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.Comments (7) permalink