“Mommy, how do you spell ‘red eyes?’” Parker asks, coming out from behind the WiiU.
I spell it outloud for him and then he asks me to write it down. I add it to a growing list of words on a piece of paper he has asked me how to spell for his MineCraft world. Today he has created a den of pet spiders and has discovered how to give them name tags. This spider’s name is “Red Eyes.” Parker is 6. He will start first grade in a couple weeks.
I’m seeing more and more articles urging parental alarm at how much screen time our kids are getting. Why, in our day, kids played outside. With real life friends in meat world. We rode our bikes without helmets and knee pads. We were concussed on the regular and we LIKED it! Built character. Today’s youth are ruining their brains with all this screen time!
I know, I know. Screen time is turning kids’ brains into mush. I hear you, I just have my doubts. Like it or not screens have taught my boys all kinds of things I have no interest in - like Minecraft. All those stupid videos they watch have taught them the ins and outs of this complex and imaginative game. I can’t teach them this! When I first sat down to it I was totally perplexed.... uhhhhh I have no idea what the point of this is. Now my 5 and 6 year olds are explaining it to me!
It reminds me of all the typing classes foisted upon us back in the 80’s and 90’s. Keyboarding. Ugh. Was there ever a more boring class? In the history of ever? I took more than one. In case I became a secretary. (OK, so I did become a press secretary. And I did actually use Ron Paul’s dictaphone. Fascinating technology, that.) But none of my generation REALLY learned to type with any proficiency until AOL Instant Messenger. Then suddenly we were all typing a million words a minute. Never before. No class motivated us like chatting with friends.
Parker is learning how to type and spell because those are useful skills in his game.
We have also taught the boys how to search for Youtube videos using voice recognition. This empowers them beyond their literacy level to explore whatever topics they fancy. There are a million videos they find that way. My 6 year old watches some junk (as do I) but he also loves learning about sink holes, snakes, sharks, tornadoes and minerals. He can do this independently, through the miracle of modern screen technology.
Experts say we need to be worried about the amount of time they spend on their devices. Too much time stunts their development, and thus we need to impose strict limits with stopwatches or special parental controls or wifi routers that automatically kick them off for blocs of time. I’m skeptical.
One thing I know about child/human psychology is that what you limit becomes more precious. I won't impose a limit on my sons’ screen time. I do require educational workbook pages to be done every day. They have to complete 3-5 pages in their workbooks to get their devices back. But after that I allow them to get bored and restless naturally. And they do eventually change activities. Right now they are playing with magnetic silly putty at the dining table. Nice and tactile and sciency. This was at their request. Eventually they will resort to running around the house playing whatever brotherly game they have come up with, at which point I will try to toss them outside to play. They don’t want to sit around in front of screens all day with no breaks any more than I do. I probably get more screen time than they do and I need frequent breaks.
Look at the world around us. Wherever you see people they are staring at their phones. By the derision of this phenomena you’d think they were all watching the Hamster Dance on repeat while drooling uncontrollably. They aren’t. They are engaging and learning and bonding and debating and teasing their brains. That’s the world my boys are growing up in.
Same goes for TV. You should see the kids who visit us who get very limited TV time and a narrow array of content. We have television on almost all the time and occasionally we pay attention. The more strictly limited visiting kids are enraptured by the TV and cannot be bothered to socialize and play while they are with us. It’s actually a little frustrating for my boys who are happy to have a friend over, but SSSSHHHHHH! TV! We're like, yeah? So?
I've had those moms ask me "How do you DO that? How do you get them not to care about TV?" And then I have to get all into economics and supply and demand and pricing and opportunity cost… It comes down to keeping it on all the time, or whenever they want it - which is unacceptable right out the gate. Have it your way.
Still need convincing?
What if you told someone from 20 years in the past that we all have in our pockets the key to all human knowledge ever, at the mere swipes and taps of our fingers -
And we strictly limit our children's access to it.
How would that feel coming out of your mouth?
 Now, we must have frank conversations with our kids about engaging with people online and the various ugly things and people that are out there. Absolutely. But my larger goal is not sheltering my kids as much as preparing my kids. Right now Youtube Kids provides a fairly safe environment for them to explore. We will deal with the special challenges growing up in an internet age brings as they come.