Why I Lock Up My Kids’ Devices
How to use behavior design to manage screen time.
In our family, we went through a lot of screen time pain. It took years before we figured out a system that worked.
We lock up our kids’ devices in a safe. We have been using this simple approach for years. It works.
In the screen time war I am in the trenches. I am a practitioner of the craft, with 3 test subjects that I need to prevent from turning into digital zombies. I have skin in the game. It’s my children. It is personal.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Reach
I needed a product that did not exist. So I made it myself.
I designed a safe for smartphones as a tool for parents to manage screen time. I called my invention TechDetox Box. It physically separates children from phones, removing the temptation and the very possibility of unauthorized use. The phones are locked up while charging in a central location. Parents are in control.
It is not a traditional safe that protects valuable things from dangerous people. This safe protects valuable people — our kids — from dangerous objects, smartphones. After all, we already have lockable medicine cabinets, wine fridges, and gun safes.
A smartphone in the hands of a child can be as dangerous as a drug.
Power To The Parents
I do not need data to prove that tech obsession cannot be good for my children. All it takes is parental common sense. When my kid is sitting comatose in front of the screen, not interested in the real world or real people, no amount of research would convince me this is ok.
If we, grown adults with a fully developed brain, cannot resist the temptation to check our phones, how can we expect our children to match the power of addictive tech? The industry they are up against spends millions on digital media that is intentionally designed to be addictive. Our children cannot win this battle on their own.
It’s not their job — it’s ours. We are driven by the most powerful force in the world — our love for them. We are the ones who need to take back control from the industry that hijacks the brains of our children.
Somehow we feel that our kids’ smartphone addiction is our fault. We feel guilty. Or it’s our child’s character flaw. Then we feel even worse. But we should not.
It’s not your fault or your child’s fault. Smartphones are built on a powerful dark psychology, intentionally designed to exploit human vulnerabilities. Children are especially susceptible to addictive tech that breaks their immature self-control. If they break a leg, we use a crutch to help them overcome their disability. We do not tell them to “just walk it off”.
TechDetox Box is a crutch for a broken self-control.
It’s an instrument of compassion.
Parent-Enforced Digital Detox
If you are serious about protecting your children from smartphone addiction, sleep deprivation, academic failure and a host of other risks, locking up devices is a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem.
> Do your kids go behind your back to check their phones?
> Are you scared of long-term damage screen addiction can cause to your children’s health, well-being, and ability to become a functional adult?
> Are you tired of constant battles with your kids begging for screen time?
> Do your kids hack your parental controls?
> Do you ever have to take your teen’s phone away — and hide it?
I know, I have been there. I am still there, and I have a solution for you.
The solution is a parent-enforced digital detox.
We can improve kids’ health, sleep, social skills, academic performance — all by simply limiting their screen time.
Take the Phone Away — Now What?
What do parents do when children break screen time rules? According to Common Sense Media, most still resort to simply taking the phone away.
Now what? Take it to the office? Bury it in the garden? Give it to the neighbors?
Kids would be desperate to find it — addictive tech designers made sure of it. What to do with the phone once you had to take it away? If the phone is locked in a safe, kids have no reason to turn the house upside down.
Wait, but I have parental controls — why would I need a phone safe? Bypassing parental controls is always just a Google search away. Try it. Besides, while parental controls solve the problem of what is available ON the screen, the problem of keeping the screen OUT of kids’ hands altogether remains unsolved.
For most children establishing family screen time rules is enough. But not for boys with a video game addiction. Not for pre-teen girls with social media obsession and anxiety. These kids need extra help. I am seeking to make a change and establish a standard practice to charge phones under lock and key in the homes of children who are most vulnerable. It’s not their fault. They are unable to resist the temptation. It’s our job as parents to protect them, but it is exhausting. It strains our relationships. It destroys peace in our homes.
Our lives are hard enough. Screen time management should not be.
What Is The Problem?
You notice out-of-control gaming. Obsessive social-media checking. Unhealthy attachment to the smartphone. Your child will resort to anything to retain unlimited access: lying, stealing phones in the middle of the night, or hacking parental controls. If they have ADHD, their condition gets worse.
The problem of smartphone addiction among kids and teens has reached epidemic proportions, compromising normal development and depriving them of childhood.
Neuroscience has proven that the dopamine release mechanism in the brain reacts the same way to the use of electronic devices, as an alcoholic brain reacts to a drink, heroin addict to a dose, or gambling addict to a casino. And it is a whole lot more powerful in the young brain.
American Academy of Pediatrics screen time recommendations include placing consistent limits on children’s screen time, as well as designating media-free zones (no tech in the bedrooms) and times (no tech at mealtimes). Parenting experts universally recommend charging phones in a central location.
We have to redesign the kids’ environment so that it is easier for them to do the right thing.
We can disrupt the interface of addiction.
The Science of Behavior Design
User engagement depends on the presence of the screen. A phone in plain view distracts the child from all other human activity. Once the phone emits a notification, designed to unleash a psychological storm in the brain, resistance is futile. It’s a prompt to action: grab the phone, and be sucked into it for hours.
When we face persuasive design that hacks our humanity, we can disrupt these tactics with the help of Behavior Design. Digital media creators learned about a human brain to get our kids addicted to their products, but when we remove the cue (phone) from the environment, we win at their own game.
In Behavior Design, one way to build good habits is using a commitment device. A commitment device makes doing the right thing easy by making a bad habit difficult. Locking in future options rather than waiting to see where desire takes you. Locking a child’s smartphone for the night rather than finding them on social media at 2am.
Cash registers operate on this principle. One does not steal — because they can’t. Using the same logic, TechDetox Box makes good behavior automatic: stealing screen time and hacking parental controls is no longer an option.
A phone safe serves as a commitment device to help children build good habits before addiction takes hold. If you want to break a habit, make the habit harder to do.
When phones are physically locked up, the habit is broken. It’s an easy decision, because it is not a decision at all. The only choice is the ethical one.
According to research, self-control is a limited resource, especially for kids. The more we use it, the less of it we have left. If we try to change our eating habits, all the self-control in the world will not help us in the presence of freshly baked cookies.
TechDetox Box eliminates the need for self-control to resist the temptation.
The cookie jar is locked.
Why Should You Care
Locking up tech in a central location has a feel of immediate success. You can relax knowing that your child would sleep through the night without social media notifications at 3am. Would not be distracted from homework. Would be present at the family dinner instead of staring at their phone. Would be present in real life.
When my youngest started kindergarten, I faced an existential crisis — what should I do to make my contribution to the world? An intense amount of self-examination revealed that yes, I am actually an expert in screen time management and child psychology — because that’s all I have been doing for over a decade.
Today I feel compelled to bring my idea into the world to share with others. I hope it helps my fellow parents protect their kids, like it did for me. I prove daily in my own parenting that a simple absence of a device is a reliable way to limit screen time.
No phone = No temptation.
Addictive digital media affects kids on so many levels, it became the biggest parenting problem we face. It is also the biggest human problem of our time — what the Center for Humane Technology calls “human downgrading”.
Her research on the relationship between technology and psychology seeks to reveal how digital behavior manipulation affects human wellbeing.