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Apr 16

Unlimited Screen Time?

Almost two weeks ago, Paxton (11 at the time of this writing) jumped up playing basketball, took a bad landing, and ended up severely spraining his ankle.  For the past 13 days he’s been on the couch and I’ve been playing nurse.  Injury not withstanding, I’ve really enjoyed this extra time I’ve suddenly gotten with him.  We’ve watched countless movies together – everything from Bruce Almighty to Lord of the Rings to a documentary about the Titanic.  We’ve watched plenty of TV together too, including a several-episode-long marathon of Criss Angel’s magic.  The TV and movies were fun while they lasted, but he eventually asked me to bring him a laptop.  We then watched videos on YouTube, shared and compared our various wanderings on our respective computers, and had discussion after discussion about all of the above.   He has since moved on to teaching himself card tricks, and he has spent the past 48 hours practicing and perfecting his skills.

In our house, we don’t limit or otherwise try to control television, movies, computers, or other types of “screen time”…. even when no one is injured.  All of that technology is simply another tool we’re all free to use, or not use, as we see fit.  Sometimes our house is humming with televisions, computers, and video games… and sometimes the only humming comes from the kids.  Yesterday (on a rare Sunday at home) no one so much as glanced at a TV until evening came.

When I first became a parent, screen time made me all kinds of uneasy.   I wanted my kids (well, my one kid at the time) to read a book, or do a puzzle, or play outside, or use his imagination… not sit in front of a screen.  I was self-righteous in my resolve, telling anyone who asked that we didn’t do much TV… that in our house we focused on learning activities.  And how much could he possibly learn from a SCREEN?

Well.  As it turns out, a lot.   As I gradually let go and lifted my limits, I realized that those things I had feared not only didn’t hamper Spencer’s learning, but added to it immensely!   We still read books.  We still did puzzles.  We still played outside.  He still used his imagination.  But we’d also opened up a whole new world to enjoy together, one that we still appreciate and share… without limits and without conditions.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

One of the most common questions or objections I get from unschoolers new to the idea of unlimited screen time is that whenever they’ve tried, it’s made their kids unruly or agitated… or as this one reader states, it has just been a “disaster”:

I love the idea of unlimited screen time, but every time I go with it disasters happen. The kids (5 and 3) start bouncing around on the couch, biting each other, kicking, etc. It is worst when they have been watching movies all day so I can’t help but associate it with the screen time.

So why the disaster?  Why, if it works so well for us (and for lots of other families) do so many people try it only to pronounce it a failure?  Here are a few things that could be happening, in no particular order:

1. They’re bored.  They’re watching TV or playing a video game not because they particularly want to, but because no better alternative has been presented or offered.    They’re feeling pent-up or frustrated, so it comes out in their behavior.  It would come out in my behavior too.  Maybe they’d rather be outside, or baking cookies, or drawing a picture, or just hanging out with mom.  When that’s the case, it’s not the fault of the screen.  It’s simply a matter of being involved, maybe doing a little detective work, offering suggestions, and offering yourself.

2.  They’re hungry.  Or tired.  Or in need of a break.  Again, not the fault of the screen.  A lot of times, kids (and adults for that matter) will get really engrossed in something and not listen to their bodies. They miss cues of hunger or fatigue until they’re to the point of grumpy.   Ideally, as parents we should step in before that happens.

3.  Parents are coming into it with preconceived ideas about how it will affect their kids.  In other words, they’re expecting their children to behave in a negative way.  In the same way that many parents who think, “Oh if he has those cookies now, he’ll be bouncing off the walls all night” will then observe said bouncing off the walls, and feel validated for being right… even if the behavior was completely unrelated.    Even if the perceived “hyper” behavior wasn’t so unreasonable after all.  We tend to see what we want to see.

4.  The child/children have just gotten really engrossed in what they’re watching or playing, to the point of wanting to shut out what’s going on around them, and being frustrated by distractions and interruptions.  I know a lot of people think of things like TV watching as passive activities.  You just sit and stare and become a zombie.  I have never found that to be case.   For me (and for my kids who choose to watch TV) I think it’s often the opposite.  I get very involved.  Certain shows and movies make me come alive.  I fall in love with the stories,with the dialogue, with the writing, with the timing.  And just as with any other activity that I’m really immersed in…. whether it’s watching a movie, or reading, or writing, or creating something… when I’m interrupted or have to stop, I feel frustrated.   And while as an adult I can generally sometimes handle that frustration and transition without making too much of a fuss about it, it’s twenty times harder for a child.

