We loved engaging with many of you last week during our Live Q&A on Raising Kids in a Digital World. You can still find the video here. Keep the questions coming and let us know the topics you are most interested in. We will be planning more live events soon!
Below you will find the next excerpt from our book-in-progress: Who’s Raising Our Kids? Nurturing Human Values in a Digital World (©2017). Over the last few months, we have posted excerpts on how media technology (MT) shapes our children’s understanding of and access to communication and information. In this next excerpt, we explore the world of 24/7 entertainment.
Sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, I watch a stressed-out Dad, with two arguing kids in tow, try to fill out a medical form. “Sit down, stop talking, and just play something on your phone!” he barks. The kids, about 7 and 9, whip out their phones and peace is restored.
Instant babysitter. But who exactly did he just hire to watch his kids?
In a world where we are always accessible, where the workday never ends, let’s forgive ourselves for using cheap childcare to help us keep our sanity. At the same time, let’s look at the price we pay when we become dependent on screens to get through the day and when we have no idea who’s entertaining our kids.
“How much screen time is okay for my kids?” is the question I hear most from parents. But it’s the wrong question.
It’s not “how much is too much;” it’s the quality of the environment that you’ve sent them to and what they are doing, experiencing, and learning when they are there. It’s also about what they are not doing, experiencing, and learning because they’ve escaped into the cyber world.
Online entertainment comes in all shapes and sizes from a quick game of Angry Birds© to World of Warcraft©, from a Netflix movie watched on your smartphone under the covers to porn. Having 24/7 access to entertainment changes how we live and—although much of it is harmless—all of it deserves to be consciously examined.
In my private practice, I see young people who do not stop gaming except to eat, sleep, and see me for one hour a week; panicked parents who just checked their browser history and realized their eight-year-old has been regularly accessing porn; and distraught moms whose husbands spend the precious few hours they have at home playing online Texas Hold’em©. How many couples have I seen in my office, complaining that tablets have ruined the precious time they have before bed!
Yes, we need a plan for our children…and for ourselves. We begin by acknowledging that the internet has fundamentally changed how we understand and engage with entertainment.
Pre-internet access to entertainment required some degree of effort and was dictated by when we could find the time. With the exception of music, we had to wait until there was a break in our work or school schedule before we could play a game, go bowling, or watch TV. It was easy enough to follow the old adage “work before play.”
In this new cyber world our time is much less structured. Work and play exist in the palm or our hands; always available. The decision of whether or not to play is constant. The cyber world ceaselessly beckons us to enter a different environment, an easy escape from the minute-to-minute reality of our lives. A quick game of Candy Crush© while waiting in the checkout line, a YouTube video in the hallway at school, a movie in the car on the way to Grandma’s, a few games of Spider Solitaire© before going to sleep. In a stressful world, it’s comforting to know that there is always someplace we can go—for a minute or two—if we don’t want to be where we are. Each engagement is harmless enough, but cumulatively these intermittent moments change our experience of life.
No child will be injured by watching a movie in the car. But given the few precious moments we have with our kids, and the even fewer moments kids have to fantasize and daydream, what are they missing when we plug them in? That bickering we’re trying to avoid by handing them an iPad or turning on a video is an important part of figuring out how to resolve conflict. In this new world, too often the life lesson they are learning is when things get tough, distract yourself.
Living in a world where we are always free to access entertainment demands the capacity to reflect on why we are choosing to escape, especially if attending to the moment we’re in would better serve us. We can start by reflecting on when and why we access online entertainment. Are we using it to inspire us? Distract us? Fill a moment devoid of stimulation? Buffer an awkward situation? Relax?
Never before have we had to dissect our behavior like this and it’s hard enough for adults. But it would be crazy to think that a child or teen with a developing brain, could come close to this level of insight and discrimination. Kids have a hard time stopping anything that’s fun, and online entertainment is a very different kind of fun.
This is particularly true of gaming. Online gaming is a carefully constructed world with its own rules, rewards for winning, incessant sounds that signify success or failure, and one overriding purpose: to keep our kids playing. Ads for games even brag about being “the most addictive ever.” It’s important for parents to know that this is literally true. With the help of neuroscientists, games are carefully constructed to simulate the reward patterns associated with drug addiction.
Our kids stay in these environments for hours at a time, learning what’s funny, acceptable, embarrassing, what it means to be a “winner,” and what the culture expects of a man and a woman.