We've struggled with "screentime" for a while now. Neither of our children watched any TV, movies or anything else on a screen before they were two, and very little in the first few years thereafter. But when they get to a certain age they start wanting what they want, even if it's not what you want them to want. So then the question becomes: How do you raise your kids so that they don't end up "respecting authority", but learn to think and make decisions for themselves - while also protecting them from dangers and ills that they are not yet old enough to appreciate?
Sometimes the answer is easy: Obviously you grab your toddler before he or she runs into a busy street; obviously you keep fire and electrical appliances out of reach before a certain age. But with screentime it wasn't so obvious. And it turned out I was a little wrong in my assumptions about who is old enough to appreciate what.
So here's what happened. Starting over a year ago, when our son really started getting into computer games (notably: Minecraft), we had a talk with him about how too much playing of computer games or watching movies wasn't good, and that we wanted to put limits on it. He agreed in principle, and we set some limits - an hour each weekday and a chunk of hours on the weekends. We changed the specifics a few times, went to screentime only on weekends once, and found that it was a little hard to enforce - either because he didn't want to stop what he was doing, or because we would forget to set an alarm, etc. but that it basically worked out alright.
Then summer came. And for a while, all he wanted to do was play Minecraft and watch videos about Minecraft. He didn't draw much anymore, or make the books he used to make, which made me a little sad but I had to admit he made some pretty cool stuff in the Minecraft world. And I started thinking: Maybe this is just what he needs to do right now. Maybe this IS where his creativity is coming out and we shouldn't fight it. What would be so bad if we just took off all screentime limits (excepting limits on things like realistic violence or pornography, which limits he doesn't even really know about)? What if we just let him do as much Minecraft and other "screen" stuff as he wants to?
So that's what we did. Starting in late summer, we took off all screentime limits - with the proviso that we would consider limits again when the school year started. My prediction was that he would be doing so much of it by then that we would feel we had to limit it again when school started. And he did. He was on his computer for most of the day, every day, unless he had some outside activity.
We didn't change anything right away when school started, but a few weeks into school my son came to me and said that he wanted to stop doing Minecraft. In fact, he wanted to stop doing all screentime for a while. My jaw dropped. It wasn't at all what I was expecting.
"I don't feel as peaceful," he told me. "Before I was playing Minecraft, I felt a lot more peaceful."
We've always known that our son is very sensitive and very aware. But this surprised me. What surprised me more was how I had underestimated him. And I would never have had the opportunity to find out what was going on inside him - or to see that I had underestimated him - had we not given him the opportunity to find out himself. Had we not taken off those screentime limits.
So we talked about it, and decided that he would take a break from all screentime. At first he said he wanted to do it for a year, but I talked him down to a month. After a few weeks, we decided to continue it until the beginning of December, and then to the end of the year, but with the ability to make exceptions from time to time most especially, of course, on December 17th.
He said that he would need my help in keeping him on his break. He asked us to change the password on his computer, and on the iPads. He said that it might be hard for him to stick to it and I told him I would help him, and that I would remind him that this was his idea and that it was something that was really important to him. At the end of the conversation I felt more like his Sponsor than his policeman.
It's early December now, and I can honestly say it's gone pretty well. Most of the time, when he asks to do screentime, we'll talk about it and he'll remember why he decided not to. We did make a big exception over the Thanksgiving holiday and watched a bunch of movies. And he did a little bit of Minecraft when he went over to a friend's house for a play date. But for the most part, he just finds other things to do. He is drawing again, and making sculptures and flying machines out of paper. We started teaching him Lord of the Rings Risk and he decided to make his own version of the game, with a better board and rules, and his own dice.
His break from screentime isn't going to last forever, and before January we'll have another talk with him about what kind of limits he wants to set for himself so that he can continue playing games he enjoys and watching movies sometimes but can still feel peaceful in his life too. What will make these new limits so much better than the old ones is that the impetus for them comes from him, and from a powerful awareness of the impact that screentime has on his mind and sense of wellbeing. And it's an awareness that may never have surfaced if we had kept those initial limits in place, if he hadn't had the freedom to experience it for himself.