How exactly should I protect my sons from YouTube, video games, NetFlix, and TV? Well, I have no idea what I should do, but what I am doing may surprise you.

A few parents are so energetic, resourceful, and dedicated that their children don't have tablets or TVs. Their kids play with friends, explore the world, have "jobs", read, write, paint, build, play music, practice sports, and learn new languages. I'm not such a good parent. My boys both have their own tablets and their own PCs and I let them spend way too much time on them. Time that could be better spent and which they'll never get back.

I could take their computers away from them but so far I haven't. Like I said, I'm not a great parent. Doesn't it seem natural to give children the things we had when we were young?

Yet I've experienced two generations of entertainment technology and it's obvious to me that YouTube, video games, and NetFlix have become much more addictive and dangerous than what I had 30 years ago. Gamification is such a huge thing now that games aren't just games any more. Now they're all socially-networked, highly addictive Skinner Boxes with in-game purchases! And these psychology-driven games (and social networks) work on everyone, even me, as skeptical and hardened as I am. When the psychology of informed and wary adults is so effortlessly abused, children are easy prey.

Everyone sees this happening, but what can we not-great parents do? Given that I haven't done what's best and rid such influences from my sons' lives, what's my solution? Well, I'm glad somebody finally asked.

Proven Techniques

My solution is the direct one: use gamification, social influence, and many other persuasive techniques for good instead of bad. I can use the same highly effective techniques to transform my sons' tablets and PCs into a lifelong system of behavior regulation. I know this kind of systemic approach will work because it's already been proven across the globe.

My basic premise is to begin with modern reality: technology is now a huge part of life, gamification is everywhere, and psychological tricks abound. We know what's happening, we know how it works, but we don't yet have the tools to defend ourselves (or our children) against it. So, I figure if I can't beat 'em, join 'em!

I've combined these modern tools into a coherent system that I, the parent, control. The tool I'm slowly building up persuades my sons to make good choices more often and bad choices less often. My goal is to empower my sons and prepare them for a successful adult life, as opposed to snuffing out their potential by inadvertently addicting them to sugar and dopamine. In a way, the system insulates my sons from my own shortcomings as a person and a parent, while at the same time empowering me to be a better person and parent.

Of course, my idea of good and bad choices is different than yours. That's perfectly fine; perhaps I can learn from you.

Good, Good & Fun, and Fun

The way I talk about choices with my sons isn't good versus bad, but rather Good versus Fun, with the Best being both Good and Fun at the same time.

Eating ice cream is pure Fun (or pleasure). There's little good about eating ice cream unless it's a rare reward for exceptionally good behavior. Watching YouTube is mostly just fun, unless you're watching a tutorial to help you do something Good or Good and Fun like crafting, playing an instrument, wiring up electronics, programming your computer, and so on. Endless mindless videos from professional YouTubers is pure fun though. So is the overwhelming majority of television, NetFlix, and video games.

Good and Fun is something like playing basketball, hiking, biking, playing an instrument, and so on. With basketball, for example, you're getting exercise, playing outside, hanging out with old friends and making new friends, competing, and learning what it takes to develop skills. Maybe you'll make the varsity team, maybe you'll win an athletic scholarship. Mostly it's an activity that can stay with you your entire life, maintaining your health and increasing the quality of your life. Thousands of activities are both good and fun, as you can imagine.

Finally, pure good is pretty much just work, which can also be fun when combined with the right attitude. Washing the dishes, brushing your teeth, training your dog, maintaining relationships, paying your bills, going to the doctor, earning money, and so on are all good to do. Often not very fun, but necessary nonetheless. If you neglect these activities, you're more likely to end up in a bad place.

To put it all together, I believe that a young child should mostly do activities that are both plenty Good and plenty Fun, with a bit of pure Good and pure Fun thrown in. As the child gets older, more and more time should be spent on Good activities to prepare them for the reality of teenhood and adulthood. Ideally, they'll learn how to integrate Fun into their Good activities so that the vast majority of their time is spent on activities that are both Good and Fun.

The problem I'm facing, as you might expect, is that my sons are doing way too much pure Fun. That is, activity with low reward and high risk over the long term. Playing video games and watching NetFlix is mostly a waste of time, both as a child and as an adult, considering the wide range of other activities we could do. That doesn't stop us from gaming too much, of course, when video games are attractive, available, and addictive. Thus it takes a powerful system of persuasion to get anyone to put down the controller and pick up a basketball instead. Especially on a permanent basis.

How It Works

Here's a simple overview of how my system works right now (or will soon enough).

Interactive Visualization

Each child gets their own interactive visualization of their activities and their progress. The visualization is designed to be fun to play with while remaining informative, simple, and direct.

