Journal Entry

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On Screen Time

Whenever I post a comment this long somewhere, I feel obligated to turn it into a blog entry; on G+, Liz Henry was asking (with some bewilderment) about why parents would restrict their children's screen time. Would they restrict access to books?

I am in the very funny position on this of, in principle, being, on the one hand, very skeptical of the lionizing of literature vs. demonization of computer games and believing that computers have revolutionized human life for the better, that they give us superpowers...

And, at the same time, I parent in a household that imposes pretty draconian limits on screen time; for the 7 year old, the basic standard is an hour a day max, and for the 11 year old it's 5 hours a week max (if this seems paradoxical, it's because the 5 hours is totally self-regulated, measured login-to-logoff, and she makes damn sure she gets it, while the 1 hour per day is theoretical and includes lots of "pausing the timer because I am just searching, not playing"). There's then a raft of specific exceptions: extra time for email and blogging or otherwise using the computer as a communications tool, unlimited extra time for homework (and I could be sold on including not-actually-assigned research projects in this category), and liberal exceptions tied to the level of violence in the family (in other words, when nobody is hitting anybody we are "on green" and exceptions are liberal; in the event of fisticuffs we go to yellow, orange or red and strictly enforce rules on, and then further restrict, screen time, sugar, and bedtimes).

Also, I do not just have screen time restrictions for my kids. I have screen time restrictions for me. I do not get on the computer after 7pm (except when day-job work demands my staying late; never at home). I do not get on the computer at home if I am more than 9 chores behind on the (competitive, cumulative, me vs. my wife) chore list. I lock myself out of internet access on all portable computing equipment -- laptop, iphone -- when out of the house. We don't own a TV, and when I have a hankering for an installed client-side computer game, I rent one (every few years) from the library for a month. Although I don't restrict my kid's book time, I do restrict my own; if I'm more than 25 behind on the chore list I don't read at home. (If I'm more than 40 behind I don't play the guitar).

It's hard to know if I'm doing the right thing by my kids in restricting screen time; I go back and forth. It's much easier to tell that I'm doing the right thing by restricting screen time for me -- my life has been made immeasurably better by these rules.

It's also worth noting that our household is driven by a lot of consensus-based negotiation, and the screen time rules were worked out, in discussion, between us and the kids. They aren't purely coercively imposed by fiat; the kids have suggested and successfully argued for changes in the rules, and they'll continue to change over time. These are rules the kids said yes to; they know how to say no. That said, the kids would surely want to have way more screen time if they could simply overrule us. Consensus cuts both ways. [Actually I was wrong about this: see update at the end.]

Part of what's going on is cultural difference. I live in Switzerland. It's not so much that the Swiss relate to technology differently, as that they relate to time, and public and private spheres, differently. Offices are very high-tech; homes are very old-timey. There is a time for each kind of activity. Being online at 3 in the morning is wrong; so is shopping at 3 in the morning. I don't know if this way of life is good or bad; what it is, is, in a modern incarnation, Sabbatarian. It was one of the things I hated most about Switzerland when I first came here, twenty years ago, with my American sense of "god damn it, I want to buy it NOW." It's one of the things I've come to cherish most about life here.

Another piece of this is that while "computers are evil and totally different from books" is absurd, so is "computers are access to information; books are access to information; thus computers=books." It turns out that the shift from horses to cars does require some different traffic rules; same with the shift from painting to cameras -- it's possible to fall asleep and find that your one night-stand has painted your nude portrait, made a lithograph thereof, and posted it as flysheets all around the town, and that may be distressing, but it's not quite the same thing as the modern equivalent. Indeed, much was lost in the transition from oral narrative to text; there's something to be said, perhaps, for camping trips with few books taken along, for reawakening the spirit of storytelling.

But anyway: computers are, frankly, more engrossing than books; more even than TV. This is partly because they are better than books or TV. They are more interactive, more educating, more powerful. This is a good thing. My kids learned more world history in our month-long sprint of playing, and then discussing, Civilization IV every day, than they have in their entire academic career in school. Only because of how powerful and enthralling computers are, were we able to have such an intense period of passionate arguments, so early, about guilds and the development of gunpowder weapons.

But I suspect limited screen time was an aid, rather than an impediment, to this usage. It meant that the kids strategized about how to deploy their computer time, then used it with total focus and abandonment, and then were forced afterwards to regroup and think and talk about it, to process it in while on walks outside and while doing chores, as opposed to simply being immersed in it until their reserves of attention were exhausted.

