A bright consensus about screens and kids

Image: Wikimedia

Last weekend the New York Times published an interesting article: A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley. Essentially, there is a growing movement among the technical gurus of Silicon Valley to seriously restrict their children’s use of smartphones and tablets. Interesting, but not surprising.

As my husband says, it’s pretty obvious that these devices are not good for kids, especially when you see them so sedate and glued to the screen. Normal heathy kids should be running around, playing outside, and using their imaginations. Most parents would agree that we need to limit the amount of time our children spend in front of the screen; many parents struggle to do so.

In a world inundated with smartphones and iPads, it is not easy to manage the amount of time our children spend in front of the screen.  It doesn’t help that many schools have jumped on the technology band wagon, requiring middle schoolers and even younger children to own tablets. (France, on the other hand, recently banned cell phones and tablets in schools.) It’s even worse if all your children’s friends communicate through social media or spend hours each day playing video games, a common problem amongst children who attend regular schools.

Homeschooling, no pressure

The mounting evidence that too much technology adversely affects the mental health of our children is just one more reason why many parents choose to educate their children at home. Definitely, homeschooling allows us to protect our kids from the “need” to play video games, watch TV, and use social media. 

For example, most of our homeschooling friends do not play the popular video game “Fortnite” or other video games, for that matter. These friends also do not own tablets or cell phones, so the pressure to have them is nonexistent. Rather, when our children get together with their friends, they play sports or make up their own games. One of the boons of being in a homeschool community is that most of the parents strictly limit screen time and are extremely vigilant about what their kids watch.

Growing up without a TV or tablet, our children have learned to entertain themselves. They are busy playing with each other, building legos, reading books, riding bikes, playing sports, and making music. Our 13 year old, for example, taught himself to play the guitar, and our 11 year old taught himself to play the drums. Sometimes our oldest daughter joins in with the piano. Then they have their own (very loud!) band. The fun they have together is real and alive, unlike the stagnant “fun” of staring into a screen.

Cellphones are cyber-knives – tools, not toys

While my husband and I recognize the dangers of excessive, inappropriate, or unsupervised screen use, we do see its practical uses. We compare cell phones to kitchen knives: both are powerful, often necessary tools. However, both can inflict serious wounds. Cellphones are cyber-knives, cutting deeply into our lives. For this reason, we need to train our children to use technology wisely. When we think of how to restrict our children’s use of screens, we compare them to knives. We would never give a toddler a knife to play with, and we would never let our teens sleep with a knife under their pillows. Cellphones, like knives, are best used as tools, not toys.

We want to teach our kids to use technology properly and with moderation. So we allow the use of computers to type papers, to find articles for research, for math practice, or for memorizing vocabulary on Quizlet. After their chores, school work, and piano practices are done, the two older boys are allowed to use the computer to program their own games, design graphics, make home videos, or compose music. Usually they have 30-45 minutes for such projects. We turn on the timer, and when it goes off, they must turn off the computer right away or lose computer privileges. We do not allow internet browsing; on their side of the computer very few websites are allowed.

The point we want to drive home is that all of us should use screens as tools, all the while cognizant of the dangers they present. We also use these times as opportunities to practice self-restraint.

And when they are older…

At the beginning of the school year, we reluctantly gave our 16 year old daughter a cell phone, mainly for the purposes of coordinating travel arrangements (think, travel tool). To avoid inordinate or inappropriate use, we disabled apps and internet. She uses the phone for texting, emailing, and making calls. She cannot use the phone while doing homework. She must leave the phone in the office by 9 pm and may not have it in her room at night. She cannot use social media.

Thankfully, her high school imposes additional boundaries: students are not allowed to use cell phones during school. Laptops are not allowed in the cafeteria so the girls can develop proper friendships and social skills. On several occasions, I have asked her if she felt left out socially because she has no social media. It turns out many of her friends have no social media either. I know this is very unusual for most teenage girls, but thankfully she has found good friends who are of the same ilk.

On the other side of the age range, our younger children get very little screen time. Once in a while, we let our seven-year-old look at photos and home videos on the computer. Unfortunately, she can get addicted even to that, so this is reserved for extenuating circumstances, such illness. Our nine-year-old has to practice his multiplication tables on the computer, and this summer, we will let him use a typing tutorial.

Aside from the dangers of the internet, the addictive nature of the screen is very evident to us. Children in general are drawn to the screen — even the 18-month-old tries to grab the phone when we try to take his picture! The more we let them “play” on the computer, the more they hanker for it. So, we keep firm rules and consequences.

And yet, our children rarely complain about the limits on their screen time. The older ones  understand the dangers of pornography and internet addiction. They know that video games make boys prone to violence and that social media causes girls to have depression and anxiety. They know we are trying to safeguard their minds and souls.

Family entertainment

Furthermore, we do not have a TV. Instead, we dedicate Friday nights to family games (board games — not video games), Saturday nights to watching movies (we stream movies to an overhead projector), and Sunday nights to family conversation. On Sunday nights the kids perform a piano piece, recite poetry by memory, and then we all sit around and just talk. Often we talk about the movie we watched the night before — the pros, cons, lessons to be learned, etc. We want the kids to learn how to watch a movie and think about it critically.

The most important thing for us parents is to model moderation with our own screens. After all, how can we expect our children to use phones and computers wisely if we are often preoccupied with screens ourselves?

I find myself fighting the urge to check email and text messages too often. I have to be deliberate about keeping the smart phone in a different room during school, putting it next to my daughter’s phone in the office at night, and monitoring my own usage. (My kids are pretty good at monitoring it for me: Gee Mom, it says you were on the phone for an hour today!)  I’m striving to set an example so our children will appreciate the need for and develop the habit of moderation.

Our family is not alone in the way we use and manage technology. We know many families who have similar practices. Their children are physically and emotionally healthy. The bright consensus about screens and kids is that we can teach our children to use technology wisely and moderately.

Mary Cooney is a home-schooling mother of six who lives in Maryland. She blogs at Mercy For Marthas.


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