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Even at 10 years old, Erik Cekan is a bit of a technology addict. He'd wake up for school, get dressed, and race downstairs to play an online game called Wizard 101. After breakfast, he'd sneak in another minute or so. After school, he did his homework, and then it was back to the computer. Going online used to occupy nearly all his free time. But, he says, it doesn't anymore.
Jindra Cekan, Erik's mother, has put an end to that. In her row house on Capitol Hill, she goes to her closet, crouches down and reaches into the back corner, where she pulls out two iPads, a Nintendo Wii and an iPod. There might be more back there, she says.
With the help of her family therapist, Jindra, a single mom, devised a technology intervention. Screen time has been getting in the way of family time for a while, but there was one incident that made Jindra take note. One Sunday night, after a long day of errands, she came inside with a few bags of groceries and asked Erik and her other son, Kaja, to go out and grab the rest of the bags. But she said her sons were too busy playing video games to help out.
From that point on, there were no iPads, no computers, no television, and no Wii. Phones are allowed, but only when necessary. The boys did not take to this plan easily. The first week they were slamming doors and storming around the house.
"It was really like an addiction," Jindra says, "It was like watching an addiction release its hold a bit."
To help her sons along in their recovery, Jindra devised a star chart to gauge when they're being helpful and kind. They need 50 stars to get their technology back for one hour a day. This Saturday, Erik cleaned the bathroom sinks and Kaja vacuumed all around the house. Each earned two stars. But it doesn't take much to get a star taken away, and when they're rude or violent, the consequence is on that chart, in ink.
"They've gotten to look at how unhelpful they are," says Jindra. "When they lose stars, when they're like, 'why am I losing a star? I'm like, you just hit your brother for the sixth time!"
Two months into their star counting, Erik has 33 and Kaja has 44.
Mark Sweeney is their family's psychologist, and also the executive director of the Capital Region Children's Center. He proposed this no-technology idea to a lot of families, though most families avoid using this as an intervention until it's their last resort.
"The Xbox can be a great babysitter," says Sweeney. "The Internet can engage the kid and make their job as a parent a little easier." It's no wonder, he says, parents aren't eager to give it up.
Less technology means less free time for parents. But when the parent can hold steady, Sweeney says communication and problem solving improves within the first week.
Although he does want his computer time back sooner rather than later, Erik is enjoying this new lifestyle. "I realized there's a lot of other fun things to do. Going to the park is now nicer than staying inside and sitting in front of the computer for an hour."
[Music: "Computer Love" by DJ Spinna from Intergalactic Soul]