We need help navigating screen limits for our 12 year old.
November 13, 2017 5:55 PM   Subscribe

We have been worried for years, tried to impose limits without success. We need help.

We don't model great screen limits for him. We have a tough time sticking to rules. I recently read Jean Twenge's article in the Atlantic, "Have Smartphones destroyed a generation?" and it really got to me.
We are a family of four, mom, dad, two boys 12 and 9. Our 9 year old is better at taking breaks and staying active. Our 12 year old most enjoys gaming on his computer. In particular, he loves Overwatch.
On a weekend, he could spend 8 hours online each day. If he isn't doing an after school activity, he might spend up to 4 hours on a week night. It feels like too much to my husband and me. His pediatrician recommended a max of two 90 minute blocks on weekends. We all struggled with that. My husband and I both work full time and my husband is also in school. We are all busy and tired. It is a challenge to stick to such a strict rule (in my opinion).
From the limited reading I have done, there aren't true guidelines or recommendations. It seems like the advice is that it depends on the kid and the family.
Do you all have strategies that work? Advice on how to determine a reasonable limit?
We are pretty miserable and stuck and not making headway. We are in family therapy too, but just starting out. We also try to take family walks and trips and create off screen time, but we need everyday strategies as well.
posted by peeps! to Human Relations (19 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
my kids get screen time before 9am on weekends and that's it. They can choose what screentime (TV, videogame, etc.) It sounds like your boys want a lot more than that; maybe for you it would be something like "until noon" or whatever. All I can say is that consistent, objective standard is what works for us. Subjectivity/flexibility was a nonstarter.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:04 PM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I would look at this positively (do fun stuff) rather than negatively (don’t look at computer/game/iPad/tv)

Can you take family walks everyday? How about reading cool books to your kids? Or listen to an album? Or spend an hour or so making dinner as a family? Or exercising as a group?

Just spitballing, I don’t know what will work well for your fam but I suspect you’re right that it will depend on modeling limits.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:07 PM on November 13, 2017 [7 favorites]

I'm not one as much for judging screen time as much as what he's doing, but I was a weird millennial kid writing and reading fan fiction, building websites, chatting about hobbies, and some gaming but more the former. It was social and it was skill building. (I built my first website at 12)

Ultimately, as an adult these teenage activities helped me build a career, express myself, compose writings way better but it drove my parents crazy I spent time so much time on the computer.

Some kids do need limits and you are the parent. First off identify what about screen time bothers you and then what do you want him to do instead. Is it responsibility? (Chores, homework, ect) then maybe base time in completing activities. Is it that you want your child to be more active? How can you encourage that? Do you need to pay for a sport or club or music lessons? Do you want to promote some sort of activism or community engagement? How can you help him volunteer. Do you want him to be social? Because most people do have their gaming friendships, chat online and such. Maybe he and his friend should play together at your house?

He is 12 so putting a limit on screen time without a replacement activity is just going to lead to resentment and him spending time to get around your rules. He can't go out on his own much, can't drive and has no income. You have to help him have other options too.

But make sure you know what he's doing on the computer and what he is getting out of it.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:20 PM on November 13, 2017 [36 favorites]

I grew up in the first generation of home computers (but pre-iPads/iPhones), before parental content filters and limits on "screen time" were a commonplace thing. Starting in middle school I probably spent an average of 4 hours on the computer on week nights, more on weekends; I still do, as an adult. Of course YMMV, everyone and every kid is different, but I turned out fine both as a teenager (straight A's in high school while really into an online RPG, got into a "good" college) and now.

How to determine a reasonable limit: I'm a fan of giving your kids the same rules that you follow yourselves, unless there's a very good reason otherwise. So how much screen time do *you* spend on weekdays? On weekends? Start with that limit, for the whole family. Even if the limit is 6 hours instead of 8 on weekends. Be realistic about how much time you spend yourself, and consider whether that amount of time is really destroying your soul or whatever. If it's not harming you, don't automatically assume that it will harm your kids.
posted by serelliya at 6:33 PM on November 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

My wife and I have these discussions all the time. They're not that different to discussions our parents probably had about TV. However, they're also tainted by equating attitudes and studies about TV with the pros and cons of using a computer. Yes, they both involve screens, but one is entirely passive, and the other doesn't need to be.

If the concern is about exercise, then set targets to increase exercise, not reduce screen time. Tap into that nerd gamer instinct with geocaching, or apps that have you running away from zombies, or even just a pedometer. (Fellow parents have had mixed results using a pedometer to 'buy' screen minutes.)

If the concern is about socialisation, schedule more play dates. I don't mind if the kids are having fun on the screen if they're also laughing with their friends.

