OK, this is a hard thing to write. But in the interests of keeping this blog meaningful, I need to be able to share the hard stuff along with the idealism and rosiness.
About a month or so ago, we switch to unlimited “screen time”.* Determined to prove the wisdom of this decision, I focus on the positive. And without doubt, there is plenty. For starters, it’s such a relief. No more arguments and whinging and wheedling around Can I use the iPad? and No don’t switch it off I haven’t finished and Please just one more game. I can drop
all my anxieties some of my anxieties around The Deleterious Effects of Screen Time. Hurrah, Eureka moment, win.
K’s biggest obsession is a game called Minion Rush, in which the little yellow minions from Despicable Me race along an endless course, dodging obstacles and eating bananas. The old me winces at the obviously addictive, endless narrative of chasing and scoring up. The new me insists that his enjoyment of the game is significant enough.
Initially, the shift brings on a golden window of cooperation and reason. Motivated to maximise the new, unlimited stream of game time and DVDs, K races to get himself dressed in the morning, get his teeth brushed and his suncreen on, and get his bag ready for school**. He makes his own breakfast! We are unlimited screen time success story of the week!
It becomes the first thing he asks for in the morning and the last thing he asks about at night. (And when I say ask, I mean demand, wheedle, whine and tantrum.) He charges in to wake up Dave or me in the morning. His first words in the morning are “iPad?” (One-word question.) We keep the answer consistently yes. There are just two provisos: one, that he meets other responsibilities properly when necessary – getting dressed, eating breakfast, brushing teeth, bathing etc.; and, two, that he may not break existing commitments in favour of game time.
But over successive days he starts showing less and less inclination to do anything except ignore us, complain and argue. Any request, no matter how small or reasonable, is met with lengthy discourses starting with No but….
My phone calls become a signal for him to start talking to me loudly over any other conversation I may be having. He talks over our conversations, interrupts incessantly. When we point out that we are in the middle of a conversation, he continues the interruption. Time to leave the house incurs massive tantrums.
The peculiar thing is that unlimiting (particularly) iPad time seems to make him even more obsessive than before. It’s as though the game (usually Minion Rush) takes over every aspect of his attention. When we speak to him, he ignores us completely, or he offers a vacant, distracted or fidgety moment of attention, clearly with his focus still on The Game. When it’s time for other activities (heading out of the house for swimming or soccer), he’ll agree in principle ahead of time that we’ll go – but when it comes to the moment of switching off (even with plenty of advance notice), there is a tantrum. He’ll refuse to find his shoes or hat, or get immediately distracted when asked to fetch or do anything. Tears, screaming and hysteria. You get the picture.
We start getting into battles, and it gets more and more frustrating and tiring. Worse, I have several nights with very little sleep, which lower my tolerance and patience for the ongoing tedium of everything-has-to-be-repeated-five-times. I start feeling like a caricature of someone from a “before” picture in an episode of Supernanny.**
In a massive turnaround, we revoke all TV, iPad, computer games and other “screen time” til further notice. I’m still trying to get my head around this. At a theoretical level, it feels to me like we’re doing an Unsustainable And Pointless Thing. But at a practical level, living in a household of four people, it feels like we need to turn down the electronic attention demand until we can reach a more tolerable level of cooperation.
My husband and I have also been discussing ceaselessly what exactly is going on. Eventually, after a few days of pondering it, I find myself wondering whether it’s a delayed reaction to the arrival of the baby sister. M is utterly enchanted by her older brother, and he in turn revels in his special status as the special one who can, without fail, elicit a steady stream of giggles and adoring gazes from her. I was expecting a massive flip-out of sibling rivalry, but it never really arrived – not in the form I expected, anyway. But here we are, a month or so after giving K a whole lot more freedom than he’d had before, and finding that we’re all really struggling with it.
Switching off the electronics goes against the grain, somewhat. For one thing, I agree with the parents and writers that advocate free, self-regulated use of electronics. For another thing, to be brutally honest, it’s simply harder work. K is a massively sociable being – he’s around, chatting, asking questions, asking for company, involvement, things to do. I’m wondering whether, without realising it at the time, in giving him an unlimited supply of game time, we had diminished his supply of much-needed attention.
I don’t know exactly. I know it’s a temporary solution, but for the moment it’s where we’re at. I’d love to hear from any of you that have faced similar dilemmas.
*For links to articles that influenced this decision:
The Great Screen Time Decision, by Wendy Priesnitz
Limiting Video Games is Delusional, by Penelope Trunk
Surprising parenting problems of unlimited screen time, Jamie O’Donnell for Patheos.com
Various writings from Sandra Dodd
**Those of you who have been following for a while will know that my 6-year-old is at a Montessori preschool. I’ve discussed unschooling with him. At this stage, he chooses to attend pre-school.
***Actually, I’ve never actually seen Supernanny, just read some of the scathing reviews and controversies in the press.