There are lots of different screens, and when it comes to modern parenting they get lumped together as one thing: ‘screen time’ about which we have to have a ‘policy’. Different screens serve different functions though, so I thought I’d separate them:
T.V. watching is a passive activity and not very beneficial for the under-fives, no matter how ‘educational’ the programme is, little children really need to be engaging with the real world, people and objects and real stuff. Too much ‘baby-sitting t.v.’ will be counter-productive for the parent seeking a rest, because behaviour at other times will likely be more challenging after too much t.v. Save it for when you’re really stressed and need a break – sometimes parents have to look after themselves first. If you use t.v. in this way, make sure you balance it with physical real-world play, preferably outdoors.
But watching t.v. together, discussing what you’re seeing and interacting with your child is one way of having time and fun together, so it’s not a complete baddy as long as it’s balanced with other things. As your children get older, t.v. watching becomes more of a cultural activity, in other words they will want to watch what their friends are watching so that they can join in conversations at school the next day, which is fair enough so strike a balance between allowing your child to be fully part of his/her peer group, and your own boundaries and needs – if you really don’t like the noise and the screen blaring in your home, you have a right to limit it, and the same goes for programmes you don’t like. Don’t blame or judge your child, just be clear that this is your boundary. Watching programmes together can be a great way of staying in touch with their world, and can strengthen relationships, plus it’s a fertile ground for day-to-day conversation about issues which may not come up otherwise.
Computer games are active, and they are generally designed to improve skills, so you achieve one level, and then move up to a slightly harder level, and then an even harder level. This is a perfect recipe for achieving ‘flow’, a state of optimum engagement and satisfaction, where we lose track of time. Parents worry that this means ‘addictive’ whereas in fact our lives are enriched by ‘flow’ experiences. Parents would probably be thrilled if their child was this engaged and lost in a craft activity or reading a book for example, but they worry if it’s a computer game. In fact the form the activity takes has little relevence, it’s the experience of ‘flow’ which is beneficial. Children learn to challenge themselves, try hard, and persevere, all good transferable skills. (Be aware that schools don’t provide enough ‘flow’ experience, just as you are becoming engaged the bell rings and you’re off to another class.)
Games are often violent, but so is chess. Most games involve beating an opponent, Cowboys and Indians involves killing. So the real issue with the computer game version is the graphic representation of violence, and age-appropriateness. The latest studies do show an increase in levels of aggression immediately after playing violent computer games, but this is an effect which wears off quickly. Long-term effects are not proven and are difficult to assess as aggression is caused by so many different factors. This needs to be balanced by the fact that ‘playing’ at aggression provides a safe outlet and release of energy. Get information about games your children want, remain understanding and flexible about something which is intrinsic to their world, and discuss with them honestly anything that bothers you re the content. Trust in their intelligence, and then make your decision about what you feel is appropriate for your child.
The issue here again is your own boundaries as a parent: it’s your money and your environment too. If you don’t like fighty noises in the living room, limit the time, turn the volume down, put it in another room, whatever works for you. (Computers in the bedroom is not a good idea, you will never see your children, and you lose all parental control over internet use). Don’t express constant disapproval towards them, keep your reasons about YOU. Effects on the child (‘you’ll get addicted’, ‘you’ll become violent’, ‘you won’t have time for other things’) are generally met with resistance (‘I won’t!’ ‘I will!’) whereas effects on you are easier to hear and are less likely to create argument (‘I get stressed hearing that kind of noise’, ‘I can’t relax with all of those constantly changing visuals in the living room’, ‘I need some time when our living room is quiet and peaceful’) It’s worth the effort to discuss computer use openly and non-judgementally and be prepared to give a little bit, children do repay reasonableness. Giving them some space to use their own intelligence and judgement paves the way for the potentially more challenging teenage years.
Be aware that it’s difficult to impose a time limit on computer gaming, as they will need to complete a level otherwise they lose everything they have achieved so far. So the ‘one hour a night’ rule is probably not the answer. Striking deals is fair enough – ‘Ok, I’ll let you get to level 2 no matter how long it takes as long as you promise to come for a walk with us on Sunday afternoon WILLINGLY with no moaning!’ Shake hands on it, sign in blood, just make it very clear that this is the condition. ‘As long as you get your homework done first I’ll allow you to finish that level – but if there’s not enough time before bed you’ll have to do it tomorrow instead. That’s the deal’.
If violent computer games are more a boy issue, girls are more likely to start with things like PSP games, the ones all their friends are playing, so it serves a social function and again, there are skills and ‘flow’ experiences as a benefit. As above, control of use is more effective when explained in terms of your own needs as a parent. So for example ‘not at the table, I like to have you present’; ‘not when we’re with friends/grandparents, it’s unsociable’; or ‘I want to spend more time with you’. From 13 onwards (when they are allowed to use Facebook and a mobile phone becomes something you suddenly want them to have) relationships with friends becomes paramount, and it is part of this generation’s world to communicate in this way.
You need to be prepared to become more and more flexible as they get older, and help them and trust them to use this technology wisely. The best way to ensure that they do is to keep the discussion open, voice your fears, get your daughter to explain things to you that you don’t understand, ask her opinions and listen to her. Give her information and tell her honestly the dangers. Make clear conditions of use, such as NEVER giving away personal information online. If the whole frightening world of the internet is a subject you all discuss in your family, she will be much less likely to do stupid things secretively as she gets older.
Online interactive communication and social networking has already changed and will continue to change the way we relate to each other, in some ways advantageous to us as a global community and in other ways impoverishing to our relationships as human beings. We can’t know exactly how it will pan out, but it is our children’s future, and what we can do is equip them to think and use their own judgement as much as possible now. Using computer and internet time as part of a punishment and reward system puts it in the category of ‘treat’ or ‘bad for you’ but actually it’s a tool for modern life, and one which our children need to be good at using. Allow them more self-regulation as they get older and you’ll notice that they still want to meet actual friends and hang out with them. And those that don’t are probably destined to be very rich working in some computer-related field.
Re-framing our idea of screen time as an inevitable option of modern life and not the enemy helps us to accept that it’s an on-going discussion, and not a ‘problem’ which can be solved once and for all by one inflexible set of rules. This makes home life more relaxed for everyone. Trust in our children as they get older repays endless dividends, but they won’t get it right every time.When they make a mistake, it’s more effective to reassert the rule and express trust that they will remember next time whereas punishment just sets the battleground for the war you really don’t want to start.