5.  Maybe it really does affect your child differently than mine.  (There’s my little disclaimer:   I don’t pretend to know the inner workings of someone else’s child or family)  If that’s the case, I strongly believe that there’s still a way to come to a peaceful and respectful solution that takes everyone’s needs and wishes into account, without being controlling and falling the way of using screen time as a punishment or reward.

Our lives are richer because of technology to be sure :: said as she types on her laptop with high speed internet while simultaneously watching a sci-fi movie with the 11 and 7 year olds ::  At the same time, because it’s treated as no more or less important or valuable as any of the other tools at our disposal, the kids can all take it or leave it.

Right now, they’re leaving it.  The movie got too confusing, and there are important card tricks to be done.

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You might also want to read No thank you, we’ll stay plugged; and Blame the Video Games


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  • http://mommainprogress.blogspot.com/ Momma_in_Progress

    Yes! This sounds pretty much like my house. I think it works so well because we just don’t make a big deal out of it. The girls like to watch some television/DVDs and play computer games, but they’re just as likely to be found reading in their room, jumping on the bed, or having art time. They watch if they are interested and stop when they are done. No reward/punishment/outside influencing needed. We learn a lot from our screen time, too. I think a lot of folks definitely have the misconception that if you don’t limit screen time, that must be *all* you do. (insert eye roll here) Of course we do tons of other activities in any given day/week!

  • Carla

    Studies have shown that children under two should avoid screen time all together. What are your thoughts on that? 

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/19/health/19babies.html 

    • pathlesstaken

      I think it’s sort of a moot point for any involved parent, because in my experience, children under two aren’t going to be interested in any screen time anyway.    Too busy sleeping and eating and playing and discovering with mom and dad :)  None of my kids watched any measurable amount of TV, etc at that age.

      • Carla

        My two year old was not interested in television either but I was really surprised how many (all!) of his peers were glued to the television. Some as young as 12 months. I think it has definitely become an issue with many families especially with the proliferation of infant programs (i.e. Baby Einstein, Classical Baby, etc.).  But I guess your emphasis is on ‘involved’ parent, which makes all the difference. 

        • hobomama

          My firstborn never seemed interested in the screen that young, even when we were watching a show in front of him. My secondborn does, though, so it makes us wonder if we should avoid TV when the baby’s around. Maybe different kids are wired differently?

  • A11shak

    I used to think I would limit my kids t.v. time but really they do it themselves…they can go a very long time without watching any “kid” shows..they do enjoy watching nature shows or some of our adult shows in the evening. (NCIS) :) Its nice because when they do exhaust themselves eventually and want to spend an entire day watching t.v. I don’t mind it at all! My kids never get crazy from watching t.v. either and seem to use it only as an educational tool or something to do when they are just worn out and need some chill out time. Plus I LOVE that I can cout their t.v. time as school when we watch Nat Geo Wild! lol

  • Sarah Durall

    We don’t limit “screen time” either.  I honestly think it’s the same with limiting candy.  We always have candy out in some way.  My 7 year old eats it as he wishes (although we do ask him not to close to dinner time but he can have as much as he wishes afterwards).  I have friends who limits their children’s candy and the FIRST thing they ask for when they come to my house (and ask REPEATEDLY) for is candy.  When those kids get candy and my son is offered some he has been known to pass it up because he just doesn’t want any.  I think it’s the same for “screen time.”  When you limit things in your child’s life those things become the most coveted and consuming thing to them.   Those parents are drawing attention to those things that they see as a negative instead of allowing their child to find their personal limits.  My son learned that quickly after eating too much candy and complaining of a stomach ache.  When he said he didn’t know why he had one, I told him it was because he ate too much candy.  I haven’t heard him complain of a stomach ache like that since that day – he learned his personal limits.

    • pathlesstaken

      “When you limit things in your child’s life those things become the most coveted and consuming thing to them”  Completely agree!! 

  • DS

    So spot on! We have the same relationship and understanding with screen. Same with food. Do they binge screen? No. Do they binge food? Never. Do they develop a healthy relationship with both? Yes indeed. Free to be, free to breathe.

