I am committed to giving my kids as normal of a life as possible. I haven't let them audition for reality shows and once in awhile they get to eat Twinkies. However, struggles arise when I have an issue with what "normal" may be. I try to choose my battles - there's always the question of...
Honestly, if the answer is "No, the kids appeared to survive..." then a good chunk of the time, my parenting concern may not be a worthwhile hill to die on.
So having said all that...
"Can I watch a show?"
"Can I play Minecraft?"
"Can I watch a show?"
"Can I check my email?" (child spends 3 minutes checking email, then 45 minutes watching random YouTube videos.)
"There's this YouTuber who plays with Nerf guns..."
"Can I play on the computer?"
"Can I watch a show?"
Hearing this all day, as a mom, is exhausting. It's also exhausting to keep up with what my kids are watching on YouTube (understanding that the best parental controls are PARENTS) and considering that it is exhausting, it's also too tempting to just give up and let their screen time go unchecked. Not to mention the fact that if I say, "You may have 30 minutes of Minecraft," that translates to 30 minutes per child for my four children, which means that, if they all sit and watch each other play, they've actually sat in front of the TV for two hours, and that assumes none of them tried to fudge their time limits (which they nearly always do).
After some deep soul searching, and rambling at my husband and giving him full permission to tell me I'm being crazy (which he didn't), I decided that this school year, we will be screen-free after school, Monday through Thursday.
Yep, that's no video or computer games, or TV, four days a week. Exceptions include when computer time is necessary to complete homework and if the parents choose to turn on a show to watch as a family. Like the other night when we were settling down before bed, I turned on the latest episode of Making It. The new rule is that the kids can't ask to watch TV on screen-free days, but if Mom or Dad think there's something of value to watch or want to call special family time, we can call exceptions. We'll also consider that the internet and our devices are valuable tools, so we'll okay it if there's a good reason to look something up, play music, send someone a quick email, etc.
Here's the rational behind this not-normal plan:
Our hopes of raising well-rounded kids
Minecraft, my kids' game of choice, isn't "bad" in and of itself. Some computer games are downright educational. However, it's not usually productive to do the same thing all day long (unless you're Einstein working out Relativity or Marie Curie discovering radium, of course). My husband and I want our kids to up and moving and talking to real people and engaged in the world around them in a variety of ways.
The fact that video games, social media, and virtual worlds, are designed to be as "engaging" as possible.
The telling moment for our family came when my six year old was following me around the house trying to argue that "30 minutes isn't enough time for Minecraft!" because he wasn't able to accomplish all the things he wanted to in game. In a well-designed game that's intellectually challenging, he's probably right - it is tough to make any significant progress in 30 minutes.
There's also a lot of information out there arguing that video games are turning out to be, literally, addictive. The designers of the games - and I'm talking about the quality ones - are intentionally creating worlds as vibrant and as interactive as possible. Kids spend so much time playing games like Minecraft or Fortnight because it's a rich world where they can take complete control and make it their own. The problem comes when they can't walk away from the device, or dedicate all their spare thoughts to whatever virtual world it may be.
At worst, some online games - I'll pick on Candy Crush, because I got so fixated on it that I had to quit cold turkey and delete it off my Kindle - aren't any better for our brains than sitting at a slot machine. From the simple games to the more complex, the points and pings in a world where we rule as master sends those little dopamine hits to our brain, and yes, jacking with our dopamine can cause an actual addiction. (Really, it's called a compulsion loop.)
3D kids can't grow in a 2D world.
Remember those "lawnmower" races we did when we were kids, where someone held your feet and you walked ahead with your hands?
During game time at church one Wednesday night, I realized that my nine year old didn't have the upper body strength to do the lawnmower.
Granted, we had a long, cold winter in Montana. The kids were even banished to inside recess in the sub-zero temperatures and didn't get a lot of time outside to play. But kids, even those who are not athletically inclined, need to move in order to grow and develop into a healthy adult. Kids aren't going to get strong cores and develop their gross motor skills hunched over a tablet or video game controller. Kids need to run, jump, hang upside-down, swing, try cartwheels, spin in circles until they fall over, ride a bike, or any number of things in order to develop balance and coordination and muscle tone while they're still growing. "Engaging" video game platforms don't give them any of these opportunities.
I made a rule that in order to get 30 minutes of Minecraft time, my kids had to do 10 push-ups, 10 leg lifts, and 20 sit ups, to help compensate for the time they spent sitting as the played.
Now that school has started back up, I explained to my kids that they used computers and sat for most of the day at school, and once they got home from school, and finished their homework, they needed to do get up and move and do things away from screens for awhile. To my surprise, they really didn't argue with me on that point.
Think about how screen time seems like sensory deprivation. The only senses we use are our ears and eyes, and that can get overstimulating quickly. Growing kids need to exercise all their senses. Granted, that can be messy, but that may be where we need to give as parents. We can let our kids cook, plant gardens, and bang nails into pieces of wood. All of this requires more diligence on our part, but it's the kind of work that leads to...
Raising contributors rather than consumers.
One of the biggest appeals about a virtual world is that everything is under our control. All the obstacles are designed to be overcome, and with due diligence we can, in this virtual space, save or conquer a world.
However, it is a world that doesn't exist. Virtual worlds are a product, created by a individuals who run a business and are trying to make a living. Playing the video game is consuming a commodity designed to entertain.
That's not necessarily a problem. We all consume entertainment, and there's some excellent artists out there creating it for us. There's nothing wrong with fun for the sake of fun until it becomes an obsession, and a state of being entertained, or consuming products intended for entertainment, becomes the normal expectation for each day. I feel like letting my kids sitting on screens for too long is allowing them to shape their world with "ME" at the center. They watch what they want to watch, they talk to who they want to talk to, they play what they want to play, and they curate a world where control is the paramount value.
Obviously, control is a value that will let us down quickly in real life, but it sure is appealing in a virtual world. Consuming such an inviting product for hours a day not only distorts a child's view of the world, but doesn't allow them to figure out what gifts, talents, and values they can develop in the real world.
Long-term satisfaction in life stems from learning where we can contribute to the world, not in the products we consume. Kids, especially, need opportunities to break away from entertainment learn what they can add to the world in their special way. Maybe we have a kid who's going to grow up and build houses, and Minecraft can help them think big with the possibilities, but riding his bike through a neighborhood of unique homes can also help foster that interest, and strengthen his growing body. If we let our kid make a mess in the kitchen, he'll not only engage his body and all five senses as he cooks, but maybe he'll realize he feels an immense sense of satisfaction over serving people good food that nourishes their bodies.
As a parent, I have a responsibility to help my kids figure out what they can contribute to the world. When it comes to cutting off the after school screen time, the point is to give them opportunities to grow their bodies, minds, hearts, and souls by experiencing the real world. It may be louder, messier, and more chaotic, but hopefully, healthier and happier.