Struggling with it

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

Various writings from Sandra Dodd

The Case for Unlimited Screentime at Our Somewhat Life and Why we don’t limit screen time at Cheeseslave.

**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.


About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
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4 Responses to Struggling with it

  1. redheadmom8 says:

    I’ve also struggled with this issue. I’ve found with my kids-especially my son- that the more time I allow for his games (aka almost every waking minute) the more I struggle with getting him to do what has to be done-chores, showering, eating, etc. It has become an obsession, which is why I’ve established a no-screens period of time everyday. I will make exceptions if he wants to look something up or comes up with a project having to do with building something on minecraft. This works much better for us. I’ve seen the arguments for unlimited screentime and fully agree with them in theory, but in reality, that’s not the way it works in my house.

  2. Miriam says:

    I’ve gone around this issue in my head for years, read plenty about the unschooling perspective on it. For the most part, I let my kids take the lead in what they do. I’m just not naturally fond of telling people what to do, making and enforcing rules, etc. And I don’t think “screen time” is bad. I love my computer, and feel that it enriches my life.
    But I’m also all about balance- physically it’s not healthy to sit too much. People need to move, be outside, spend time with others, do non-tech things. I feel strongly about that too, so I will step in and tell my kids that we’re going to do something else. If that makes me unable to claim the unschooling label, I’m okay with that RIght now, it’s a beautiful day and we’ve been inside for most of it. I just told them we’re going for a walk, and I think I would be a bad parent if I *didn’t* step in sometimes.
    I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, and everyone has to find the right solution for their children.

  3. Blokeschool says:

    I can completely relate to the absolutely obsessive and hypnotic state kids (and adults) get, playing these games.
    We have two computers in our house. Since deleting one of their Mums university units, one of these computers is strictly not to be touched. The rule for the other computer is that they can use it whenever they want, but they have to be supervised. This is mostly because they can’t read, and so semi randomly press buttons trying to find what they are looking for. Sometimes, they want to find pictures on the net. Mostly, they play reading eggs, a set of CDs with kindergarten style reading lessons.
    The other option they have is an iPod (or if they are really lucky, my phone). In an attempt to harness that hypnotic effect for a good purpose, I have a number of educational games they can play. Chess, Go, Origami instructions, and Dragon box (algebra for pre numerate kids. I highly recommend it) are the favourites. Sometimes they just use it to take photos or listen to music.
    Again, it happens under varying degrees of supervision, depending on what they are playing. Partly, because I don’t want them throwing the iPod across the room in a fit of frustration, and partly because I don’t want them to be ‘lost in the screen.’
    When things reach a subjective point of getting too much, the game stops. There is no hard and fast rule regarding ‘screen time.’
    My wife hates these games with a passion. I think they are a reasonable compromise.
    It teaches the boys to be more technologically competent than I ever will be, and it has a genuine educational component.

  4. Just to maybe give you a preview, at 6 I greatly limited screen time and now at 13 my son is not limited at all and while he plays some computer games he watches a lot of educational videos and he also gets tired of the video games on his own. My point is maybe 6 is too young to wait for him to get tired of it, but at an older age he will better be able to limit himself.

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