Points Earned, Points Spent

Points can be earned and spent either because an activity was done (or a choice made) or because an activity was done for a length of time.

A choice that I want to reward, like say an example of leadership, initiative, or executive function, can be assigned a point value. Whenever I observe that choice, I can record the activity myself (or better yet, we do it together).

If it's more of a time-based activity, like playing outside with friends, practicing basketball, or reading a book, then we start a timer on the activity and they'll earn say 50 points per hour. An activity that's higher priority, more difficult, or more Good will offer more points per hour than other activities. For example, my younger son who's still learning to read earns way more points for reading than my older son does. It's much harder for him and a higher priority. As reading gets easier for him, I'll shift the extra reward to another development-appropriate activity.

Spending works the same way, but decreases their point balance. I'm not punishing bad behavior with this system, rather I'm rewarding good behavior. So spending is only for Fun activities, thus far.

The Child Has Some Control

Each child can add new activities any time, look through old activities for ideas, explore their progress, and input when they've done activities (and for how long). This gives them a sense of ownership and accountability. If they do something good but forget to input it, they don't get the points. Of course we'll look back and add in anything we remember, but that's not perfect. They need to learn to stay on top of it and are rewarded for it. After all, that's how you get ahead in life: document the positive effect you've had and then draw attention to it.

Social Network

Your friends (or followers) in the system are notified when you earn points, spend points, or add new activities. This means each child gets to see the activities their friends are doing, even if they live far away. The notifications serve as a way to cross-pollinate ideas, both for spending and earning, and also as a reminder to go do something that'll help you keep up to them.

Each child's current point balance is shared with their friends as well, leading to a degree of friendly competition. Who can save the most? Who is earning the fastest, and why? Who is spending too much? And so on.

Nudge Notifications

Occasionally, when the child is not already doing something Good, a notification is sent that suggests an activity they'll probably want to do. If they practice basketball every two days, they're likely to respond positively to a suggestion to practice basketball if it arrives 47 to 70 hours past their last session.

If they're on the clock for a Fun activity, they'll get notified every half hour or so about how many points it is costing them. At some point, they'll get a suggestion for a different activity, perhaps the activity that usually follows the activity they're currently spending points on. Whatever it takes to help them switch gears. Accessible On PC, Tablet, And Phone

With so much of the pure Fun happening on these devices, it makes sense to put the solution there too. If they don't see a notification, who cares? They were doing something much better anyway. When they do see a notification, it bumps them out of their trance and brings them back to the real world.

I don't want to have to micromanage my boys and I'm sure they'd prefer I didn't. This way, they gain a sense of executive function on their own instead of continually depending on me for it (and hoping I forget).

My Role As The Parent

As the parent, I have a few responsibilities.

Enforce The Golden Rule

If you've got the gold, go ahead. Otherwise go get some.

Basically, when they ask me if they can watch a TV show or play video games, the consistent answer is "do you have the points?" As long as I make the Fun activities cost significantly more than their Good and Fun activities, and I give them many other appealing items or activities on which to spend their points, they'll end up self-regulating. They can do the math.

Of course, if the activity doesn't make sense at the moment, such as if they've been doing too much pure Fun today, I reserve the right to insist that they make a better choice. I suspect I'll integrate my preferred balance into the system.

Keep It Fresh

I need to add new activities as they happen, even in idea form, and organize them sensibly. Anything the boys end up doing is worth adding, even if it was an on-the-fly activity they made up right then.

I also need to keep adding new activities or items to spend points on.

My boys could choose to receive cash, perhaps an occasional slushie, maybe a meal of their choice, perhaps some extra special help from me, some guaranteed alone time away from their brother (or me), or any number of activities that are either OK to do in moderation or have a high cost attached.

Maintain The Points Balance

I have to ensure that Good is rewarded more than Good and Fun and that different types of Fun have appropriate costs. If I need to make a gross adjustment to how much the spending costs, I'll do it. If I need to make fine adjustments, I will.

Maintain The Time Balance

If too much Fun is happening, I have to turn the dial to increase the cost of Fun. Or, I can increase the reward of selected Good activities, especially as priorities change.

All of this allows me (and my sons) measure and visualize what's happening, which means we can each gravitate toward good behavior with less effort and a lot less yelling. You might be surprised how well kids respond to a system like this. It's as though they want to be empowered, and love doing Good and Fun activity, but don't yet have the internal ability to resist pure Fun.

In all possible futures for my sons, they will be subject to continual persuasion, the vast majority of which will be against their interests as future adults and against my interests as a parent who wants the best for them. So my approach is to create a dominant source of persuasion without cutting them off from the modern world. The more they learn about how the human mind works in a positive and supportive environment, the better prepared they'll be to deal with reality as an independent adult.

As I've said to my sons repeatedly: don't gamble; become the house.