Computers and kids, how much time is too much, and why do we feel that way?
I often feel uncomfortable discussing parenting with other people. It's not discussing bedtimes, or homework, or discipline that brings me unstuck, but the fact that my kids share my love of all things technological. I'm the parent who lets his kids have too much “screen time”.
The way some parents talk about computers and game consoles you'd think that allowing your child to use them is something akin to handing over an AK-47 and a month's worth of unprescribed Ritalin. Parents talk in hushed tones about screen time and boast of how little time they allow their progeny to spend using the types of devices which will shape the rest of their lives. The way that some people talk about their kids' use of computers is how I imagine our grandparents talked about television, or how their grandparents talked about radio, and it's just as unlikely to change the fact that all of these devices are going to be a permanent part of our world from now on.
Computers have always fascinated me, when I was young I'd make pretend ones out of cardboard boxes and paint them to look like something from Buck Rogers or Star Trek. When I was in Primary School I was given a computer of my own, an Amstrad CPC464 with a tape drive and a green screen, and I've had computers at home ever since. I've also had video game consoles for just as long, from a box that played six variations of pong, followed by my Atari 2600, various Nintendo consoles, PlayStations and a pair of Xbox 360s. This is the environment that my kids were born into, and it seems strange to pretend that the things I enjoy using for my own leisure and entertainment aren't going to be just as appealing to them as well.
Computer gaming has been demonised for as long as it has existed, being blamed for everything from creating anti-social teens to frightfully violent ones, as though neither existed before the late 1970s. The stereotype about computer gamers still seems to be that they're almost exclusively teenage boys, while the reality is that the stereotypical gamers from the 80 and 90s are now mostly middle aged, still gaming, and we have kids of our own. Just like parents who indoctrinate their kids with a love of their favourite sporting team, I introduced mine to the joys of Mario Kart and Minecraft. It seems strange to me that watching footy on the TV doesn't raise an eyebrow, but allowing kids to spend the same amount of time engaging in something interactive, challenging, and often creative is treated like borderline neglect.
Even in families where the adults aren't gamers, the type of technology that we seek to limit kids’ access to is often a ubiquitous part of our lives. Almost every morning when I sit down to breakfast, I'm doing so with my iPad close at hand. I know I'm not alone doing this because my twitter feed is full of a thousand other people doing the same thing, finding news, sharing things that they've found, and engaging with a broader community that they're a part of. It's the twenty-first century version of sitting down with the morning paper, and it's what we're modelling for our kids. Why then are people so surprised when the kids want to do something similar?
I'm not going to pretend that the distraction that can come from having a plethora of gadgets near at hand is never problematic, but we're just as likely to find that our requests are being ignored by the kids because they've got their head in a book that they're enjoying. The issue isn't, in my mind, simply denying kids access to the TV, computers or consoles, it's teaching them how to be considered media consumers. When I was growing up we had two TV channels and two radio channels, that was it, so if you wanted to watch TV, you'd watch whatever was served up. By contrast, our kids watch more programs via catch-up services like the ABC's iView, where they watch only what they're interested in, than they do terrestrial TV. I think it's pretty easy to argue that the time my kids spend watching Mythbusters is probably of greater value than the amount of time I spent watching Press Your Luck, Supermarket Sweep or Wheel of Fortune while I waited for Monkey Magic or The Goodies to come on.
When it comes to kids and technology, what I see as most problematic is parents who don't make the effort to understand with what their kids are actually doing with their time, or how they could make the time spent be more productive. It's easier to rail against the amount of time that kids spend using iPads than it is to try to tailor their experience to be something more appropriate than playing the latest freemium game designed to cause anxiety in the player and drain your wallet. Most of us agree that it's necessary to ensure that the movies, books, magazines and music that our children consume are all appropriate for their age and their maturity level, so why do so many people have such a blind spot when it comes to what their kids access from a console or computer? We don't crack down on the amount of time children spend reading simply because 50 Shades of Grey isn't suitable for them, so why is this the default approach to how they use technology?
Our children are growing up surrounded by devices that were quite literally the stuff of science fiction when we were their age. By the time they reach adulthood these magical slabs of silicon and glass will be even further embedded into our lives and culture than they are now. The best thing we can do for our children isn't to arbitrarily limit their access to these devices, but to teach them how to use them responsibly and effectively as the tools of their generation.