December 30, 2008

Screen time quandary

So here is a parenting dilemma. What is the right amount of computer time for a child? The answer can not be simple because there are too many factors. What is the computer being used for?  Research or video games? Do the games have any educational value?  Does it depend on the age of the child? Do you limit by days and/or hours? Do they need to earn the privilege or do they get the choose what to do in their downtime? These are only some of the questions that I face with my children. The biggest problem for me is that I need to find something that works soon because not having set expectations leads to frustration for all parties.

Here is what I have to work with right now.  

Most of our computer games are educational.  I have weeded out a lot of the arcade type stuff and we are left with two main categories:  early educational games like beginner math, phonics, art, typing, etc.  Then there are games that tend more toward building and completing projects to be able to perform tasks like building robots to compete or Rube Goldberg type machines to knock a pin down, etc.  We also have a couple of games that simulate experiences like being a pioneer, working on the space station, Spore, and being a Disney Imagineer.  Other favorite activities on the computer are working in GarageBand and using iMovie.  Considering all that is out there, I am pretty happy with how my kids spend their computer time (and by kids, I mostly mean Robotson).   In addition to computer games, we have a Wii.  

What I am looking for is balance.  The first thing I need to decide is whether computer time has to be earned, or if free play is a right for everyone in the family to choose the activity as they see fit.  I am leaning toward the second, but I also don't want all free time to be spent in front of a screen.  Perhaps only a fraction of  that time should be spent with the t.v. or computer.  Going back to whether time has to be earned or not, what if the child doesn't take care of their responsibilities for the day?  We all have off days when we don't want to do anything of course, but for the most part I want the work done before the playing.  Something I've been thinking about lately is setting a time when the work is done for the day.  So after that time, we can all do our own thing.  Unfortunately that doesn't always work because humans are good at procrastinating until the whistle blows and then expecting to get to play the rest of the day.   Even worse than that, is waiting until the last minute to start something that needs much more time to complete.  It's at this point in the trying to figure this all out that my head begins to ache.  

In the past I have tried pretty much everything.  I've limited time and days.  I've given unlimited access hoping for self-regulation.  I've demanded work first.  I've allowed play first and then asked for work.  I've taken it away completely.  I've restricted by types of games.  I've asked for the kids' own opinions and help deciding limits.  Nothing has ever really been in balance but two things have really started to resonate with me.  

1.  The computer is a Scholar tool.  I can see why a person in Scholar Phase really needs a computer.   The answers are out there and all you need is a computer.  A Scholar gobbles up knowledge constantly and spits everything they learned back out in essays and notes.  I don't know how they did it before computers to be honest!  

2.  The computer definitely has a place in Core and LoL Phases as well but only in the sense that there is a lot of educational and fun stuff out there.  It just needs to be used in moderation.  Ultimately, kids still need to be kids.  They need to be outside, playing with friends, learning how to be part of a family, reading, and playing with toys.

So where does this leave me?  Mostly as the bad guy unfortunately.  Robotson doesn't want to be restricted in any way, and even B is noncommittal in help with setting up some guidelines.  He likes all the games just as much as the kids and sees them as more good than bad.  I can't deny there are much worse options out there for entertainment but that doesn't mean I want them to be entertained 24/7.  

I do have a few ideas though.  Most days the girls are distracting to Robotson and I when we are reading.  I have recently gotten some things that I think will help keep them occupied but I am not above setting them up with a video for an hour or so while we read.  Not only does it keep them busy, but it also gets them to lay down and rest for a while since neither of them likes to nap anymore.  As Funny Girl gets older, I can allow her to choose a video or a computer game.  

Similarly, when I am preparing the girls for their bath and bedtime, that is a perfect time for Robotson to use the computer.  That way I can focus on the girls and no one bothers him while he plays.  From start to finish our bedtime routine can take 2-3 hours.  I'd say that is plenty of time for computer usage.  

As for the Wii, nearly all the games we have get you moving.  I think we can fit those in on days when going outside isn't any fun like when it's raining, too cold, way too hot, or on those rare days of ice.  

We don't have t.v. service, but we do have a ton of movies.  Most of the titles we get from Netflix are related to books we are reading, so I find time to show them.  The rest of our movies are classics.  We have movie nights on the weekends for those.  

I think any other screen time should be decided day by day.  If we are sick, we'll probably watch more t.v.  I can ask Robotson to make a song or two for us to play in the van during a grocery trip.  The kids can make a podcast to send out to relatives one day.  The weekends and holidays could be more open to play as long as we don't have any errands to run.  If I sprinkle a little bit of computer time in here and there, it can add flavor to our day.   Everything in moderation.  As to the kids being upset with me, I read recently in one of my books on emotional intelligence that parents shouldn't take their children's displeasure with them as a sign that they should get everything they want.   Even if I wanted to, I can't make them happy every second of the day.  That is not a failure on my part, but a fact of life.  I can supply all of their needs and a few of their wants.  That's what being a parent is all about.  


  1. "What I am looking for is balance. "

    We-el-ll -- what you're looking for most of all, I'll bet, is balance that they achieve on their own, that they will listen to their own needs and wants and choose accordingly in their own interest? With internal controls they've developed throughout childhood under your loving and wise guidance?

    Sounds like you're modeling very reasonable and helpful thoughts about it all. I'd just encourage you to make as much of it explicit and reasonable to THEM as you go, and empower them to choose and experiment and affirm and reject as much as possible. It can take longer but in the long run, that gets them to competently and confidently self-balance screen time and know why and how to adjust (as you're doing for them now) much better than having to go through that nasty backlash against the house rules, at their first opportunity. :)

  2. Hi - I searched my own blog with "video games + screen" and here are the posts that came up, on different aspects of this. Lots of links in them to other resources and research FYI.

  3. Thank you for the related posts JJ. I haven't had a chance to read them yet, but I will!

    You are right, I prefer them to find their own balance :)