Because here is the other thing about computers, and particularly the endless jouissance of interlinked education/entertainment/power of modern networked computers: they never get boring. Not for me anyway, and not for my kids either, by observation (and there have been some periods of relatively unlimited computer use by them to test this hypothesis, though I admit that the usual rules do distort the experiment). There is some point at which I will look up from a book, stretch, notice that I am hungry and in need of exercise. When that happens in front of the computer my impulse is to click on something else.

Being bored is actually a really critical part of childhood. I do not want my children to be robbed of being bored. I do not rush in to help them when they are bored -- or I try to suppress my tendency to do so. The moment in which you are bored is the moment in which you begin to create and own your time. Now, obviously, I do not take this theory to the extreme of locking them in lightless padded cells, however wonderful the imaginations they might have would thereby be. But nor am I required to furnish them with any entertainment they wish.

It is easy to say "it is fine to tell children to go outside and play, but what does that have to do with allowing them to websurf?" The thing is, though, that I have found that it does not work very well to issue positive injunctions -- read! play outside! talk to your friends! No one listens to this (nor should they; their time is their own). Bribery has the downside of the corruption effect; variants of "I'll pay you for every time you go play outside", or read, or draw, or whatever, do nothing but turn "playing-outside", or reading or drawing, into work, alienated labor, something done for extrinsic reasons, a game to be rules-lawyered and beaten; they breed contempt. Whereas going from the other side -- restricting, diminishing, or simply not having any of the distractions from the things you want to afford, and then allowing perfect freedom with what's left -- seems to work a lot better.

My kids tend to use the computer as a source of inspiration. They pick their moment, soak up Little House on the Prairie or all the Ben Ten Alien Force they can, then, when it's time to get off, they are thrown back on their own devices; they go play Ben Ten Alien Force outside, concoct period costume dramas in the attic, recruit the neighborhood to design Alien Force paper airplanes. It doesn't feel to me like they are deprived of internet time; it feels like they are using it smart.

Most of my US friends restrict screen time a lot less. Sometimes (Jeremiah Winzell comes to mind... wrong about this too, see comments) their kids seem to totally flourish in a bath of internet. Other times, the parents seem stressed out by what their kids aren't spending their time doing; the internet is the default, and the parents are in a battle to try to lure their kids away from it. The parents feel that the kid, if taken away from the screen, has no other particular thought than to return to it, and the expectation that all of life will be similarly entertaining and frictionless. The kids, in dopamine withdrawl, are sort of frantic. Does this do any permanent harm? Probably not. I survived endless hours of TV. It doesn't seem as much fun, to me, for me, as the way we do it, though.

I would not have predicted my approach as a parent to screen time. It came as quite a surprise to me. This is often the case with processes that evolve organically by many iterations of trial and error and empirical
re-evaluation. I am not prescribing anything. I do not see this as The Way. I find the fact that I am doing it sort of mystifying and, from some perspective, ironically absurd. Proper optimization is highly dependent on local conditions. Differences among kids are vast and salient, as are differences among parents. This seems to work; YMMV.

That was probably a lot longer comment than you wanted. Behold: I've gotten sucked into the internet again...

An update: I showed this to my kids and they objected to the sentence "the kids would surely want to have way more screen time if they could simply overrule us." Turns out that's not true: they both find the 5-hour-a-week rule optimal.

Posted by benrosen at December 13, 2011 05:32 PM | Up to blog

Hallo dear Ben! I don't want to weaken your post, but I have to correct your impression of Jeremiah's screen time. While we do allow him a Facebook presence, it is severely curtailed. Possibly more to the point, like yours he has five hours of computer time total over the weekends (3 on Saturday and 2 on Sunday). On weekdays, he'll sometimes do an Internet check-in, but rarely for more than 10 minutes. In fact, he has no free time at all on weekdays. We do however almost invariably let him write stories, when the mood strikes.

Posted by: Zell at December 13, 2011 10:32 PM

I only have one night-stand, and I assure you that were it to paint my nude portrait, I would be so surprised that I would probably exhibit the night-stand along with the portrait. Because otherwise nobody would believe that a piece of furniture painted such a stirring and noble work of vulnerability and verility, all at once.


