I’ve been harboring a deep-seated secret for a while now. It’s time, however, to break the silence and end the stigma. Here’s my confession: I don’t limit my kid’s screen time.
Before you put your judgey pants on (and I know you’re reaching for them right now), hear me out.
I was the mom who abided by the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation of “No screens before 2.” (That recommendation has since been changed). Prior to his second birthday, my son had no clue who Elmo or Curious George were. We went to the library several times a week and spent countless hours reading and doing crafts and baking. We were blissfully free of electronic devices.
And then Minecraft happened. In kindergarten, my son saw someone playing it and that’s all it took. His mind was completely blown and he wouldn't stop asking me if he could get it. I’ll admit, I was nervous about it. Zombies? Killing animals? But when I actually looked at the game, it didn't seem violent. I eventually acquiesced—and Minecraft opened a door for him to a whole new world. It also opened a door for me, but one with a darker side. I was introduced to the world of parenting screen shaming.
Here’s how it goes down: Every few months, like clockwork, someone posts the question on a local parenting page: “How do you manage screen time?” Some people are quick to respond with their hard and fast rules: 15 minutes on the weekends only, a half-hour for each hour spent outside, no screens before school. Sometimes the threads will end at that and all is well. But other times, they go south quickly. Welcome to the parenting Thunderdome! If you're one of the parents who limit their children’s screen time, you get a gold star. Bonus points if you install apps that track usage and lock them out after a certain time. Extra credit if you implement some sort of ticket system whereby extra chores earn electronic time. If, however, you let the kids watch YouTube or play video games for several hours on a school day, no question—you're going to get the side eye. Whenever these posts came up, I would cower on my side of the screen, presuming that I was the only one without time restrictions. No amount of homemade, nut-free, gluten-free, honey-sweetened cupcakes could ever make up for my bad screen decisions. And so I would sit silently and just take it all in.
But then, one day, it occurred to me to ask: “Why?”
Why is it considered so terrible for kids to play video games? I decided to look at the research, as I figured there must be something beyond anecdotal evidence for these seemingly arbitrary rules. Almost all of the studies I found cited obesity, lack of focus and violent tendencies as reasons to limit game play. OK, fair. But let’s really look at those things.
Obesity? Sure, if they just sit around and drink soda and eat chips. But that’s not specific to gaming. Weight gain could happen just as easily with a reading addiction (although arguably, reading isn't as addictive as video games). The keys to the obesity piece are to provide your kids with healthy snacks and drinks and make sure they’re up and moving enough to get in their daily dose of exercise. It doesn’t have to be a structured sport. It can be chasing the dog around the house for 15 minutes at a time.
Lack of focus? No question that ADD and learning disabilities are seemingly much more prevalent now than ever before. But is it because of video games? I found no research to support that. In fact,some studies have shown that gaming improves concentration and attention.
Violent tendencies? That’s where age-appropriate games come into play. Studies have shown that video games don’t affect players’ empathy. Having said that, though, anyone in their right mind isn’t going to advocate letting a second grader play Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. Those are rated Mature for a reason. If a grown adult wants to play those games, so be it, but they’re not meant for kids any more than driving a car or voting is.
What I found by observing my son was actually quite the opposite of what some parents suggest. Instead of being a negative factor in his life, video games stimulate his creative thinking and problem solving. This isn’t like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong where you’re staring at a one-dimensional image and simply developing hand-eye coordination. Today’s games are sophisticated and savvy. When my son plays live with his friends, they’re not only being sociable, they’re working together as a team to fulfill tasks and achieve goals. They have to figure things out on their own—without mom and dad hovering over them, watching their every move, like at a soccer game or even with homework. It allows them freedom and choices that aren't necessarily easy to come by in this age of helicopter parenting.
Even with this reasoning, I still felt shamed enough to dodge the question when people asked how much screen time I let my son have. Last summer he asked to go to a gaming camp. I had gone back and forth on the decision, allowing myself to get caught up in traditional thinking. Wouldn’t he be better off an outdoor camp playing soccer or tennis? Would a video game camp turn him into a pale, sluggish caricature of an “indoor kid”? Would I be doing irreparable harm to his still-developing psyche? In the end, I decided to let him do it, and upon pick up on the first day, I realized how right that was. The group of 20 or so kids (mostly boys, but there were a few girls) were finishing up their day by convening in a circle. They were all smiles. When he got in the car, he said it was the best day of his life. This was such a change from the usual, mopey, “It was okay,” I would get after picking him up karate, basketball, baseball and all the other activities I thought he should like.
So I’m done. I’m done pretending that the screen time timer is set. The best part is, he self regulates. He knows when he needs to switch things up and run around outside or read a book. To be clear, we do have our rules. They’re: Be respectful, get your work done and come when you’re called without complaining. But otherwise, have fun. Because in the end, no matter what age you are, that’s what this life is all about.
This article was originally published online in January 2018.