My kids have just spent a week on their visiting grandparents’ iPad, playing a game that I haven’t vetted and that I’m not really sure they should be playing. At the end of the week, all four grandparents were sitting around and chatting over tea, and the question was posed whether the children were more excited about spending time with these beloved relatives or spending time on their electronic devices. I put my vote with the attraction held by the four special people gathered there, but I’m not sure they were convinced – after all, using the iPad was the boys’ first request every morning and the oft-repeated demand throughout any time at home. But that’s so far from the ideal I’d aim for in my parenting that I’m almost ashamed to admit it.
There have definitely been times in my children’s lives when they’ve watched WAY too much TV. When I’ve been nauseous with morning sickness, groggy with jet lag, busy keeping/moving house, or even just wilting with fatigue, my go-to has often been to switch on the ‘boob tube’ for a break from the demands on my time and energy. Sometimes this TV-watching has become a routine, and the kids and I would both be hanging on for that moment when we could finally light up the idiot box and just veg for a while.
At other times we’ve been more intentional about limiting screen time or even eschewing it altogether for a period of time. For a number of summers, we’ve had ‘TV-off month’, which has stretched into whole TV-free seasons – and it has been wonderful. We’ve also restricted their viewing and iPad use, during the school year, to Friday nights and weekends only – with various extra restrictions in place at times to encourage them to ‘earn’ and limit their screen use and increase their imaginative play, time spent reading, etc.
The results of a number of scientific studies have been published recently pointing out the negative effects of screen time, particularly the amounts of screen time the ‘average’ child has each day. All manner of woes, from difficulty sleeping to restlessness to inability to focus, can be attributed to the bombardment of the light-sound-movement of TV and electronic games on children’s tender senses and developing minds. It is also troubling that many children, particularly in North America (although undoubtedly also in other parts of the world), have TVs in their bedrooms; and parental supervision and the imposition of limits are therefore just not happening.
Another problem we know about from the research is the hearing damage some kids are sustaining as a result of using these electronic devices. The TV volume creeps up to drown out household noises, the headphones on the iPad are up high, the video games blare out the screeching tire/gunfire sound effects and music… It all takes a toll on children’s sensitive ears.
Most of us are well aware of the harms and hazards of excessive screen time for our kids; where we draw the line depends on our own interpretation of the scientific findings, the stage of life our kids are in, our own situation, and many other variables. But what about the content of that screen time?
Parents’ discretion on this issue varies widely. Some parents are very keen to share their own favourites with their children and eschew the age restrictions in order to do so; but it must be noted that even such classics as Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Indiana Jones often contain dark elements and frightening scenes. It depends very much on the parents’ experience of the movie and their assessment of their own kids’ readiness for the material therein as to when they will introduce the film. Most of these films do have predominant themes of ‘good vs evil’, and inevitably the good side triumphs; but they also contain more complex and subtle elements that should be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not kids should be watching them. I think that sometimes we gloss over the negative elements of movies (and other media) in order to enjoy and share the more positive aspects with our kids; but we forget that our kids may still be influenced/affected negatively by what they see.
It’s a tricky field to navigate, though. I mean, I grew up watching Boss Hogg smoking his cigars and the good ol’ boys tearing up the sod in their car chases, James Bond bedding every woman in sight (Pussy Galore?? What’s not appropriate about THAT, right??), M*A*S*H with all its sophisticated content… But I’d never let my boys view any of these shows when they’re as young as I was when I saw them. Why not? Well, for one thing I was a pleaser, and I was a fairly mature kid – and therefore I was unlikely to repeat rudeness or dangerous stunts, and unlikely to be influenced by the poor choices exhibited by the characters I saw. For another thing, our parents didn’t have access to the resources we do now in choosing appropriate material for viewing. These days there are far more movies aimed at a younger audience, far more options for younger TV viewers, and plenty of games/apps directed at kids; so we have many more choices, and information about those choices, than our parents did.
I use websites like Common Sense Media to vet movies – even those I’ve seen, because often our impressions of a movie as a viewer are different from how we’d watch the movie as a parent. In our own TV/movie watching and gaming, we might be oblivious to rough language and mature themes; websites like the one I mentioned can be very useful for highlighting the issues a parent might have with exposing their kids to the media in question. Of course, I still use my own discretion; when some CSM reviewers complained about the ‘skimpy’ outfit of one of the main characters in the kids’ flick Rio, for example, I figured that it was fine in the context of Carnival (and indeed, in my opinion the awkwardness of the character and the humour of the scene detracts from the ‘sexiness’ of her outfit, so it’s hardly noteworthy).