Posted by: Matt at December 14, 2011 01:57 AM

Pär: Ha! That more kind of reinforces my post, doesn't it? That J gives the impression of being bathed in the Internet, despite having pretty much exactly the same rules as my kids, kind of strengthens the argument that kids with screen-time-limits use their available screen time strategically, voraciously, and powerfully.

Though it would be useful to find some flourishing non-screen-time-restricted kids for the YMMV part of the argument...

Matt: surreal snark FTW!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at December 14, 2011 11:27 AM

I suspect my whole family would be better off with less screen time. But I'm also getting a Kindle Fire from my parents for Christmas, and I'm excited about it. My kids watch a lot of tv -- every day starts and ends with a show, and meal times not at school are generally accompanied by a show too. So that's 3-4 hours typically, and often more on the weekends. The meal thing is because mommy likes to read while she eats, and doesn't want to talk to them or hear their screechy little voices.

I find the screen thing a little confusing too. Someone was recently talking about a media fast, which sounded well and good until I realized they also included things like listening to music and NPR. And that seems sort of random to me. Why is putting on a record more damaging than reading a book?

Anyway. We'll see what happens as the kids get older. At least so far, it's mostly not been them demanding screen time, but rather us putting it on to keep them semi-occupied as we get shit done. We introduced Anand to computer games this past week, and that resulted in three days of intensive demands for more games, but again, it's not really about the screen, per se, but rather the new game, I think. And one he can play by himself, without waiting for the attention of an adult.

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at December 18, 2011 03:57 PM

Good stuff; thanks for posting it.

But I think I disagree with you about boredom. First, because books rarely get boring to me (sure, at some point I may get hungry or sleepy or have to use the bathroom, but that's no more or less true for me with the Internet than with books); and second, because I'm not seeing why boredom is essential to childhood.

I remember being bored a few times during summers before high school; I didn't learn anything useful or positive from the experience, and it didn't spark me to go out and be creative or play or get things done or manage my time better, it was just dull. And I've almost never been really bored as an adult (well, except in some social situations, like listening to a dull conversationalist in a context where it would be rude to just walk away), and I don't miss it.

...But I should note that, in general, claims of the form "imperfection is good" are a pet peeve of mine, so I may be reacting to stuff you didn't mean or didn't say.

So can you elaborate on what you mean by "creat[ing] and own[ing] your time," and why it can only happen through boredom? I'm not sure I understand what you're saying.

Posted by: Jed at December 19, 2011 03:03 AM

Hey Jed!

So, first point: okay I'll admit, a really thrilling, great book is as absorbing as any given thing online; more so, maybe. The thing is though, that if a book (one which is perhaps less than the absolute thrillingest 100% great book -- an 80% book, if you will) lags, and you come up out of it, there you are in physical space. The next book is not a mere click away.

As for the second thing; I think we're talking about different phenomena, or at least different time scales. When you say "I remember being bored a few times during summers before high school", you are apparently (I think) talking about extended periods -- "that day I was bored" or at least "those two hours I was bored". You are not remembering instances of five minutes when you were bored. And if you have "almost never been really bored" as an adult, we are definitely not talking about the same thing.

Boredom is a kind of pain. As such, it is a signal. If you sit in an uncomfortable position for a long time, your body will begin to send you pain, as a signal that you should move. This signal is precious. Your body is telling you what it needs. The same is true of various other kinds of pain. When someone is treating you badly, and your feelings are hurt, it's a signal of something awry in the relationship.

That doesn't mean we want to stay in pain. We don't want to be trapped sitting in an uncomfortable position, we don't want to leave our hands on the stove, we don't want to ignore the signs that a relationship is out of balance. Being trapped in pain is not a good thing.

On the other hand, though, we also don't want to mask signals of pain so that we simply don't perceive them. If we block out the signal that the body is sending, that we should move, we eventually start doing ourselves damage. If we totally block out the feeling of discomfort in a relationship, we are likely to get more deeply hurt.

It's also not always useful to us if someone else responds to the signal, or avoids us ever receiving it. It keeps us from being independent and self-directing. Perhaps someone could avoid your ever feeling physical discomfort if they always arranged your limbs for you, perhaps they could escort you through parties and always steer you clear of dull conversationalists, and so on. But that would make you more passive, and interfere with your autonomy.

If you remember distinctly, years later, times during summers when you were bored and nothing good came of it, it sounds like you got trapped being bored -- just as, as an adult, you might get trapped by a boorish pontificator at a party. It's even possible that, if you were stuck there long enough, it would have been optimal -- at some point for an adult to come help you figure out how to get past whatever was keeping you stuck.