  • kaki

    I agree.  My 14 year old has learned so much biology and anatomy from watching “Body of Proof” and CSI episodes.  We are now into old mini-series like “The Blue and the Grey”  (we just finished) and are  starting “Roots”   It is not unusual for us to watch all afternoon.   I have heard families proudly brag they have no TV.  My family would never make it!!   That and the fact we have 5 computers in the house.

    The funny thing is, even with all this technology, my kids still play barbies (even the 14 year old), build cities with legos, collect and take apart bugs, ride bikes, read, do puzzles, and study the stars at night while laying in the grass..

  • hobomama

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! We go back and forth with wondering how much/if to limit screen time. We don’t as it now stands — I’d rather we just offered more alternatives in addition. Because that does seem to do the trick. If offered a game with his parents or a trip to the playground, our son will almost always choose that over one more TV show; and if he doesn’t, so what? I often think of the fact that I’ve watched TV my whole life (and used computers almost that long), and I like who I turned out to be just fine. ;)

  • jaonstead

    Just found your blog while hanging out on the Christian Unschooling websight. We have a 12 year old and an 11 year old who we have homeschooled from the beginning. While homeschooling has always been a joy for our family I always knew something was missing. Checking out unschooling and believing I have found that missing part.

    • pathlesstaken

      Welcome.  :)  Glad you found me!  And I will say, without hesitation, that if unschooling makes sense to you, it will only continue to make more and more sense as time goes on.   I honestly couldn’t imagine living or “schooling” any other way!!  It’s a wonderful lifestyle. :)

  • Llewsilla

    Hi – I’m new and may find answers in another area…I have three children at very different stages and with very different “sensitivities” – 14, 8 and almost 3.  Our TV is in our living room – so it is in the main “living” area.  I’ve always tried to make TV the “last alternative”.  Here’s my question…how do you deal with things being age appropriate (e.g. – my 8 year old gets really disturbed by any sort of CSI sort of thing).  I don’t want everyone closed into his/her room to watch or play – I want to be together…and to be honest  – I can’t stand MOST tv.  It’s the noise, the commercials, the constant sensory stimulation, …so I feel like MY stress level increases HUGELY when it’s on…so how do we make that a mutually-respectful situation?  I try to play with the younger children while dad and my 14 son watch their stuff…but then I never get a break or time to just “enjoy my house”….  do you have any insight on this? 

    • pathlesstaken

      Well, as far as things they might find scary/inappropriate, we just don’t watch it while they are awake or around.  We save the CSI type shows until later.  My 15 year old really likes that kind of stuff, so sometimes we will watch together when the littler ones are really occupied doing other things, but otherwise, he watches it by himself.  He knows not to watch it around the little ones. 

      I totally understand where you’re coming from on getting stressed out by the TV.  I am huge TV fan, but I too get sensed out really easily, so the noise and stimulation does get to me.  I don’t want my needs to trump the kids’…. nor do I think it’s fair for their needs’ to my trump my own.  If I find it’s been on for awhile and it’s stressing me out, I’m honest with them and I tell them.  Usually they’ll tell me they just want to finish that one show or whatever, then we’ll turn it off for awhile and do something else, no problem.

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  • Danielle

    I love this blog post. My oldest child is 9 (I have five children in total) and I’m beginning to think that I should just stop fussing about screen time. Computers, TV, DS’s etc. I honestly think more harm is done through the conflict about switching off than would be if you just didn’t worry about it. I like what you say about offering better options. I can guarantee if I start getting the baking equipment out the DS’s will be forgotten about while they come and help in the kitchen. My 4 year old has had no help from me with his reading but has spent plenty of time playing on the computer and he can read simple books already! It has really helped him. Also limiting screen time could be used as a consequence for bad behaviour and it would be much more effective if it is usually unlimited.

  • Shelly

    I know you wrote this a couple years ago, but I agree with not limiting screen time, in theory, but since I’ve stopped making restrictions on time, my 14 and 15 year olds don’t do anything other than play WOW and sometimes Minecraft. Okay, yes, they get off to do chores and sometimes eat, but honestly, they won’t do ANYTHING else. It’s not because they’re bored. My daughter is interested in photography, so I bought her a DSLR camera, and it sits unused, except for a few times. My son’s friends come over and I practically have to shove him out the door with them. They don’t participate in our family (board)game night, and they usually will not take me up on offers of activities. I’m really frustrated.