Ah social media, it serves many purposes: helps us stay connected with friends and family, provides a place to express and discuss ideas, and gives judgy haters a place to criticize all of our parenting choices! It’s probably my age, but my Facebook feed often includes articles about parenting that others have shared. One topic that circulates from time to time is kids and screen time. This always feels like a punch in the gut when I scroll past an article warning me that screen time is ruining my kid’s brain, because, while I’ve always had the best of intentions, I haven’t always followed through. I don’t love technology myself, but do use it. I don’t enjoy sitting on the couch staring at any kind of screen, so it’s hard for me to understand those who do. However, I’ve also been a mom at the grocery store, alone with two wild boys and, yes, I want them to sit still, like zombies, so I can get the damn groceries. I’ve also been a mom at a restaurant where the service is taking too long and my two-year-old is being, well two, and running out of patience. Sometimes I just want to get dinner on the table. Sometimes I just want to take a shower, or send an email, or make a phone call and I need the kids to sit still and be quiet. And so, tablets are a part of our lives.
Years ago I heard a story on NPR where a woman gave her kids two iPads and free reign. She didn’t limit their time, didn’t set any guidelines. She gave it to them as you would give any toy to your kids. What she found was, like most toys, they were pretty obsessed at first and then over time, they ended up relegated to the bottom of the toy box. I tried this with my own kids and found it also to be true. It seemed like the more I limited the time or made it the reward for other behavior, the more power I was giving the technology. Then it became a thing to work for, look forward too, think about. When the technology was just around, like the many balls, blocks, and Ninja Turtles, it became just that, another toy. And my kids were able to move to and from it without too much fighting and crying, or sticker charts and rewards systems that I had to remember to maintain.
Now, do we still have fighting and crying? OF COURSE. Do I still say things like, “you are putting that away in 5 minutes because you’ve been staring at that iPad for an hour!” Heck yes. I also sometimes have to boot them outside, because, well, they’re kids!
Below are some routines I’ve worked out regarding technology use in our house. I didn’t sit down and plan these out and I don’t use fancy sticker-coated charts to reinforce anything – these are just the norms we’ve established that don’t stress me out.
Now, in case you don’t know me, you should know that I have a real problem staying inside. In fact, if the weather is nice I have some mild anxiety if I can’t get outside. My family is always on the go it seems and that’s mostly due to my own restlessness about being indoors. Therefore, I feel like I can be a bit more laissez-faire with technology rules because I know my kids will be outside a lot, because our whole family is outside a lot. If you prefer the great indoors, then these things might not work for you, but that’s why I never claimed to have parenting figured out!
I’m sure I started this before my first born was old enough to really understand, but I’ve always been honest with my kids about technology. I tell them that it’s not good for their brain before bed, I tell them that it can hurt their eyes to look at it too much or in the dark, not to make technology evil, but to help them learn the pros and cons of using it. I’ll say things like, “Well tomorrow it’s going to rain and today it’s nice out, so let’s enjoy the weather today because you’ll have lots of time for technology tomorrow.” We do these things as adults and by making my thoughts transparent, I hope to pass this sense of balance on to my kids. Does this mean they are always like, “Oh yeah, good point mom. I’ll finish this game tomorrow.” Heck no! They generally say “nuh uh” because, well, they’re kids! But you know, it’s a constant work-in-progress.
All Screen Time is Not Created Equal.
My almost-7-year-old is addicted to Minecraft and I really wrestled with how much he played it for a long time. However, it amazed me the things he was building on there. We would go someplace, like the botanical gardens, and then he’d come home and build this amazing replica. I mean, down to the detail. I bought him a couple of Minecraft books and he would look at some of the pictures in the books and then recreate the structures. As I’ve learned more about the game, he’s learned to do more and now works his way around the computer better than some of my high school students! He’s figured out how to google something if he has a question, he watches videos and learn new skills, he and I talk about it (nonstop, ugh) when he’s trying to figure something out. This is not the same screen time as playing Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja and I think that’s an important fact to recognize. Kids can learn from technology and it’s not always bad. It’s all about balance, of course.
I’m not a researcher and I do recognize that there is real research to suggest that too much screen time is harmful to our kid’s developing brains. However, I’m also a realist and the truth is that future generations are going to be expected to understand and use technology, so I don’t think completely shielding my kids from it is the answer. Additionally, Boomers were SUPER concerned that the MTV generation was rotting its collective brain by watching TV all the time. I’d argue that iPads and tablets are just the new MTV. My kids don’t watch much TV and feel kind of ambivalent about movies, but they do love their tablets. Now, if they were turning off their tablets and picking up the TV remote, we’d have a problem, but typically they don’t.
I try to just keep tabs of how much time they’ve stared at a screen and if it seems like we’ve had several days where they’ve been obsessed, then we put them away for a while. They used them a lot more in February-March than ever before and I swear it was because we were all just running out of things to do indoors. I was just starting to come to terms with the fact that I am the worst parent ever, when suddenly it warmed up, they chucked their tablets aside, and ran outdoors!
The plan is no screen time a half hour before bed and we are somewhat okay at enforcing this. Often times the evening gets away from me and I’m like, “Crap! It’s time to brush your teeth!” Regardless, we always read in bed, so I figure that gives them some time for their brains to wind down.
I do not see technology as a great evil. I’m very social and I love the many social media outlets that exist. However, scrolling my twitter feed is NOT more important than a story my kid is trying to tell me. So if I’m just web-surfing and one of them wants to talk to me. I stop, Put the tech down, and listen with my full attention. If I do happen to be in the middle of something, say an email for work, I say to them, “Hold on one second, I’m just finishing an email for work.” and then I put it down and give them my full attention. I like to tell them what I’m doing, so that they learn that not all screen time is created equal. I’m an adult and I sometimes use the computer for things more important than Plants vs. Zombies, so if I’m in the middle of paying a bill, I tell them so. However, if I’m not doing anything important, then they, of course, get my immediate attention.
Go Old School.
I love to take pics of my kiddos, and videos too, but I’m very aware of the number of articles and memes criticizing parents for watching their kids grow up through the lens of their phone. Also, I want them to learn from me that some activities are better when we don’t have our phones with us, so sometimes when we are going somewhere I leave my phone behind on purpose. I might snap a pic at the beginning of a bike ride, then toss the phone in the car before we leave. I hate to say it, but if it’s with me, I’ll look at it or use it and so, to prevent this, I don’t take it with me. I don’t worry about an emergency and no phone because I know that nearly every other human being around me has one!
It’s important that you know that I am not an amazing parent, and on some days I’m lucky
to be classified as “good,” but I think that’s the game of parenting. Just do the best you can, one day at a time. I found that I would stress my own self out worrying about screen time and rotting brains and learning and then I step back and think about all the things we’ve done of the course of a week: school, trips to the playground, family dinners, walking the dog, and I realize than an extra half hour of Minecraft is not going to kill anyone.
And at the end of the day, if you are thinking about it, worrying about it, or trying (even if you’re failing), it means you’re doing it right, because parenting is hard and messy and there are no right answers!