My son spends a lot of time on his computer. And when I say a lot, I mean hours… and hours… and sometimes even more hours at a time. Experts would more than likely advise that he is spending way more time than is healthy playing video games, watching YouTube programs, and being in front of a screen, in general. I’ve learned to blow those experts off, for the most part. I know that they mean well, but I’m certainly not convinced that the problems they claim exist by letting a kid have too much screen time, are actually problems when that kid is given unlimited access (without judgment) to the computers/game consoles/electronic gadgetry of his choice.
I actually contemplated a technology-free lifestyle when my kids were little. I liked the idea of all-natural toys, a focus on outdoor play, and reliance on imagination over television and electronics. There was one big obstacle, however. My husband and I both really enjoy activities that involve electronics, screens of many kinds, and new-fangled gadgets, in general.
So our family ended up taking a little different path. My desk soon had two computers. My kids had the option of working alongside me, or going out to play, or doing any of the myriad of activities they spent their time doing, pretty much any time and for as long as they wished. My kids reached for a keyboard and a mouse probably as often as they reached for building blocks and crayons.
It wasn’t a perfect system. I’d be lying if I claimed I never worried about it, but any effort I ever made to control screen time only served to make it a more valuable commodity. If I placed time limits, for instance, I could be sure that each kid demanded they receive their maximized time each day. With no limits, they might spend a lot of time playing a video game, but they might also go for days without spending any time on the computer at all.
Another approach? Join in their screen-time games.
As my children became savvy consumers of video games, websites, movies, and the endless varieties of media now out there, I came to rely on them to educate me. Instead of worrying that they were spending countless hours playing a Harry Potter video game, I sat down with them and had them teach me how to play. I was actually quite bad at it, but my son, at six, was satisfied with my skill level. The girls tackled the game together, making it all the way to the end (where they conquered Voldemort – yay!) weeks before my son and I got there. And yes, I found myself obsessing over the game, and together we spent hours playing, side-by-side—learning, improving, and having tons of fun together.
My son and I still reminisce about that Harry Potter video game. It was a good time of bonding for us. And he went on to spend several years where his interest in all things computer/video waxed and waned as often as the moon in the sky. There was summer when he was nine when my son spent hours, day after day, baking bread. Weird, I know, but he did it. And I gained ten pounds because, honestly, he soon made bread better than anyone else in the family.
The idea of spending each hour of a day focusing on a new and different subject is as foreign to my son as having to ask permission to go to the bathroom. He totally gets the state of flow, and I have learned to measure his subject interest by weeks and months rather than worrying about it moment to moment.
When he plugged in to his most recent video game/computer habit, about three years ago now, I was under the assumption that it would last for a season and then he’d move on to something else, as had been his pattern. His attention span is getting longer, however.
We saw a level of commitment to computer games that I had not imagined possible. He was playing them from beginning to end. He began researching the new games, and following the industry the way I might follow the local news or developments affecting Kansas farmers markets (of which I am a manager). He began writing reviews of his own experiences playing games and he experimented with recording his own video game playing YouTube channel.
My son’s interest grew into a desire to create, and so he forayed into programming. His computer, for which he saved his own money and purchased by unassembled pieces, he built from the motherboard up. It has become a tool for his life that goes well beyond the video game realm. Via an online program, he now works on learning Italian every day. His favorite games are on the subject of nation-building and he spends a considerable amount of time now reading the actual histories of the places and people he encounters in these games. He puts both my husband and I to shame when it comes to knowledge of world geography. He knows the chronological order of dynasties and dictators, world leaders and world wars. The historical and geographical subjects he is fluent in at the age of 14 are far beyond anything I encountered even in college.
And just when I began to worry that he wasn’t seeing enough (literal) light of day, he picked up a bicycling habit to get himself around town and an O’Dark-thirty workout routine that includes sit-ups, push-ups, and timed aerobic exercise. (There may be a girl influencing things here, but I’m going to remain happy in my denial. I’m not prepared to write that essay, just yet.)
It’s true, my son spends a lot of time on his computer, and I can’t imagine, at this point, how much damage I might have done had I insisted on only one hour, only once a day…
Can kids be trusted to moderate their own time, even when that time involves screens and electronics? Do we have the same worry when they dive headlong into books? Do we obsess if they spend hours outdoors, watching ants crawl across the garden gate or collecting sticks to build a fort?
I think my son is evidence that children can be trusted to choose their own screen time, and to indulge in it when and how they please. It doesn’t mean that they will 100-percent make wise choices, or that they’ll always be drawn toward studying subjects we immediately recognize and value as adults.
But if we are going to trust them, we have to trust them all the way. Trust and find the balance, but don’t sit in judgment about time wasted. If all you can see is time wasted playing a video game, force yourself to look a little closer. They need our engagement, as well as our permission to engage. They need us to believe that even though it may be okay to prod them in another direction for a while; it is also okay to follow their lead. Our doubts, our worries, are only going to impede the natural flow of things.
I haven’t done it perfectly. I’ve let the experts and their advice get in the way more times than I care to count. But I’m here to tell you, that even if they do play video games all day, it is not the end of the world. It’s just the beginning, most likely. Perhaps a world you don’t understand or have little experience in, but it’s a valid world to be in, nonetheless.