I’ve never been a fan of kids spending hours and hours in front of screens. When I grew up we didn’t have computers, and we were limited to one TV program a week. I resented this at the time, but looking back on my childhood I have memories of riding my bike round the neighbourhood, playing makeshift games of softball in the back yard, climbing trees, making mud pies, dressing up, designing doll’s clothes, and doing a multitude of other creative activities. Our days were full and spent almost entirely outdoors, and most of all fun. Of the TV programs that I did watch I have a few scant memories that don’t amount to much.
We don’t have a TV at home now, although we do download movies and select TV shows for ourselves and the kids. When they were very little our children had some time with us on our computers playing learning games, and we didn’t own an iPad until they were quite a bit older.
However, over the years it has become easier and easier to slip into bad habits and lose track of how much time they are actually spending in front of a screen. One hour became two, and on the weekend sometimes became four. It is convenient for us as adults to know that the kids are busy and entertained while we catch up on some work, tend to the garden, make the dinner and do the hundred other things on our to do lists. It is easier to hand them an iPad than to encourage them to come up with something else to do.
What I noticed, though, was that after a couple of hours on an iPad or playing Mine Craft on their computers, my little darlings turned into little monsters. When they emerged from behind whatever electronic device they had disappeared behind, it was like that were coming down from drugs. They would fight each other, fight us, become rude and uncooperative, and sometimes even throw proper tantrums. It was not ok. Something had to be done.
I genuinely considered removing all technology from our home and just dealing with the onslaught of anger and resentment that would surely follow. The thing is, I’m actually not against technology in general and I’m even quite impressed by games like Mine Craft and the kind of skills that kids are learning while they play. And then, of course, there’s the thing of this being our children’s future. Whether we like it or not, they are part of the digital age and they are going to need to navigate these worlds in order to progress.
So what I decided was to simultaneously encourage them to engage in other activities and limit their screen time in a way where they could still be in control of how they were spending their time outside of technology. I created a points system. 100 points = 1 hour of screen time.
I specifically made it easy enough that with a little effort, they can earn 100 points in a day. I was also careful to include many things on the list that they actually enjoy doing and that will help them to advance their own values and interests (they can get points for drawing, playing the piano, reading a book, doing a creative project or science experiment). I did, of course, add a few things that I would like too (making their beds, helping with cooking and gardening, tidying their rooms)!
They don’t have to do everything on the list. In fact, there’s nothing that they have to do. Every item is optional. If they choose to earn all their 100 points by drawing pictures, that is fine. If they’d rather do a variety of things, that’s also ok. My intention is to keep it fun and light so that they can see that they can enjoy life outside of a computer: Real life also has something to offer.
The result was remarkable. I explained to them why I was implementing the new system and they could see themselves that they were irritable and grumpy after a day online, so they were open to the idea from the start. Within a day they were up to all sorts of things around the house, they had rekindled their relationship with each other (which had become somewhat rocky), they were cheerful and engaged in life and such a pleasure to be around. We also started connecting more as a family – playing board games, going for walks, planning family outings, chatting around the dinner table. Both children became avid readers overnight.
It has been about 3 weeks now and our entire household is transformed. And, they’re still getting to play on their computers at least every second day, or even every day if they feel motivated to do so. But it isn’t the be all and end all of everything. The Lego has come out of its dusty spot in the corner, our home is filled with artworks again, there is quite literally music and singing filling the air.
Screen time is earned and enjoyed, but it’s no longer the focus of their every moment. Memories are being made. Connections are being nurtured. We are all happier and more fulfilled. Life is good – both online and off!