“Screen Time”

We get the “my kids are doing nothing but play video games/watch tv/look at a screen and I can’t stand it, what should I do?” question about once every week or so on our  (now huge) Christian unschooling Facebook group. It has become the norm. We are all kind of tired of it. Really. For many reasons. Mostly because we hear the fear, we know the paradigm shift hasn’t occurred yet, and  we know it will be a fight to get there, and that part is exhausting. The following is a recent response that I wrote while super-short on sleep 😀 but which ended up covering all the basics in one place.

Esther playing Sims.

Esther playing Sims.

To pull from something my dear friend Pam often points out; how much time is “nothing other than game on their PC/ds/Wii”. Do they get up to get a drink? Go to the bathroom? Eat something? Sleep? If they are doing those things then clarify. They are doing something other than just playing games. They are probably getting up. They may even jump around, do other things. They may spend a few minutes getting something, look something up, they may even go play with something else for a while, go outside, play together beside the tv, they are very likely doing something else too. We need to see those things and recognize that no, the child is not spending “all their time”, they are spending more time than we feel comfortable with.  When we start out with a generalization, it is really hard to get from the viewpoint of seeing it in a negative light to seeing “screens” as many different types of learning and internal things going on and the screen itself as just the media they are getting those things.

Rachel watching anime.

Rachel watching anime.

My husband spends the majority of his day in front of a screen. Working, playing, socializing. He does many different things and yes, he has always preferred doing things in front of a computer screen to elsewhere- there are just so many more things to do, it is a vast world full of many, many types of media in one place- no huge mess to clean up when he wants to play a game, he can write quickly and efficiently, read quickly and move between many different things to read, watch a movie, change the movie, and so on.  It is an amazing, miraculous thing that allows us to communicate with our friends across the world (he collaborates with people all across the US weekly on huge projects), work anywhere (he works with people from all across the globe) and so on. It is amazing that this technology is available in our lifetimes and our children get to learn the language of it now, easily, without fear.  Our kids are going to live in a world where much of their time is going to be in front of the computer. Some people won’t, but the vast majority will. They will use it for work, for play, for socialization, and as unschoolers we have the freedom to let them learn it right now, first hand, and be proficient at it. This is a huge boon compared to kids who are stuck in a classroom unable to look things up as they are interested. Our kids will be well prepared for the future, right now.

 “Technology is here to stay. So why would I choose to keep my kids illiterate in the language that they may need for the future? A half an hour a day does not give kids time to explore the land scape.” ~Aza Donnelly

That said, if you are still really uncomfortable with how much time they are spending, then you get off the computer (you are here, reading this, communicating with others, online) and do really cool things out where they will see. Things that they will love. You make things available that go with what they love on their games (you will probably have to get online to research those things). You find things that associate with what they are doing so there is a connection- if they are into a game that has an associated tv show or other media then there are probably lots of  products out there related to it- pick up a book connected with it, or some figurines, or whatever. If there is a website that has info about the game they are playing (hints, a walkthrough, a wiki- my kids learned to navigate the internet and read because they loved looking up info for their games) put it on your screen and show it to them. If the fact that they would be reading it on a screen bothers you, then you can often buy  a gamers guide but they do get expensive. Offer to help them create a database of the characters and their skills, or print up ones you find online for quick reference. Pick up a gaming magazine for kids, or a book about the collectibles or whatever. Find ways you can connect with the kids where they are, ask them about the games, the shows, whatever. Bring them healthy finger foods if you are worried about what they are eating or that they aren’t eating enough. Ask them about the game, what they are playing, the plot, the people in the games. Let them know you are thinking about them  and want to encourage their interests. Find some aspect you can understand and join them where they are.

Issac playing online with a friend.

Issac playing online with a friend.

This will help you connect with them and really get a feel for what they are getting out of all the things they do on that form of media, and maybe even why. And as they feel you are really trying and aren’t going to “take it away” and that you aren’t frowning about it at them, they will loosen their hold on it a bit and gradually they will start joining you in the cool things you are doing (not all), they will start looking at the books, playing with the associated toys or crafts, and so on. (Many of us have minecraft posters on the wall, or Pokemon, or Skylanders, or Terraria, and books, and action figures, stuffies, houses full of geek references.) Meeting them where they are will help you feel connection with them again (which is usually where the parents panic when they start feeling the kids are doing “nothing but screen things”.) It takes time for both sides, but it is like learning another language and our kids get to do it first-hand and be prepared for this changing world where screens are an everyday all the time part of our lives.


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  1. Posted March 7, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Love this. Thanks for posting it.

