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When Your Child Is Addicted to Screens: A Parent's Journey




When Your Child Is Addicted to Screens: A Parent’s Journey


By Melanie Hempe, BSN, Founder ScreenStrong



We were on the road, driving our oldest son home from his freshman year in college, when the moment of clarity hit.


“Mom, I’ve been in bed for the past week,” Adam said. “I didn’t leave my dorm room. I didn’t finish my classes. That video game did something to me.”


I’ll never forget the shock I felt. What do you mean, “That game did something to you?”


At that moment, six years of conflict suddenly made sense. I finally realized our son was trapped in his virtual world and couldn’t get out.


I wish I had picked up on the warning signs back in middle school when Adam started dropping out of his sports and hobbies in favor of video games. He also began choosing his gaming world over spending time outdoors or with us. I reluctantly assumed the role of the Game Cop Mom, setting the kitchen timer and navigating countless conflicts over his screen time.


Was it normal for a teen boy to be happily hunched over a screen in the dark basement for hours on end? Was it normal for him to forfeit time enjoying school activities and even family vacations? My peers tried to reassure me, “Well, at least he’s not getting into trouble with drinking or girls—at least you always know where he is.” I felt that was setting a rather low bar, but Adam was my first child, and I was unsure. He insisted computers would be his job one day and that he was learning so much from that screen. At least, that’s what he told us.


The rest of Adam’s high school years were filled with conflict—the never-ending battle of attempting to navigate life alongside his gaming obsession. We were happy to see him off to college; we supposed he would outgrow his juvenile habit and begin a new chapter in his life. However, on that drive home at the end of his freshman year, it became clear that we were dealing with something far more profound than a mere bad habit.


My background as an RN compelled me to explore brain research concerning screen overuse. I learned that screen addiction includes a well-defined neurochemical component like every other addiction. Much like gambling or substance abuse, the allure of certain screen activities hijacks the brain’s dopamine reward pathway. The excessive dopamine release triggers a cascade of neurochemical reactions, fostering an insatiable craving for more screen time. The result was impaired self-control, disruption of daily activities like school and hobbies, and a detachment from family and friends—all fundamental components of addiction. As I reflected back on that moment on the highway, I realized Adam’s words were more accurate than we could have imagined: the game had indeed “done something” to his brain.


I dug deeper into the research. I learned certain screen activities are far from being a neutral rite of passage for teens, and we can’t change the child development process. Teens may be apprentice adults, but they are not adults. They are intelligent but not mature yet. We can’t compel our children to exercise wisdom with screen time while the executive center in their brains is still under construction.


We discovered we needed to shift our conventional parenting mindset for this screen issue. For many issues, we trust in having conversations, aiming for balance, and allowing our children to learn through their failures. While these principles may have proven effective for negotiable matters like curfews and haircuts, they are woefully inadequate regarding non-negotiable serious issues such as drugs, alcohol, or screen time decisions. Removing harmful access during this time of development—as we would with every other potential addiction—is a great solution. Willpower is not built by spending more time with addictive activities.


Adam’s experience and my newfound medical discoveries prompted my husband and me to adopt a different approach with his younger sister and twin brothers. We aimed to provide them with a ScreenStrong childhood, free from not all screens but specifically from toxic screens—video games, smartphones, social media, and pornography.


Radical? Yes. But our daughter thrived throughout high school with a flip phone—she never had a smartphone or any involvement in social media. She was never pulled into the drama of middle school group text wars or the temptations teens face on social media. Just imagine a high school experience free from the pain of exclusion, rejection, anxiety, or online bullying. Instead, she spent a lot of time on her sport and became a D1 athlete in college.


Our younger boys thrived during their high school years as well. They invested time in building face-to-face relationships with friends, coaches, and teachers. Instead of joining the staggering statistic that most kids spend around 16,000 hours with on-screen entertainment between middle and high school, they opted for baseball and cross country. Instead of “building their brand” on social media or trying to top the leaderboard in their online game, they built in-person relationships in the school hallways and held leadership offices in the student government. They had plenty of time for violin and piano and still love their music. These rich experiences opened many doors for them—doors of opportunity Adam missed out on due to the countless hours he invested in front of a screen clutching a game controller.


I’m often asked if our younger kids suffered socially in high school, felt left out, or resented us. No. They have many close friends and a rich childhood full of stories and memories to carry with them to college. Our family has grown very close as a result of our decision to embrace ScreenStrong principles. We learned video games and social media certainly are not mandatory for teens.


Are you wondering if they ever argued with us or begged for more screens? Sure they did! However, I took the sage advice of a seasoned sports coach who told me, “When teen problems arise, Mom, be happy and never get on your teen’s emotional rollercoaster!” Taking that wisdom to heart, I smiled a lot and continued to guide my teens like a good coach does—with a firm but loving approach. We set the bar high, stood up for our kids, and stood out from the crowd. We remained steadfast in our decision to bypass video games and social media throughout high school, and the results were astounding. They thrived! None of us have ever looked back with regret for that choice.


As parents, it falls upon our shoulders to guard our children from the most dangerous and addictive elements of culture; they can’t do it on their own. The first step is to get educated on medical science behind screen issues and not lean on cultural opinions. It is essential to understand your why. Next, unite with a like-minded community to navigate this journey. If you can’t find one, create one with a few families at your church or school. Finally, never parent out of fear or try to win favors with your children by giving in to their screen desires. Like Adam, they don’t know what is best. Instead, boldly lead, stay steady, and protect what matters most.


If you are beginning to see signs that your child has an unhealthy relationship with screens, don’t wait! Instead, hit the pause button with the help of ScreenStrong and bypass the most addictive screens during adolescence so that you won’t have to endure the problems we did. Remember, the solution isn’t about taking away our kids’ fun but choosing the path that recovers a deep sense of joy in their real life and face-to-face relationships.


Adam once confided in me, saying, “Mom, you’ll never hurt my feelings if you share my story. Please warn as many families as possible so they won’t have to go through what I did.” Not a day goes by that I am not thankful for Adam and his story. I often remind him how he saved his siblings and how important his story is. Perhaps his story might save your children, too.


To learn more about ScreenStrong and Adam’s story, visit screenstrong.com.



After her oldest son withdrew from college due to his video game addiction, Melanie Hempe used her nursing degree from Emory University to discover a simple solution for screen dependency and founded ScreenStrong. Her ability to simplify medical science has allowed her to share her story nationally. Melanie lives in North Carolina with her family and is happy to report that Adam has finished college and law school. It’s never too late to win back your kids, and ScreenStrong is here to help you do that.


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