Trustful Parenting Experiment #3: Unlimited Screen Time
This will be the one where I’m going to lose a lot of you. I’m okay with that.
One of the hot topics of discussion in our Sudbury school Facebook group is the idea of unlimited screen time at the schools. In a Sudbury school, kids are free to choose how they spend their time, and yes this includes watching television and playing video games. The student body and staff can vote together on restrictions if they choose to, but typically this kind of activity is not restricted. Because it is considered crucial to trust the children’s ability to educate themselves, value judgements are not made on whether playing a video game is a more worthwhile use of time than playing the piano or climbing a tree or reading a book.
The more I read about this idea the more it made sense to me, and even though Miles won’t be in a Sudbury school anytime soon (that’s probably two years away if we get it off the ground), I started to think maybe I should challenge myself to loosen up on my constant monitoring of screen time – which I have been limiting to two hours a day at the most because that’s what “they” say you are “supposed to” do. I did always kinda wonder about these prescribed time limits and the claim that television watching hampered speech development – I’ve always noticed that Miles picks up a lot of language from TV and sometimes wished I hadn’t restricted his viewing until he was 2 years old!
I know the arguments about TV and video games being addictive, and I’m not going to try to counter them – if you believe that then there’s not much I can say that will change your mind. I’m sure most of you have seen the anti-technology piece from HuffPo that’s gone viral (ohhh, HuffPo). This rebuttal piece tears it down better (and more humorously) than I could. I also think that banning things or even tightly controlling them produces MORE craving than does letting kids determine their own personal limits. If you want to read more science-based information on why electronic devices are NOT the instruments of Satan, you could try these:
So, my experiment. I started out with one Saturday when we had nothing to do. I declared it Do What You Feel Day. We wore our pajamas for half the day and I did not restrict the boys’ screen time like I usually do. It went fine. In fact it was better than fine, it was an all around pleasant day from beginning to end. The next Saturday I did the same. By then I had spent so much time arguing for unlimited screen time in school that I had pretty well convinced myself. So when another delightful Saturday came to an end, I just kept going with unlimited screen time – it’s been about a month now.
Now, as with bedtime, I’m not saying it’s a complete free for all with no rules of any kind. If we have somewhere to go early in the morning, I keep them off the screens so I can keep them focused on getting ready and out the door. I cut off screen time at about 7:00pm so we can transition to bed with plenty of time to wind down. And I never offer or suggest that they watch TV or play a game – I wait for them to ask and then I seize my opportunities to either relax or be productive.
I also don’t acquiesce to Julius’s distraught pleas to watch the “ipab” (the boys call our Kindle Fire an iPad) just because he is upset. I don’t want him to form a habit of stuffing his feelings with food or television. Miles, being older, doesn’t tend to do this because he’s had more practice expressing his emotions.
I think there are some external factors that are helpful too. 95% of their screen time is on handheld devices, so unlike with a television that is just “on in the background,” they make conscious decisions to watch a show or play a game and then go off and do something else. Netflix for kindle does not have auto play. And I do like that they are not watching a bunch of commercials (besides ads for other apps).
Beyond the basic ground rules, it’s fair game. And it would be disingenuous and kind of defeating the purpose to say that they still only watch two hours a day. Sometimes it’s less, sometimes more. But two hours is, it seems to me, kind of an arbitrary cutoff.
So what’s been the result of this experiment so far? Well, I’ll tell you what, there are no HUGE differences in our life, but it’s a little more relaxed around here. It’s been easier to get Miles to leave the house when we do need to go somewhere. They still play all the other things they usually play – trucks, drawing, Play Doh, ball, blocks, running around being crazy kids. On the first warm day of the year they/we played outside for three hours straight.
They vary their screen time (of their own volition) between watching cartoons (both still adore Curious George), playing video game apps… also, Miles likes to watch videos on my phone and also plays with the clocks and calculator, while Julius makes pretend phone calls (complete with fake laughter oh my god so funny). Miles likes to play a letter tracing game (called Letter School) and it’s worth noting that lately he has started spontaneously drawing letters with magic markers too! Both of the boys enjoy a game called the Wheels on the Bus and I love to hear them sing the song to themselves as they play with their toys later.
One unexpected upside is that the two of them seem to get along better – to my surprise, they are MUCH more cooperative about sharing video games than any other plaything! They often watch each other play or just sit close to each other while they play or watch TV which they NEVER do in any other circumstance.
I feel more relaxed because I am not having to play prison warden and enforce a rule that never really felt like it was coming from ME. I realized, once I let it go, that I had a lot of anxiety about monitoring their screen time as if their brains would suddenly turn to goo if they watched one extra hour of television. Or, you know, we’d find ourselves careening down a “slippery slope” to electronic addiction. Those fears were unwarranted and it’s nice to ease the tension around ONE of my many worries!
I do sometimes feel funny about the whole thing. It’s not always easy to rebel against a lifetime of social messages about the evils of television and to ignore the fear-baiting and anxiety-exploiting social media stories that keep coming out about how smartphones are destroying life as we know it. I just keep reminding myself to look at what’s in front of me and make parenting judgments based on how MY kids are doing and not what other people think. So far I see more benefits than drawbacks to unlimited screen time, so for now this experiment goes on.
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