  2. Dawn
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    I am one of “those” posters on the Unschooling board. :p As I sat here and read your post, one thing stood out at me that helped me understand my own reluctance. You said, “Our kids are going to live in a world where much of their time is going to be in front of the computer. Some people won’t, but the vast majority will.” That’s it. That’s why I feel such a disconnect. I have always felt like I was born in the wrong generation. I am Laura Ingalls, locked up inside this century. And I’m Laura Ingalls with kids that are firmly deschooling by sitting on the computer or TV or Kindle. 0_o Yeah…so…not sure how I’m going to find my way through, but this did help something come out in glaring lights. :)

    • Dawn
      Posted March 8, 2014 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      I guess you could liken it to this. What if YOU had a Shamus had a child who wanted absolutely nothing to do with screens? Maybe it would be fine, but sometimes I wonder if things were reversed, if it would make it easier for unschoolers to understand those of us who seriously struggle but try. I’m not saying this in a condemning way, but in a curious way. What if things were reversed?

      • Heather
        Posted March 8, 2014 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

        The thing is, I have been there. I grew up around computers, yes. However I also grew up in a home where if I was outside I didn’t have to do chores, or help out much, so I spent a LOT of time outside. I love being outside. I love making things by hand. I love wildcrafting and making my own herbal remedies and making everything from scratch. My art is all physical, not on the computer. Taking a walk is my favorite way to find peace and relax. When I was a kid we would have several days a week where we didn’t use electricity, only the fireplace for heat, and candles/oil lamps in order to save money.

        My husband? When the electric is out he panics. He is miserable if he can’t use his computer.

        When we were newly married I would get so angry at him because he was ALWAYS at his computer. I was all about “screentime” and complained about it a lot. I didn’t get all the stuff he was doing, researching, learning, even from playing video games. I was a nagging wife, and made him pretty miserable about it, and he therefore spent more and more time in front of the screen, protecting his time vigorously. It took a long time before God got a hold of my heart on the subject. I nearly destroyed my marriage before it happened. But finally God told me to pay attention to all he was doing. To watch and see. It was around the time that he started actually making money from all the videogame play, as he started writing and people loved it and he became a full time writer- all because of all the time he spent on the computer. I learned to respect it and him. And started joining him where he was. I started gaming with him more and more, talking to him about what he was doing, bringing him snacks/drink/food. All the things I suggest for kids as well. Showing interest. And pretty soon he started being willing to spend more time away from the computer with me.

        I think a lot of what we deal with when our kids, husbands, whoever we love and respect, are spending time doing things we don’t understand is a type of rejection. We feel rejected when they reject our suggestions and hit hurts. We feel rejected when they say no to hanging out with us and it hurts. But that is US and OUR stuff. Our kids aren’t responsible for our feelings of rejection and hurt. If we are feeling rejection then we need to find ways to connect that work. And spend time with God asking for help. I still deal with that a bit- the kids need me less and are more interested in chatting with their friends, and I feel rejected. Shamus is busy with his projects and I feel rejected. Then I stop and look, I find the things “I” wanted to do that I couldn’t do when they were hanging on me and do those things, I spend time online with MY friends, and brush off the feelings of rejection. I AM loved and I can’t let Satan steal that from me by attacking my feelings and attacking my relationships THROUGH my feelings.

        • Dawn
          Posted March 9, 2014 at 7:53 am | Permalink

          Heather…thank-you. I guess this shows me why one should never assume anything. :) I am curious. Does anyone in your family, hubby or kids, also have an interest in what you love? Did any of them turn out to love being outdoors and creating things? I think it will be hard for me if none of my family enjoys the same things as I do, because it’s something I want to share with them. Does that make sense?

          • Heather
            Posted March 9, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

            It is. Each of my kids has some overlap with me but a lot of overlap with my husband. My boy likes to help me wildcraft and make home remedies. My middle daughter shares my love of reading and all things book. We also share favorite books, or at least overlap. My girls both enjoy anime and drawing, which I love, though their drawing type is a different style than mine. But I can still help them and we can chat about those things. I guess the key is finding things you have in common but not expecting them to share the exact same passions. They are growing up in your household, they are going to have overlaps, they are going to find similar things fun, just not ALL the same things, or for all the same reasons.

  3. Posted March 8, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Amen!! As you know Sam has been a ‘screen’ baby since Pokemon and the first game boy and we have just learned to tune out the naysayers and make our own way. You will be thrilled to know that she is starting a mentor relationship with a local artist who states that she is not only talented but her intelligence is off the charts…God bless those screens because I would never have met you…and she would never have received her first ‘manga art book’ ;)…what an inspiration you have been and are.

  4. Dawn
    Posted March 10, 2014 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    I think I reached my comment limit above lol! Thank-you for talking this through with me Heather. Thank-you. :)

  5. Posted October 15, 2014 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    In the “help you connect with them” paragraph I’m seeing what appears to be a spam link. I strongly suspect somebody has hacked your site or you’re using a template that had bad code in it :-(

    I love this article, though! We’re doing a little fighting over screen time in our house as well — I suspect we all do. My kids are 6 and 4, though, so it’s a slightly different thing.

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