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Adventures of a stay-at-home, skeptical, homeschooling dad (etc.)


Screen time

There seems to be some miscommunication about "limiting screen time". I've seen some backlash against the idea of limiting screen time recently on some of the blogs I frequent. Many cite that screens, especially computers, can be used for good uses, not just silly games and annoying hyper-kinetic cartoons, and by limiting screen time, you're missing out on great stuff, and possibly handicapping the children by limiting their experience with technology!

Well, yeah. Maybe there are some Luddites out there who consider all uses of computers and video equally evil, but is that really a common thing? When our family talks about limiting "screen" time, we aren't talking about cutting out all uses of all screens.

Every day, our daughter gets a certain amount personal screen time. During this time, she can watch shows, play computer/Wii/DS games, or whatever she wants. I consider this time to be her "junk food" time. A small bag of potato chips isn't bad. A single fast-food cheeseburger isn't bad. An ice cream cone isn't bad… They're not evil or harmful in small doses, but they contain no real nutritional value: they're refined carbohydrates and fat mixed with flavoring. You enjoy them for what they are, just limit the amount so you don't get type-II diabetes or type-I ADHD. Most kids' shows, and many video games fall into this junk-food category (most adult shows fall here too, for that matter).

So yes, we do limit her "junk food" screen time: The annoying kids' cartoons, the high-speed side-scroller and platform games, the useless "walk around and occasionally dress up your character" games, etc. But we have a huge category of activities involving screens which aren't so limited (within reason):

  • We watch movies and shows as a family and/or with our friends several times a week.
  • We use Google and Wikipedia a lot.
  • We read about everything.
  • We use Google Earth and many other maps all the time.
  • We watch fun educational DVDs/videos (Bill Nye the Science Guy, dinosaur shows, science and nature documentaries, history, etc).
  • We use Google image and video search to learn more about the current topic of conversation.
  • We play Wii sports and dance.
  • We use things like Tuxpaint and MS Paint.
  • We use text editors for writing stories, notes, and lists.
  • We do online worksheets.
  • We do online educational games.
  • We find music on Youtube.
  • We play music from our library and on last.fm (the downstairs computer is our main media center).
  • We play with Hydrogen and similar things.

None of these are "limited" very much.

There is a hazy middle ground. Things that could count or not count depending on how things are going. Generally, games fall under the "limited screen time" umbrella, but, sometimes the games are not just exercises in short attention spans and fast-twitch muscle responses. I'm much more lenient towards her having "extra" time when she's playing or watching certain kinds of things:

  • Our daughter loves Minecraft, especially on creative/peaceful mode, which for the most part is pretty awesome. It's building things and figuring things out.
  • There are a few online puzzle games she likes. Those are pretty cool examples of problem solving as well.
  • If she's playing a game or watching a show with her friends and the interaction is fun, positive, and helpful, I'll let it go longer.
  • If I know she's struggling and working hard at a game, even a "junk-food" game, I'll give her more time.
  • Everything is on a case by case basis: if I feel she's getting something useful out of a game or a show, I'll let it continue.

Obviously there's a time and a place for everything: we don't let her spend all day watching movies, playing Minecraft, or looking at random pictures, especially when it is nice out, but we're not draconian.

What we don't do is regular TV. We ditched cable and TV when she was born, and don't miss it one bit. We especially don't miss the commercials, channel surfing, and non-stop "reality" TV. For a while I missed channels like Discovery, Discovery Science, and History, but after going to a hotel or visiting family where TV is available, I discover that they are nearly 100% crap reality TV programming now. (Discovery Science is apparently still partly OK, but I'm not going to pay $80 - $100 for one channel.) We have Netflix, and we get science and history DVDs and fun shows from the library for things she's interested in. There's also Youtube and hundreds of other "online TV" sites if I need to find a particular topic or show.

So, screen-time proponents, I too think it's silly to ditch all uses of the computer. Good thing I'm not proposing that!