If the concern is about passive viewing (ie, their brain turning to mush), then set targets for what the computer can be used for. For example, we draw a distinction between the boys using the Mac and PS4 to do active things (eg, building their Minecraft worlds, playing a game together, learning Scratch), useful things (eg watching something educational on YouTube - preferably a 'how to', that will drive non-screen activities, like making a costume or doing a science experiment), and 'idiot box' time, which is watching muppets with blue hair play games on YouTube, and Netflix. If they're on the screen, it's much easier to say 'is that active, useful, or idiot box?' and they quickly switch.

My wife is an educator, and has an almost puritanical aversion to 'the screen'. But this isn't like the 80s where we zoned out and watched cartoons with our brains switched off. 'They could be reading', she says, and I say lying on their bed for eight hours reading The Lord of the Rings like I did isn't exactly conducive to cardiovascular health either. 'They could be playing a board game', she says, but how is that really different from enjoying something like Terraria together?

Ultimately, ask yourself whether your kiddo is happy, healthy, and engaged. If they are, don't stress too much. Be careful of making 'virtue' judgements about what's a good thing to do while sitting down (The Hardy Boys!) vs bad (Super Mario!), so long as they're using their brains and getting enough social contact.

Involve him in the discussions. 'How much time do you think you spend on the PC? Let's start keeping a log. Do you think that is a lot of time or not a lot? What if we broke it up a bit? What's something you could do here instead? And when you are on the screen, what's something you could do besides Overwatch? How about learning to make foam board Overwatch armour and weapons?'
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:34 PM on November 13, 2017 [28 favorites]

I have 2 boys, ages 14 and 11, and this all sounds familiar. Both my sons spend a comparable amount of time on the computer.

Honestly, I am ok with it. My husband and I spend a lot of time on the computer too, both for work and recreation. It's been a way I've connected with my kids. We've gamed with them, watched videos with them, and had some interesting conversations about gender and representation and stereotypes and harassment online that would not have arisen without all the computer time. Both my kids are reasonably fit and have friends and do their chores and homework (mostly). If one of those areas was lacking, I'd address this.

But I'm not convinced that screen time is, in itself, the problem that a lot of people think it is. For one thing, "screen time" is not one monolithic thing. My younger son has used youtube to teach himself a variety of skills - playing the keyboard, a lot of magic tricks, and currently he's on a drawing kick. My older son has learned some programming, because that's what his interest is. And a lot of gaming. But some of it is actually quite intellectually stimulating - he plays a game called Town of Salem that's like Mafia (find the bad guys, hidden info) and it's a big complicated logic puzzle. I could think of worse ways for him to spend his time.

We keep the computers in the living room with the screens visible to the whole room, mostly because I don't want them watching raunchy stuff and it helps to know your mom is potentially looking over your shoulder at all times. We generally know what they are doing online.

I think there are lots of ways to connect with your kids and learn from their online interests, and personally that has worked waaaay better in my house than limiting screen time ever would.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:38 PM on November 13, 2017 [10 favorites]

On a weekend, he could spend 8 hours online each day. If he isn't doing an after school activity, he might spend up to 4 hours on a week night. It feels like too much to my husband and me.

At 12 I would honestly put this to your 12 year old and ask him what he thinks you could all do as a family to cut the screen time down.

My 12 year old was having trouble doing homework on Sundays in particular -- a lot of his work is submitted via Google classroom and I'd find him on YouTube. I put the problem to him and he came up with various strategies, some of which did not work and some of which did. He actually put stricter limits on himself than I was thinking of.

I also agree with addressing the things you want more than the things you don't want. How can he be more active physically, more active mentally, more social, etc. Sometimes I think kids in the pre-teen years are really looking for responsibility and they just find it in weird ways like taking charge of something online/controlling things via a game/etc. Maybe if you are a busy family and he's not at afterschool activities he could take on some carefully chosen food prep or join a service club or something. That might give hime other reasons to step away from the screen.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:00 PM on November 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

As a professor that works on technology, that Atlantic article was bullshit.
Sonia Livingstone's work is far better. Start here.
posted by k8t at 7:42 PM on November 13, 2017 [21 favorites]

From that link:

parents could consider whether their children are:

Eating and sleeping enough
Physically healthy
Connecting socially with friends and family – through technology or otherwise
Engaged in school
Enjoying and pursuing hobbies and interests – through technology or beyond
If the answer to these questions is more or less ‘yes’, then perhaps the problem of ‘screen time’ is less dramatic than many parents have been led to believe.
posted by k8t at 7:43 PM on November 13, 2017 [14 favorites]

It is all about scheduling alternatives and having family alternatives.
posted by AugustWest at 8:37 PM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is an interesting conversation, I say as the parent of a toddler who is already really into Sesame Street, leaving me wondering the same thing.