(...which would be interesting to know. What were some of the times you were bored. Why were you bored? Why were you then not bored all those other, similar times -- the other summers where you read or swam or hung out with people instead of being bored? What was different the times you were bored for extended periods of time? Was it, perhaps, that there was a specific need that had become urgent and you hadn't figured out how to meet it? That's sort of what I imagine: "there's no one (that I like) to play with and I don't feel like reading or biking or..."... translation: I am receiving the signal, all right, but I don't know how to obtain the thing it's telling me I need. That's a different problem than just "boredom sucks".)

Anyway, what you're talking about here is not the same phenomenon I'm talking about. I have never seen my kids stay bored for an entire hour straight, and probably not even twenty minutes. What I'm talking about is that moment at which, removed forcibly (albeit by their own prior consent) from that supernormal stimulus, the fascinating, all-encompassing stimulation cornucopia of The Computer, they howl: "I'm bored!! There's Nothing To Do!"

This happens less frequently than it used to, but it still happens.

They're not lying. They are bored. They are intensely bored -- we're talking, here, about an intense boredom of five or ten minutes duration. They are looking for someone or something else to do the work of getting them engaged in the next project, the next thing.

Now, I play with my kids a LOT. I play with them all the time. My kids are among my favorite people to play with, and I have a long mental list of things I want to do with them, when they have a minute.

Nonetheless, in that moment when they are experiencing boredom -- short-term, what's-next boredom -- I have learned to be cautious about jumping in and providing them with the next round of stimulation. I could handle that signal of boredom-pain for them. Given that their lives are already pretty scheduled -- school, music lessons, sports classes, parties, etc. -- and that they are often out with friends, I could easily fill the remaining "free hours" with my ideas for what they should be doing, such that they would never be bored even for five minutes.

But I hold back. Because if they find their own way through the impasse, they have ownership of what they decide to do next. Thing is, there are plenty of options -- it's a house full of books and toys and games, they have chores to do, they like to cook, there are friends nearby, and I could be talked into doing some specific activity. So if, in the first moment, none of those options appeals -- if they loll around saying "I'm booorrred" in a house full of things to do, I figure there's something else going on there. There's some need they have they haven't figured out yet. They could perhaps be talked into a game of poker or basketball or whatever, distracted from the new and inchoate need, and it might be enough to dispel, or at least stifle, that signal of boredom-pain. But if nothing like that is thrust on them, if they are allowed to develop their own ideas, to unearth that need and find a way to fill it, they move forward.

That's what I mean about creating and owning your time. Your own decisions, your own sovereignty over what you do, even when it becomes difficult, even when you feel stuck.

Now if they were stuck for really extended periods of time, and it was really getting them down, I would try to figure out what was blocking them, where they needed a hand. But I would be cautious of rushing in and doing it for them. I think often, the longer they are "bored" -- if it's ten minutes rather than thirty seconds, say; or even a day or a week of engaging in activities, but expressing dissatisfaction with them -- the more awesome the thing they are going to come up with on the other side of it is. "Boredom" is often what the difficult, uncertain stage of creativity looks like.

I am interested in your general peeve about "imperfection is good". I think imperfection generally is good. Ignoring or avoiding obvious optimizations out of pique, spite or perversity is not good. But that isn't the same thing. The cost of perfection is very often low ambitions. If you have managed to perfect everything, it's because you've tightly constrained the scope; at that point, you need to break it open, expand the feature set, raise the bar, the immediate result of which is imperfection. You cannot expand the feature set without writing some bugs. So as a general rule, the presence of imperfection is a necessary, though not a sufficient, indication of growth and of the good life.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at December 19, 2011 01:53 PM

I know I am posting this after more than a year. I just read this for the first time, and my computer situation has changed.

I now have SST instead of computer time, which stands for Solo Screen Time. During the school year, I have 30 minutes before homework and two hours after. I find this to be very lovely. On weekends, I get 3 hours.

SST includes watching television, writing on my wall, commenting on this, or playing Starcraft. It does not include anything involving my parents or friends, such as having a Google Hangout with my friend George.

In the case of events like playing World of Warcraft with my dad, sometimes it counts as "half SST" where I could play with him for two hours and it expends one hour of SST.

Posted by: Jeremiah at June 18, 2013 06:51 PM

Awesome article post.Thanks Again. Much obliged.

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