I can’t say no to everything. We’re not Amish.
– Neighborhood mother to PracticalDad
For those who try to control the household electronics, monitoring what’s used and for how long presents the greatest struggle. This is especially the case with new electronic devices that enter the household. In our case, an iPod Touch and a Nintendo DS, gifts that were given when Eldest and Middle reached a certain age in their teens. But when does it become too much and how do I control it? And yes, I consider it entirely appropriate to control the usage.
I have never believed that it’s alright to give kids unfettered access to electronics, whether it’s computer, television or game system. Apart from the typical concerns – desensitization to violence and lack of exercise – my real worries are the stifling of their creativity and critical thinking skills. It’s these gifts and skills that will most enable them to survive as adults. Middle would argue with me about how his friends all had this or that particular system, a TV in the room or their own laptop by the third grade. This began to slack off after I laid out my concerns by asking if all of your friends spend the bulk of their time playing games, who’s going to make the best living – the game user or the guy who spent the time learning how to think and develop the game? I was surprised when this particular point paid dividends.
But still, we’re not Amish and the kids should be able to play or experience the technology. So how much is too much and what can I do?
First, understand that there is no data that says that X hours on electronics is optimal and Y hours is harmful. You’ll have to use your best judgment and choose a time. Since most kids are spending about five hours on electronics outside of school, we decided that each child having two hours of screen time – whether television, computer or game system – should be sufficient. This ration increases on weekends. And there are still individual variances. Eldest spends more time than that on homework some days, so we give some allowance for free time since much of her homework is on the computer. Likewise, another of the children gets snarly when told to turn off a game and we’ve had to learn that this child shouldn’t have such unfettered time on a screen.
Second, understand that there are some steps you can take to help control things. The most important is that screens stay in public areas so that use can be monitored and times controlled. This becomes more difficult with the arrival of the portable devices such as the Touch or the DS, which can move from room to room. This means that I have to be willing to check on things like a housebound Shore Patrol. If you think that you should be able to keep the devices in a central location and to be used with your approval, then that would work as well. Establish ground rules. I’ve now told kids that there will be no electronics at any dinner table, ours or friends whose own kids text at the table. Likewise, if you’re talking to me, expect to put the device away for the duration of the conversation.
Third, it’s alright to consider that you call the shots since it’s your house. Kids will throw their friends in your face to provoke guilt, but there’s nothing wrong with laying down clear rules and sticking to them. Your house isn’t a democracy.
Fourth – and this is my Achilles Heel – remember that kids have almost no sense of time. They probably aren’t trying to push the envelope on screentime but have actually lost track of time. Again, a timer would be a worthwhile tool. And even if you have a timer, expect to wander the house to still close down screens.
Fifth, take the time to ask about the device and even play with it to an extent. Many parents shy away from new technology, but this only lays the groundwork for further problems down the road. I’m fortunate in that my mate is a bigger technophile than Eldest, so she can ride herd in that regard. Still, the game cartridge and the Playlist provide some good information about the kids’ interests and activities. And that kind of information is what you’ll need as they age and establish themselves outside of the house.
This isn’t going to be a "one-off" issue that easily resolves. It’s going to require ongoing attention and considerable patience to make things stick. Besides, it’s a hoot when you can beat a kid at his own game.