My son spends a lot of time on the computer and now his sister is starting to copy him. I want him to spend his time in healthier pursuits, but he just refuses to switch it off. What can I do?
At this stage, it's a question of how bad your son's computer addiction is. Is it something you as a parent can try and control, or do you need a counsellor to hold sessions with the family to help your son cope without a computer? I know that sounds shocking, but it is becoming a very real issue for many families, especially in Asia, where our lifestyles are more based on indoor activities and high internet usage.
Many of my friends insisted before their babies were born that their prospective son or daughter would never be stuck in front of the television for hours on end.
But children are entertained by the television from a young age; it becomes a part of their lives. So the leap to a computer isn't a big one. But within the family there are, of course, many other joint activities you could do. Take him out for walks, and get him involved in the neighbourhood. For example, do you live near parkland or the countryside, where he can observe the different plants and trees and wildlife?
As a parent, ask what example you are setting and whether you provide him with other activities. Are you playing computer games on the sly? Is he copying you and is his sister copying him in turn? Even if he isn't, what are the other options during his free time?
Babies focus on language to extend their social interests. They are keen to interact with big people making funny noises. They coo and you smile, and they coo again. It is a simple cycle of rewards generating the action. It is the same for your son, who is looking for social interaction. If he doesn't find it in the home, he plays games and brags about his score to his friends the next day, getting a social reward.
As much as you find yourself struggling for time, it is the time you give him that will slowly tempt him away. Find some card or board games your daughter can play and make it a fun experience. Give him an invite to join in at any time. Don't give up. At the very least you are helping to prevent your daughter from slipping down the same slope.
Have a games night, or a puzzle night, any activity that has your family sitting down together to talk, to share and to bond. Plug the gap your son is trying to fill with computer time. Create a schedule and keep to it, have special time with the family, or at least one parent and the kids. Make it important to you, so your son can rely on it and look forward to it. Break the pattern of "home to the computer". If he has social time to look forward to, he has a reason to finish his homework quickly and be ready for you.
Slowly, you can crack into the addiction. Move the computer out of his room, to where it can be shared and monitored. Many of my students tell me they have 78 friends with a sense of pride. They think all the links to their Facebook page constitute a "friend". Teach your son what real friendship is by building healthy relationships in the family.
The point is not to fight your son for control, but to provide alternatives he will prefer. On sports nights, he will probably be keener if he knows you are taking him, not the helper. There is a limit to how much you can involve him in without participating yourself.
Don't banish the computer entirely. Show him it has a purpose. Send e-mails to Grandma together. Take pictures and think about what you are going to say. Write letters to friends and show him how they should be structured, even if they are sent electronically. Research family holidays together. Look at different cities, and see which ones have cool things for kids to do.
Hopefully, this will help you avoid what has happened in Japan, where children lock their parents out of their rooms and ask to have their meals left outside the door.
If he is at that stage, you must seek professional help.
Kris Gienger teaches at an international primary school