One question I get asked often is how to regulate screens. As a member of the natural parenting community, I see such struggle navigating these waters of technology. Some engage in a never-ending battle to “limit,” while others drown in a sea of guilt.
You don’t need to devote any energy to resisting the value of technology in our lives. It’s not the enemy you fear. That image you have of your children lost in imaginative and innovative play in the woods with other children is not the antithesis of a mastery of technology. They are not mutually exclusive.
But how do you support a balanced life that is integrated with technology? And without the fighting, controlling, and guilt?
1. Role Modeling
Do you have a healthy balance with screens in your life? Role modeling is a huge force in how children learn to live their lives. Your children will observe and play at the skills you use to be successful in life. Live the balance you want them to develop, without any manipulation.
My children see their father financially support our family through the computer. They witness me connecting with families all over the world through my laptop and bringing them support they would not otherwise be able to reach. They observe me reading books through my Kindle app to help me grow my mind. They sit alongside me while I work and they do their work in the form of learning and/or producing.
Just as importantly, we are in connection while we play outdoors, adventure new places, nourish our bodies, test our strength and agility through skilled play, and bond with friends. We make conscious choices to live the integrated balance we hope for our children to learn.
You want your kid to get off the couch? Then you have to get off the couch and go have fun!
Children are really at the mercy of the opportunities we provide for them. This is not to say that we must or should entertain them – that is different. But if your child is confined to a small indoor space with no access to nature, exploration, or friends, then technology will likely be their only means to connect with the outside world and other people in it. If you want your child to grow into their potential, nourishing and stretching all the sides of themselves, then you must provide the opportunity for that growth.
We have a backyard. We drive our children to open, natural spaces. We bring them to new places. We organize events with other families. We provide materials (note: not loads of toys but materials for play and creation).
We are social animals. We learn and receive so much joy through shared experience. A sense of connection is something that technology can ease from a feeling of isolation. Just think of how social media groups are a lifeline for so many new moms who no longer have the support and camaraderie of extended family or geographically close friends in the same life stage with similar parenting philosophies. Feed that need in the real world, and you need less of it from the virtual one.
Children need free time to play out in the world in mixed age groups. That’s really what it comes down to: authentic and playful connection. And the authentic piece is important. It means natural and not forced. This cannot happen within the context of a structured and adult imposed system (like school). It looks like some kids running around the beach, boarding, digging, swimming, and splashing, exposing themselves, all in, to the organic forces of relational dynamics. Things like empathy, consideration, negotiation, natural consequences, leadership, fairness, equity, and innumerable other invaluable personal skills thrive here. The result is authentic connection.
Human beings need freedom. This may be news to you, but your child is human. That role modeling, opportunity, and socialization described above all must be built on freedom. Your child is free to observe but never forced to follow your lead. You open doors through opportunity but your child is never forced to participate. You foster a quality social network but it is unstructured. When coercion enters the picture and adults take control, much of the benefits and joy are lost. For example, organized sports are not socialization. The freedom to engage or disengage in any number of layered dimensions creates the conditions for all those skills of experience and connection to flourish. If you’re not truly free to walk away from a game or collaborate around its terms, then it has little to no genuine meaning. If your child does not have enough freedom in their life, they will exercise the need for it through a digital life.
Including the technologies of our modern world into your family’s life fosters the skills of today and tomorrow. My 10 year old spent hours the other day mastering a new special effects video editing software application. Before using his money to purchase it, we discussed that the in-app purchases were tutorials on how to use the program. He was confident he could forgo them and dove in (figuring out every technique in real time). At one point I felt tempted to interrupt his focused project (which also involved running around outside and directing brothers and friends in a democratic way that kept them participating) to request that he complete a textbook lesson. Thankfully, I realized the stupidity of my own inherited baggage and insecurities before opening my big stupid mouth. This is a seriously valuable and marketable skill for today and tomorrow’s job market. He will be far more likely to earn a living while doing something about which he is passionate through a skill like this than through being forced to memorize an obscure and random historical fact or practice signing off in a formal letter (which was a lesson in a writing curriculum). If he ever does have a need to sign off in formal snail mail he would be motivated and able to look that up and the experience would have context, which results in meaningful, lasting learning. Through freedom, opportunity, and socialization, he is developing valuable skills.
In fact, the reality is (and studies confirm) that children who play video games do so in place of watching television, not in place of meaningful experience. Given the option, a child chooses free play outdoors with other kids every time. Additionally, there are some legitimate gains from electronic game play. Peter Gray points out in Free to Learn, “. . . fast-paced action video games can quite markedly increase players’ scores on tests of visuospatial ability, including components of standard IQ tests. Other studies suggest that depending on the type, video games can also increase scores on measures of working memory (the ability to hold several items of information in mind at once), critical thinking, and problem solving. In addition, there is growing evidence that kids who previously showed little interest in reading and writing are now acquiring advanced literacy skills through the text-based communication in online video games. And . . . there is at least some evidence that playing high-action, emotion-arousing games helps young people learn to regulate their emotions in stressful situations. . . . frequent video game players are, on average, better adjusted socially than their nonplaying peers.”
But I have to say, the bulk of our technology use is not even in what I sometimes refer to as brain candy, but in practical application. My children use my phone to look up answers to their questions while in a museum. They take photos while on nature hikes that they study more at home. They grab phone numbers, find hours and directions, locate areas of curiosity on maps, look up possible activities and experiences, etc. Their iPads (read more on those here) allow for tremendous independence around things like managing our family schedule, their money, weather, communication with friends, and apps that help to scaffold their learning (like Epic, an app that provides access to the world’s library of books while including options like read alongs and audio books). This is modern life skill fluency at its finest. I don’t need to provide all the answers for them. I just provide the means and access and they develop the skills to tap into the world themselves.
If you feel out of balance with screens, instead of focusing on taking away, focus on replacing, with more role modeling, opportunity, socialization, and freedom. If you notice a game, app, or show is not bringing out the best in your child, talk about that with them and remove it (and you role model the same decision making with other things). If you feel like screens have become your family’s default setting, then go on a fast. Spend 2 weeks with no screens and see what fills in the space. Once you have new habits in place, you can reintegrate the aspects of technology you find valuable (as a family, not merely top down). Remember that if you do all the regulating, then you deprive your child of the opportunity to learn to regulate themselves (and this is true across the board). If you use screens in a system of punishments then you create a forbidden fruit dynamic that focuses your child on acquiring as much screen time as possible.
Technology is one material planted in my children’s playscape for them to utilize in self-directed ways to foster skills through play. My role is to collaboratively (truly, with them) create a lifestyle that we love, in which we can all thrive.
“Kids in today’s world need to become highly skilled with computers, just as hunter-gatherer kids needed to become highly skilled with bows and arrows or digging sticks. To develop such skills, they need freedom and opportunity to play with computers, the primary tools of today. But for healthy development, they also need freedom and opportunity to play outdoors, away from the house, with other kids. They key words here are freedom and opportunity – not coercion.”
-Peter Gray, Free to Learn