Welcome to another Media Moment! This month, Gina Sheesley, a freelance writer and mother of two living in Kentucky, shares how she explains screen time limits to her nine-year-old son. These stories are meant to help create a village square of commiserating and co-celebrating the many ways media intersect with the lives of children. Please comment and even submit your own ‘Moment’ to share with your fellow readers.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
Sparring over Screen Time
“I just want to be like all the other kids.”
Cue a deep sigh and parental anxiety. So begins another round of endless debate with my nine-year-old son about our limitations on screen time. His rebuttal is a new one, but began as usual, when I made it clear that playing video games was not an activity option for the day. Probably like most parents, his response both excites me and concerns me. I want you to be different buddy! Not too different though…am I overdoing restrictions?
“Why can’t I just play video games whenever I want?”
It’s a fair question and, even though he has asked it about 1,000,000 times, I consider my options before responding to it.
Because I said so. In moments of exasperation, my husband relishes using this answer because it was often doled out to him as a child. It’s not a wrong answer, but it’s never a helpful one. Mostly I don’t like using it because I want my kids to know they have a voice and to learn how to use it. I want them to speak up about what upsets them, what seems wrong or unfair, and then know how to support that view with evidence. Sometimes people in authority make bad decisions; what better and safer place to practice using your voice than with your parents?
You don’t know how good you have it. In moments of exasperation, I relish reminding my kids of the millions of kids who do not have enough food or water for the day. Who have to walk miles to get to school. Who live in refugee camps. Who have lost parents or loved ones. I could go on and on about how inconsequential their “depravation” of electronic devices is, but this isn’t really helpful either. I’m not sure at what age children’s brains become more capable of empathy, but a nine-year-old can hardly be expected to fully grasp and then empathize with the plight of millions of nameless people. Most adults can’t either.
Studies have shown… It’s like cocaine for kids’ brains. It limits their emotional intelligence. It hurts their reading abilities. It shortens their attention spans. It disrupts their sleep. It might be linked to obesity. The list goes on. Forget the buzz about Steve Jobs’ restriction of his kids’ screen time; look at how much research evidence there is for limits! While statistics and studies are closer to the real reason for my boundaries around screen time, they are too intangible for my son to understand or connect with. In his black-and-white world of good and evil, video games, tablets, phones, and anything with a glowing LCD screen falls squarely on the good side. Any descriptions of gray areas are met with disbelief.
It’s okay to be different. I genuinely want my kids to learn this lesson, and so it is here that I begin talking. I relate my story of how I was once a middle school girl with no TV in her house for three years. This was considered so radical that I would have random kids approach me and ask, “Are you the girl with no TV?” At first I felt rather ashamed about this; it’s not comfortable being different at any age much less during middle school. But this eventually became a source of pride and, in hindsight, I am happy TV wasn’t there as a crutch during these years.
“But Carter* isn’t a bad kid and he can use screens whenever he wants!”
Here is where I run into trouble with the it’s okay to be different argument. My son has just argued that it’s also okay to be like the crowd. Of course, in this particular circumstance, I don’t think it is. But any genuine response I have to this comes across as shaming other people’s parenting techniques and creates fear for his friend’s future. (Not to mention any response may be repeated verbatim to the parents and/or child in question…have I mentioned he’s nine?) Carter really is an amazing kid. And if I had to walk a mile in Carter’s parents’ shoes, I can’t say I wouldn’t make the same choices. Their family structure and environment is very different from ours. But I do not agree with Carters’ parents’ lack of boundaries in many areas beyond screen time and I firmly believe those choices will negatively affect him someday if they haven’t already. Is there any way to state this gently and empathetically using a 4th grade vocabulary?
Because I love you. Here is the real reason I limit screen time and the real reason for all the boundaries I’ve chosen for my kids. I know I haven’t made all the right choices for them. I know this answer will not be completely satisfying for my son here and now. (Let’s be honest…no response will be.) But he can understand it. And it is the most sincere reason I have. Maybe if I repeat this often enough and forgo the other responses, he will thank me someday. Here’s to hoping and to tomorrow’s debate…number 1,000,001.
*Name has been changed.