There's an interesting example of a parent figuring this out with a kid in Ross Greene's Raising Human Beings. The book is all about how to work out solutions with your kid as opposed to imposing them on your kid. I know parenting books are utopian fiction, but it might be worth a quick skim.
posted by slidell at 8:58 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

(By the way, I didn't mean to imply that you were planning to impose a solution on your kids. The "as opposed to" bit was just my way of clearly explaining the book, not a reference to anything you wrote.)
posted by slidell at 9:04 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I can't truly speak to whether or not screen time is detrimental; I grew up with video games (albeit old crappy ones) and I was online at 17. 10+ years later, I do credit it with some of my accomplishments, but it was also an easy way to be constantly distracted and lead me to procrastinate far too much. As someone with an addictive personality, this affects me today. I'm not sure how to cope with this, or to encourage restraint in a kid that loves screen time, but I feel that in hindsight, the most helpful thing for my parents could have done to help me would probably have been to get some therapy or something. Being given the tools to help me autonomously make the decision to disengage, as well as make wiser decisions in general and not constantly look to escapism and be a slave of my desires-- for me, at least, screen time was a way of forgetting my problems and pressures and not dealing with life, and I imagine that it's the same way for a lot of people. Doing this, probably would have helped me a lot more-- as opposed to forcing me to disengage by shutting off my PC or whatever, which made me very resentful at the time and didn't work anyway.

But mostly, I want to talk about Overwatch. I think twelve is probably too young for Overwatch, or rather any kind of PvP (player vs player) game. I speak as someone who plays Overwatch-- every single facet of the game is designed to be addictive, from the adrenaline fueled competitive matches, to the loot boxes that are basically just gambling. It's also very easy to take it too seriously and get irrationally angry when you lose or your team is doing badly. There's a lot of anger (they call it 'saltiness' in OW). And It's also a pretty toxic, misogynistic and racist environment, especially on PC where people voice chat a lot. I play on console, and it's still pretty toxic at times. Of course, there are nice people too, but even then there's still casual racism and sexism. If you wanna see the kind of stuff that goes into chat, just really watch any competitive Overwatch video, and you'll see what I mean. While there are nice people, there's still a lot of casual racism and sexism, and it can get totally, angry, ugly and disrespectful and it's very hard for a parent to monitor. As an adult female, I don't like it myself, I often am treated badly because of my gender and I wouldn't want to subject my kid to it this young. Maybe if he's mature for his age, but if he's impressionable at all, please be careful with it. It's not a great, healthy environment.

And, as I said above, the game is highly addictive. Like extremely so. I noticed myself getting addicted to it, because the adrenaline rush of fighting actual real people, and the short and fast nature of the matches, plus the promise of intermittent rewards make it easy to play game after game after game. It also encourages this, by leaving you in queue, so you don't stop playing. It makes you think 'just one more,' and it's very easy to play it for hours upon hours. So please be really careful with Overwatch and other types of pvp Hero Shooters and MOBAs, as they can have pretty toxic and addictive environments.

So If he must play, perhaps play with him or chaperone the games to see what he's up to and what kind of influences he's subjected to, and explain how calling people 'cucks' and stuff is not ok. Or just turn off voice chat if need be. But make sure you know what he's doing in OW. It's not just a typical video game.
posted by Dimes at 9:59 PM on November 13, 2017 [13 favorites]

I would absolutely make sure voice chat is turned off for any multiplayer online game. I don't know if you can disable text chat too on PC but do that too if possible. It's fine if he's playing with friends, they can be in a private voice chat together and not hear the rest of the players.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:20 AM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thank you! So many best answers and great things to think about. Sonia Livingstone’s work looks really helpful too. And thank you Dimes for the specifics about Overwatch, illuminating to a non gamer.
posted by peeps! at 5:58 AM on November 14, 2017

I think twelve is probably too young for Overwatch, or rather any kind of PvP (player vs player) game.

I came here to say this. I'm old and I only play online PVP games entirely with squads of people I know and with everyone else muted. The voice chat is essentially the WORST 4chan thread you can imagine just shouted all the time. It's racist, sexist, homophobic and toxic as fuck. Lot of red-pill ALT right bullshit. And alt-right adds and links on player videos on youtube too.

