to try to break her addiction one more time.
I armed myself with her favorite movies, and told her gently that instead of YouTube, we would spend the weekend watching her favorite movies, instead. I watched them with her on the couch, and let her choose each and every one that we watched. We got through the weekend fairly well, but she thought the YouTube deprivation would only last those few days.
She wanted to watch YouTube when I picked her up from school on Monday, and she was grouchy on the way home when I wouldn’t surrender the phone. I reminded her how fine and content she was over the weekend when we only watched movies, and I knew she could do it again. She was pouty, but she complied with the new rule. Her irritability continued for the next few days, until she gradually accepted her YouTube-free fate. Now, she was always on the couch. Did I simply shift her from one addiction to another? I wasn’t sure what to expect, but at least I was able to use my own phone again.
As time went by, I noticed that she had picked up some paper, and was drawing pictures. A movie that she had seen about eight bazillion times was playing in the background, completely ignored by her. Then she began playing with her toys again. By this time, I realized something else – a cell phone is small, and is usually held, inhibiting the use of your hands. Even if it is propped up and not held in your hands, the screen is still small, and you need to be close to it in order to see it clearly, which also inhibits your activities. Now that the TV was the screen that she was watching, she neither had to hold it nor sit close to it, which gave her more freedom of movement. Some of the storylines inspired her to make things, or draw pictures. She danced to songs from musicals.
Eventually, she was no longer content to play solely in front of the television. She wanted me to take her to the park, and arrange playdates. In short, she was watching stories of people living lives (instead of collecting toys), and Mae finally wanted one of her own.