Clock Watching Parents Beware

10/29/2009

 

The first question parents want answered about kids and technology has to do with time: "How much time is the right amount when it comes to video games, the internet and cell phones?" Some parents want to know if it is possible to spend too little time engaged with technology because their child does not show much interest in screen activities. More common are the parents who feel their child spends too much time with technology and want to set time limits. To find answers that fit, parents need to look at kids and screens in a different light. Before this can happen, parents need to understand why the question about screen time is an analog question in a digital era, and why asking the question actually makes setting limits more difficult.

 

Difficulties of Measuring Time in a Digital Age

 

It is a horse and buggy system. The question of ‘How much time is the right time?’ is based on a time when television was the only screen in town and life happened in half-hour or hour increments. Today time in front of a screen is more flexible and far more difficult to determine. Take, for example, the television show that takes ten minutes to watch, but an hour to download. Or, the video game world where predictable start and stop times have given way to action occurring in real time dependent not on published TV schedules but on when other players are available. When kids get upset and say, "But I just got on!" it is often because the analog clock was out of sync with the action on the digital screen.

 

It doesn't take into account convergence. Screen convergence further exacerbates the problem. Any one of the many screens in the home can be used to fulfill the same function. If parents tell kids to get off the big screen in the living room they will often go do the same thing on the smaller screen in their pocket. This makes keeping an accurate count of time a job for a parent who is willing to follow kids from screen to screen with a stop watch.

 

Asking the Wrong Questions is Counterproductive and Sends the Wrong Message

 

It puts the cart before the horse. In this case, the cart being ‘time limits’ and the horse being ‘content’. When parents put too much emphasis on time limits they give the message that it does not matter what kids are looking at as long as it happens in a short amount of time. With such a wide variety of content available, ranging from the educational to the destructive, kids need to have the sense that parents are engaged with the media they are playing with, creating or watching. An over emphasis on time limits suggests just the opposite.

 

It doesn't teach kids the lessons they really need to learn. If parents are always watching the clock and kids are always struggling against the clock, kids don't have to think for themselves and will rely too much on parents to act as their frontal lobe. This may cause kids to miss opportunities to learn important developmental lessons -- lessons that can lead to better impulse control, understanding cheap thrills versus genuine engagement, mindfulness and respect for limits.

 

It turns screen time into the forbidden digital fruit. Parents can stop kids from spending time in front of screens, but they can't stop them from longing to be in front of the screen. When everyone gets hyper-focused on the clock, kids get satisfaction less from the actual screen experience and more from the feeling of finally getting what has been so long denied. The net gain of this is often difficult screen separation moments and kids who begin to sneak, bargain and fight for extra screen time.

 

It creates "Houses of Awe." Kids are masters at surveying the scene and figuring out who gets what in terms of screen time. This encourages one of the all time parent-pet-peeves: "Well, at so-and-so's house they get to play for as long as they want" When emphasis is on numbers it makes for easy comparisons and gives kids the message that it's a numbers game where they need to become expert negotiators in order to get additional screen time.

 

It's Not about a Single Question

Of course it is important to find balance between the amount of times kids spend in front of the screen and the amount of time they are engaged in offline activities. This balance will not be the same for every household. Solutions to these kinds of issues are most effective when they match a family’s unique value system. To get to a place of finding balance and solutions, parents need to understand that the right questions for the digital age cannot be a single question about time. When parents move the conversation from their analog comfort zone and into the unknowns of the digital frontier they see that there are many questions that need asking about how we thoughtfully integrate technology into family life.