Our fondness for digital connectivity exists in parallel to our skeptical apprehension. We’re tortured by our own anxiety. These days, most adults spend the majority of their time staring at screens. We use laptops, tablets, and smartphones. So-called ‘digital literacy’ is a prerequisite to professional success. However, folks also regularly post social media updates lauding the bliss that comes with the experience of temporary disconnection.
When it comes to our children we are equally conflicted. We project our ambivalence into our parenting conventions. On the one hand, we recognize the importance of a familiarity with screen based interactions. On the other hand, we worry that if they mediate their entire experience through a virtual interface they will lose the ability to relate to the physical world.
According to a 2013 study by Common Sense Media, children one year and under currently engage in fifty-eight minutes a day of screen time. Children two to four engage in one hour and fifty-eight minutes. And children four to eight spend two hours and twenty-one minutes in front of a screen.
The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommends eliminating screen time for children under two years old. I’m on board with that. But they also suggest only two hours for children over two. Despite Common Sense Media’s findings, I’d bet most modern parents consider that to be unrealistic. My kids regularly rack up two hours playing Spore in what feels like five minutes.
In addition, the black and white approach to children’s screen time seems foolish. It does not take into account the benefits of joint media engagement, the ubiquity of ebooks, the obvious benefit that my nine-year old receives when he constructs Google Docs Slideshows to teach me about his experience in Minecraft. Not all electronic media is created equal. We need to be much more nuanced in our parental approaches.
Still, when I took my kids to a house in the country surrounded by rolling hills and a giant yard last week I went for an on/off strategy. I instituted a ‘no devices before dark’ rule. It was a big change from our urban lifestyle in Philadelphia. Not so much because of the nature, in Philly we are privileged to have an exceptional park system; hikes in the woods are part of our normal family routine. A week in the country was different because my kids had acres upon which to run around freely; they had a rare chance to enjoy unsupervised outdoor play. To guarantee that my kids would take advantage of this opportunity, I needed to keep them away from digital devices. No Minecraft. No Nintendo DS. No IPad.
At first they did not know what to do. They were confused. No devices? It was disorienting. After all, their father plays video games with them for a living. I am an advocate for video games in the classroom. I write books about the psychology and philosophy of gaming. Together, the three of us regularly review new gadgets and games. I rarely restrict screen time. I do, however, require that their energy also be dedicated to things like reading, writing, science, art, and music. Restriction emphasizes the negative. Rather than turn video games into a forbidden temptation, I usually choose to emphasize the importance of other activities. I let them play as much as they want as long as it is balanced with other forms of intelligent exploration and expression.
Still, after a summer with more Minecraft playdates than I’d like to admit, it seemed like they needed a video game vacation. They needed to be disengaged from their ordinary routines. They needed a little bit of parental regulation to nudge them toward just the right kind of freedom. I hoped that during a week in a country farmhouse they would spend all day outside, creating magical fantasies, adventurous scenarios, and getting their hands dirty.
In the beginning, they were sullen and despondent. “I’m bored,” they’d huff, “am I allowed to use my computer for email?” Was the laptop some kind of security blanket? I told them to go outside. But that only kept them occupied for about seven to twelve minutes. By the time I had moved my chair into the yard and grabbed myself a cold beer and a book, they were done with nature. They believed they had exhausted all the possibilities for outdoor play.
They ran inside and got their own chairs and books, lined them up in a row next to me, and started reading themselves. Ten minutes later they were hungry. “Dad, will you make us a snack?” The kitchen table was full of fresh produce that we bought at the farmstand that morning. I told them to grab a fruit (it was not just a hiatus from devices; there was also no junk food in the house). They came back out with plums and peaches. I tried to finish the paragraph I’d been interrupted from reading all morning. They sighed with frustration.
It was a constant struggle, but it paid off. By day two, they were getting better at playing outside. And by the end of the week I didn’t even have to suggest playing outside. They did it themselves.
So what did I learn about parenting during the week? It shifted the way I think about screen time in surprising ways. Here are three reasons children need screen time vacations and one reason they don’t.
- Forget Moderation, Choose Reverence.
Don’t believe the platitude. Everything is not fine in moderation. All the moderation in the world is useless if your children have no reverence for the power of the temptation in question. Screen time is great for adults and for children. It is pleasurable. This is why we all choose to binge watch George Carlin on YouTube once in a while. It offers a welcome distraction. It keeps us in the flow of something other than the everyday stresses of our lives. But kids need to learn that the strength of electronic media is also the danger. Screens can turn us into lotus eaters, apathetic and lazy. A vacation from screen time made my kids appreciate their devices more and simultaneously demand them less often. They discovered that there are other fun ways to fill their time and, at least for the time being, video games are now not always the first choice.
- ‘Where’ Is Just As Important As ‘What’ Kids Imagine.
Many critics of video games worry that they inhibit children’s imagination. Anyone who believes this has never watched an eight year old play Minecraft. There is a whole world of fantastical play going on inside this universe. They wander this virtual reality, constructing imaginary scenarios for one another. In a world deemed unsafe for sidewalk play, Generation Blockhead has founxd an alternative in Minecraft. We should be happy about it. On the other hand, it is our job as adults to help our children learn to direct that same imaginative creativity into other areas of their lives. The more capable they are of shifting their power of self-expression into myriad parts of their lives, the more successful they will be in the long run. When we allow them to be caught up in a singular outlet for innovation and experimentation, we do them a disservice. The problem here is not the technology, but rather, the relationship to it.
- Children Should Think Critically About The Role Of Technology.
How do we make sure we raise kids that don’t take electronic media for granted? Usually, when we talk about taking things for granted, we are pointing to a lack of appreciation. But in this case, I use the phrase because I worry that our kids might forget that electronic media is a tool that we choose to use and not necessarily a ubiquitous fact of life. Certainly, in the modern world, digital technologies are here to stay. But our children need to understand that their experience in the world is malleable and that one of the ways they can take control of their own lives is by creating and using the tools of their choice. When we initiate screen free zones in our houses and vacations from video games, we teach kids that our relationship to tech is always optional and flexible. We teach them to constantly analyze, evaluate, and consider how they want to relate to technology. We teach them to plug-in cautiously with an opened mind and a critical eye. We teach them that they can approach the world however they want and that if they want, they can build new tools to do so.
And one reason NOT to require your kids to take a video game vacation:
- Don’t Just Unplug On Vacation.
While I love the idea of a video game vacation, I also worry that it may send the wrong message to my kids. It might teach them that constant electronic media is normal and that it is only on special occasions that we unplug. There are many things that only happen on holiday that should be a part of our everyday lives (siesta comes immediately to mind). A healthy relationship to electronic media shouldn’t be one of those things. How can we teach our children good habits around video games? How do we make sure that they learn a balanced relationship to digital tech? Rather than a video game vacation, I suggest adding an hour of family reading time to your everyday schedule. It doesn’t matter what you read (and, of course, an eReader doesn’t count as screen time in this instance). Just meet in the living room and spend an hour focused on written text. The kids can read for school while you read a novel. They can read a comic book while you read that report from work. This is not about the quality or quantity of text, but rather about modeling a lifestyle. Regular walks in the park are another good idea. Intentional conversation and family political debate model the importance of good argumentation. And, of course, when a family eats meals together, appreciating the importance of good flavor, the kids learn that aesthetics and sensation are good criteria with which to measure the value of everyday experience.