Also it's a game like MoBAs (Dota or League of Legends) or Battle Royal (Playerunkown's Battlegrounds, H1Z1) games that is not only addictive, and has the serious loot box gambling problem. But it also requires a really high level of skill to both contribute to and have fun at, so NOT playing feels like an active loss. All the time you're away from the game your skills are warning and your opponents are getting sharper. It creates a really driving compulsion to play. Often compounded by a peer pressure not to let those your playing with down with your rusty play.

Whatever play time you agree is OK, the content of that time matters a lot, and these sorts of games are the darkest corners of this BS.
posted by French Fry at 9:02 AM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm not a parent, and I have no intention of ever being one, so this is not necessarily something I've spent as much time thinking about as others have -- but I do think it's worth considering this issue in relation to your child as an individual rather than looking at "screen time" as a monolith.
I can't truly speak to whether or not screen time is detrimental; I grew up with video games (albeit old crappy ones) and I was online at 17.
That's more or less me as well (although I was online a few years earlier than that). For me, "screen time" mostly consisted of video games (often solo RPGs -- I liked the stories -- but also various in-person multiplayer games with friends), teaching myself how to build websites, corresponding with friends, and what I can only think to briefly describe as turn-based, open-ended group story-writing. My stepfather made fun of my voracious reading habits enough to cause me to seek other avenues of retreat, and continued to find other ways to make me miserable thereafter; if not for these screen-based activities, I'm honestly not sure I would have made it through my teen years at least reasonably stable.

None of this is at all to suggest that your child has a home life like mine -- but rather that growing up is hard regardless of what specific things make it so, and not all screen time is equal. For me, it opened up social avenues that would not have otherwise been available to me, particularly before high school, and the writing and web skills (not to mention the skill of independent learning itself) that I developed during that time were absolutely important later on in life. I still probably could have stood to scale it back a bit at various points, but severe cuts when I was younger would have done more harm than good.
posted by cellar door at 10:07 AM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've been thinking lately about my own relationship to screens while taking a self-imposed twitter break. Ultimately, I think this is about pleasure, relaxation and fun. Pleasure in the sense that the next battle or micro dose of content pings that give us that dopamine or adrenaline rush--these aren't necessarily healthy for us. And we all need more than one way to feel good, to relax and to have fun. If your son's only outlet for these is playing video games, that's a problem.

What are you modelling for him in terms of how to relax, how to have fun and what you each take pleasure in doing? You mention that y'all are tired. Sometimes when we're tired or stressed, it's hard to even do something that is truly relaxing because we're just stretched too far. Do you ever think "I'm just gonna read one more article, then I'll be refreshed and ready for what's next." Is it actually working?

I had a childhood in the 80s and 90s pretty much free of screens--so little TV that I cannot relate to my cohort's memories of childhood shows. We got one channel in our rural location and I was only allowed to watch three shows or so. No computer because we couldn't afford one. Ditto for video games. I don't think that extreme is the answer either. It made it harder to relate to my peers at the time and I now find TV irresistible. I entertained myself by reading a lot, doing art/crafty projects, practicing a musical instrument and tromping around in the woods. I still read a lot, it's just mostly the internet. I still tromp around in the woods and do crafty/art things.

I'm kind of surprised that you didn't know what Overwatch was like from your follow-up comment... If your kid is spending hours upon hours doing something, you should ask to listen in and watch for a while. Don't be as extremely protective as my parents were, but a 12 year old still needs to be guided in terms of what is quality/okay to consume and what isn't. In terms of quality screen time, what about a family movie night on the weekend where each member gets to take turns picking what to watch? What about gaming together? Have you ever talked to your kid about stuff on the internet that is for lack of a better word, garbage?

In the end, it's your job as a parent to enforce rules, even if you don't model them. I like the idea of asking him for his input on what would be a reasonable amount of screen time, if he seems mature enough for that kind of thing. Limiting his game playing on a weeknight seems reasonable to me, like eating vegetables before dessert or not getting to stay up reading until midnight, no matter how good the book is.
posted by purple_bird at 4:57 PM on November 14, 2017

When he first expressed interest in Overwatch, I read parent reviews on Common Sense Media. They are very positive for age 10+. I just went back to check and that is still the case. A few months ago my son and I talked about female characters in the game and he described at length the powerful female characters. Tonight, we discussed the issues that Dimes raised and he insists he hasn’t encountered this. He has been raised with feminist values and we have zero tolerance for racism and homophobia in our home. I now realize that I need to see and hear the games in action to reconcile this differing information.
As I said at the end of the original post, we do actively work on non screen family activities, but we feel there is still too much daily screen for all of us.
Given the varying and lacking advice out there, I was hoping for insight into what real people are actually doing.
The posts have all been incredibly helpful in thinking through our family’s needs.
Thanks all again!
posted by peeps! at 6:56 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

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