Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Screen time

The kids had too much screen time over the break. The aftereffects are rather like eating too much sugar: headache-causing and fussiness-inducing. Too much screen time means my kids are far more likely to ask the forbidden question: "Mom, what can I do?" (Answer: clean the bathroom.)

We normally allow 45 minutes of screen time a day, with a movie alternative once or twice a week. I'm not sure if that's a lot or a little; it seems like a lot to me, but relative to the national average it's peanuts.

We limit screen time for a number of reasons:
  1. I want my kids to grow up to be producers of value, not consumers of fluff. Creativity and innovation emerge out of empty blocks of time, not out of entertainment. 
  2. It's easier to set boundaries with real kids than with TV characters. My standard for behavior is the same for media as for people: if you're rude, you can adjust your attitude or  come back when you've learned better manners.
  3. I'm too lazy to screen everything. When my kids are busy coming up with shows and art projects and messes, I discover what's going on in their heads instead of having to sift what's going into their heads.
  4. Screen time is a parental slippery slope. It takes energy to be even a half-good mom, energy I don't always want to expend. If I don't set conscious limits on how often I pack my kids off to la-la land, I fall into bad habits.
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The move to a residential facility included a big shift for Big Guy: he has nothing but screen time at the place he's living. It's a mystery how hospitals and mental health centers (the very places research is done) provide a diet of almost entirely TV and video games. You'd think if research shows that too much screen time leads to depression and obesity, health care folks would at least have books and games on hand. 

Since there's no ready reading supply at his place, and nothing else to do, Big Guy's Christmas gifts were almost entirely books. These ranged from the last in the Dune series to Michio Kako's Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century to the very good Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory. Some light stuff, some good reads, and one or two thick tomes to plow through. I would have loved to get him a robotics or electronics set, but his patience and self-confidence are insufficient to make that kind of activity fun right now.

Big Guy can now read instead of constantly hang around the TV room getting into arguments. However, he also came up with another activity: he recently bought himself a DSi, a gaming toy I know nothing about, and about which no one at his facility thought to ask my opinion. I'm not a mental health professional, but my parenting instinct tells me that shutting oneself in one's room to play games in isolation is not ideal for building social skills. But given the lack of guidance and supervision on healthy ways to interact, I suppose that removing yourself from the fray is a better option.

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As a gesture of generosity, Big Guy gave his ancient DS (bought 'refurbished' last summer, and never played) to my younger kids. Snuggler and Little Guy were very excited. They pooled their funds to buy a game to play, and petitioned their me to take them to a Game Stop. It was a whole new world, one which I was not happy to enter. Given the expense relative to my kids' budgets, however, I am reasonably confident that this will be a short-lived phase.

With more forms of media in the house it's getting harder to hold the line on time limits, or even keep track of them. And since we had more free time than usual over the break, I've been admittedly lax about enforcing the rules. (There was also some disconnect between the adults on what's allowed; Andrew's far more likely to let the kids enter the hypnozone than I am.)

After our screen time gorge, though, an attitude of entitlement seemed to set in. I understand, at least intellectually: it's more work to entertain yourself than to let a computer chip do the work, and there's great reluctance to go back to the work of thinking up things to do. So to assist with the readjustment, yesterday I revamped our screen time approach.

We start with a small base of entitlement: 20 minutes. All screen time after that is earned. The work goes two ways: I have to dig myself out of the trap of taking away screen time for misbehavior, and figure out other ways to handle problems.

I expect we'll have a few days of misplaced expectations; my kids do occasionally fall into the misconception that boredom is something Mom's supposed to banish. I'll let you know how we do.


  1. I confiscated the child's DS one day, stashed it away, and CAN NOT remember where I put it. She's forgotten about it by now. (It was at least a month ago.)

    The Professor Layton games are great. They're full of little puzzles of all stripes. Very clever.

  2. My mother always told us that "boredom was a choice", then she made us clean the bathroom. We didn't own a TV (mom and dad playing hippie...) until the flood of '73 and my dad was stuck home with 2 toddlers for a week! Ha ha.... it's always the men--I agree! :)

    We have a one hour screen time rule in our house, but it can't be used after 8pm as that is mom and dad time. All the kids go read, craft or do other quiet things in their rooms until it is time to get ready for bed.

  3. Julia,

    First of all I was wondering if I could send a book to Big Guy? My husband is a publisher (www.arxpub.com) and they have a great Catholic novel called Angels in iron. You can read up about it on the site and if you think he would enjoy it let me know. We would love to send it to him (or we can send to you to give to him if that is easier).

    We limit TV here too. It is easy with my oldest being only 3. The biggest challenge we have is from OTHER people.....other people giving us DVDs we would never let our children watch. Grandparents watching the 3 year old while we are hospitalized with our 18M old and letting him watch unlimited garbage. I am still fuming that he was introduced to Dora!! LOL...and he would NEVER ask for TV time as he just never has gotten in the habit to expect it....so it is just those indulgent grandparents LOL!

    But I am sure you noticed if your kids don't expect or even know what is on out there they don't even know or think to ask for it! Our new bit of technology here is a Leapfrog Tag reader.....I haven't decided if I hate it yet. I almost feel that instead of doing its inteded job of teaching Ben to read it will b a crutch to hold him back. He is well on his way to sounding out words already.....but now he has a pen that will sound them out for him.

    Anyway I am babbling. Let me know about the book.

  4. Because the relatives LOVE having the family together for Christmas in THEORY but not actually in PRACTiCE, my youngest ended up hanging in the Grandparents basement with his elder cousin playing what felt like endless hours of video games. This naturally included games with teen and mature ratings (Call of Duty - Black Ops, anyone?) and most of them had lots of guns and intensity that was pretty well beyond my comfort zone. Husband weighed in that he didn't think them as bad as I did, but just as quickly said that was not an endorsement and that those games would NOT be entering our house. And sure enough, the youngest did ask....but the good news is that he seemed to be okay with the limits, almost relieved, like he knew I was just tolerating it and that I try to take an all bets are off approach when trying to keep the kids out of the grownups hair (even tho they invited you to their home).

    I'd like to have more control and better screen limits in these situations, but it simply isn't always possible, especially when we are all trapped in a small house with nothing to do outside in the freezing cold. And I also want my kids to know their cousins and the aunts and uncles, so this means compromise and looking at differing family values and choices and talking it out. But I do see that my kids get it....and they really seem to intuit that the screen in general is a drain even while it entertains.

    At home, we struggle with the screen limits issue, and the 10 yr old boy seems especially attracted to the screen (ok, addicted) and he wants to play games and watch car podcasts as often as possible. Boys have it worse than girls I think. So there is always a discussion, often some yelling and then he tries to find other things to fill the hole, always questioning, while talking it out (endlessly) until I finally say "because I said so" Based on the comments here, I think I will switch that to "clean the bathroom!!"

  5. "You can clean the bathroom" is also my standard answer to "I'm bored" - but you have to be careful, some kids are thrilled because they want to be helpful. :)

    Re: Big Guy, it's definitely an expensive option, but an e-reader might be a good idea for him. They tend to come with classics (i.e. out of copywrite books), and I know our library allows you to borrow e-books online.