Our boys have still seen a few movies that have caused some eyebrow-raising from us parents; some Disney classics, for example, have been unexpectedly inappropriate. I knew that Snow White would be too scary for my boys, with that wicked queen and her poisonous malevolence – but who knew that Pete’s Dragon, that sunny seaside classic, contained bar-room brawling, drunkenness, attempted kidnapping, and unsavoury epithets? In fact, a lot of older movies depict characters whose behaviour is harsh by today’s standards (using abusive language, fighting, etc). I’ve been surprised by that, and I have questioned whether my reluctance to expose my boys to these movies is another example of ‘helicopter parenting’ – but when all is said and done, we’ve decided that we want to guard our kids from violence and negative influences – and that means limiting their exposure to characters whose attitudes are negative (even those who are simply overtly disrespectful – unless that were used as a vehicle towards character development and better choices, because if it doesn’t make the point about the importance of being respectful then what message is it sending to my boys?). Even before having kids, I decided that I didn’t want children who talked like Bart Simpson. So, guess what? I don’t have kids who (for the most part) talk like Bart Simpson. I know how impressionable kids can be – so I try to limit influences that I think will leave a poor impression on them.
And what about video games? We’ve taken the easy way out on this one so far; we just haven’t bought any gaming devices, and we haven’t introduced our kids to proper video games at home. Our main reasons for this are as follows:
- They can be (and usually are) a HUGE time-waster. Yes, I know the graphics are amazing and sometimes they’re teaching some skills, improving reaction time, etc – but generally-speaking, video games do not improve anyone’s quality of life, social skills, or grasp on reality.
- They can be (and often are) addictive.
- Having gaming devices in the house creates yet another battle-ground between parents and kids; it’s enough for me to police TV and iPad time, supervise homework and encourage independent play, reading, etc – I’m not anxious to have another thing to have to negotiate over and impose limits on.
- It’s the easiest way to avoid them viewing inappropriate material. So much easier, too, to send my boys to a playdate and tell the hosting parent that we don’t allow screens on playdates, rather than having to vet everything ahead of time or trust our kids’ discretion at their young age and with their limited experience.
So far the easy way out is working for us.
The internet is another forum we need to guard. Our kids currently have no access to the ‘net without us being right there. None of them have had any school assignments requiring online research, either – so there has simply been no need for them to be connected. They’ve seen the odd YouTube video (they love Kid Snippets and crazy animal antics) – but even that can be a minefield, with ads popping up (the same is true of some iPad games) and other inappropriate content just a careless button-click away.
And then there’s the iPad. So handy, so portable, so easy. This device has sort of crept up into our children’s lives. It has been an insidious creep, so subtle and ‘safe’, as they’ve joined their peers playing Angry Birds, Where’s My Water, and the like… But the time creeps, too – and it trickles away while they tap-tap and swipe-swipe their way frantically to victory, over and over again. The content of some of these games, as well, is questionable. When my boys are playing a racing game, I wonder: Is this glorifying speed? In most of the western world car crashes are the leading cause of death for young men; is it responsible parenting for me to encourage a sense of excitement about driving fast and recklessly? Seriously, it has nothing to do with the fact that I am absolutely rubbish at racing games…
I’ve tried imposing limits, but it’s tricky in a family where there are four adults and three (now four) iPads. The kids need to have adult permission to use the iPads, but once they’re on, the time just slips away. I instigated a reward system during the school year in which the boys had to perform their regular tasks (i.e. making beds, getting ready, having us sign their planners, clear the table, etc) in exchange for a gold plastic coin. They’d potentially earn two coins a day and they could then ‘spend’ those coins on iPad time over the weekend – each coin was worth 5 minutes, and they could spend up to three at a time or save them up to exchange for some extra pocket money. It worked for a while, but then we grew inconsistent – I wasn’t always on top of giving them the coins in a timely fashion, and others weren’t always demanding payment for iPad time (hard for a grandparent to do, I know!). I’m going to be exploring different options over the next few months and I’ll try to remember to report back about how we’re doing!
We are not Luddites. We live in a technical age, and we embrace all the good and helpful elements of that technology. West and I enjoy the benefits of email communication with distant family, facebook contact with friends far and near, working remotely through the computer (editing for me and his own online work for West), and of course blogging. So much of what we do involves screens and online media, and the accessibility of information and facility with which we can stay in touch are boons in our lives. But we have to admit that it’s a double-edged sword. We have to mind the media.
Now it’s your turn, Reader-Friends! I’d love you to weigh in on what works for your family! How do you go about imposing limits, choosing appropriate viewing material, and encouraging safe volume levels of your kids’ devices?