My Love-Hate Relationship With Screen Time
This week is “Screen-Free” week.
Or around here, “Feel Like A Bad Mom” week.
When I think about the amount of time my children spend on screens, my head hurts.
The assurance that I am absolutely doing the wrong thing.
The feeling that good mommas would never…
The truth is, I sometimes hate screen time. I see the effect it has been known to have on my children and others. I also see the effect that getting outside, being in nature, and just moving has on my children and others.
So why do I allow it, more than the ‘average mom?’
Because the truth is, there are real, very tangible benefits to “screen time” that matter more to me than the detriments.
I know this is not a popular, or even widely held view. In fact, I am a little nervous to even share this today. But every year, the ever lovin’ “Screen Free Week” happens, and every year I freak out about it, feel guilty, and we fail the screen free test miserably.
This year, I have decided instead, to acknowledge and intentionally define why our family has chosen a different screen time path.
1. My family has unique educational needs that make screen time a fabulous tool.
I have two sons, ages 12 and 9.
My oldest son has autism and massive anxiety that is exacerbated by sensory processing issues. The best way for him to learn anything is in complete silence. Even the sound of another person’s pencil on a piece of paper is enough to cause major stress and drama.
My voice can ring in his ears after just a very short lesson.
But watching a quick You-Tube video on Peru for example, and then finding various websites to research and learn? This has made my son a serious expert in all things Peruvian, including native plants, animals, topography, geography, the different cultures within Peru, travel and tourism, and more.
Because he could do it at his own pace, and in a way that works well with his sensory needs, the iPad acted as his primary teacher for all of this (with me merely checking in from time to time to see how he is doing). His sixth grade country report is wonderful – and by the way, he completed the report in PowerPoint, without my help. Yet another screen, yet another advantage for him.
This same child also has an auto-immune disorder that creates massive joint and nerve pain, making him sometimes so fatigued that he literally cannot get out of bed. On the bad days, he still completes some “learning”. I come and lie down with him, and we watch You-Tube videos together. Is it ideal? No. But it keeps him engaged on days that are so very tough for him, physically and emotionally.
My youngest son has a different set of educational needs. He has profound dyslexia and a processing disorder. He is on the screens much less, but mostly because he is naturally a very active child. He enjoys everything about the outdoors and given the choice, would much rather put down the iPad, and go out and bounce on the trampoline.
Still, Minecraft has been a very effective tool to help him with spelling and reading. We use it to practice typing sentences and commands. He thinks he is merely playing a game, and I see the progress he makes when he is not so anxious about his lack of reading ability.
For my youngest, I find I am actually intentionally finding ways to incorporate screens into his learning. Educational apps and learning games are age appropriate for my nine-year old barely reading at a second grade level. Books are still a part of his learning, of course, but most in his reading level are babyish and dull. They cause so much more self-doubt and anxiety than any screen ever could.
2. There are very few people who can easily babysit my boys.
So this is a selfish benefit, but a screen time benefit just the same.
With my children’s unique needs, there are only a handful of people we know can handle them well. And when we do get someone to watch them, it’s so we can go out for the evening, or get much-needed errands done.
The truth is, sometimes, screens help me get the laundry folded in peace.
Sometimes, they keep my youngest safe and distracted when his older brother is violently melting down.
Sometimes, they let me take a quick nap when I have been up since 3:30 in the morning with an anxiety ridden child.
It’s not ideal, but it works and we are all better because of it.
3. We do have limits, but on when to take breaks and on content, not overall time spent on the screen.
In our family, we have specific limits on content. We do not allow mature rated video games and often talk to our boys about not electronically training their minds to be violent.
We also do not allow them to speak and interact with each other any differently than they would while playing outside together. This includes language, not helping each other out, and name calling. The boys can now recite my mantras – ‘There May Be A Screen Between You, but Your Brother Is Still Your Brother On The Other Side’ and ‘Real People Matter More Than The Electronic Ones’.
We also encourage frequent and regular breaks. Similar to what I employed when I worked in an office setting, I encourage my sons to get up and get out regularly, thereby avoiding long stretches of screen time. Sometimes, they hurry through whatever task or outdoor activity I ask them to do. Other times, they get totally caught up in something else and do not return to the screen. Either way, this seems to dramatically lessen the wild hyperactivity or aggression that can sometimes occur from too much time spent staring at a screen.
When all is said and done, this is just what works for us. Every family is different, and I trust your decisions to be what is best for yours.
Clearly my children’s needs are unique, but I think in any family, being intentional about screen time can be just as beneficial as eliminating it all together.
And with that, I must go.
I need to shut down my screen and prepare to make lemon bars with my son. He found the recipe on a YouTube channel and is looking forward to trying them.
Happy “Screen Free”, or “Screens Sometimes“, or “Screens Gone Wild” week to you and yours.
Shawna Wingert is a special education teacher turned educational consultant, and mom of two brilliant boys who have learning differences and special needs.
Shawna has also written four books: Everyday Autism, Special Education at Home, Parenting Chaos, and Homeschooling Your Child With Special Needs. A passionate advocate for individualized education, Shawna is frequently featured on Today.com, Simple Homeschool, Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers and The Mighty. She can also be found supporting parents online at her own site, DifferentByDesignLearning.com.