Why I no longer police my child's screen usage

8 January 2015

Dear Friend,

Is it a current trend that parents feel the need to justify their choices to others? I am sure that in my parents day nobody told them how to bring us up (except the interfering mother-in-law) and I am sure that if someone had dared to criticize my dad's parenting skills he'd have told them in no uncertain terms where to go. So why do we accept it now?

I have lost count of the conversations I have had with friends and colleagues where we have mentioned children watching TV or using iPads or games consoles and they have felt the need to qualify it with a ...but we monitor/limit how much they can play. (I have said this myself.) But really, honestly, I don't care!

Since adopting my New Years resolution (to quit my Facebook obsession) I have begun to think about my kids screen time. Big lad's play has never been typical it mostly involved lining things up and ordering things (early indications of his ASD) he liked puzzles and memory games and from a very young age he loved TV and we watched CBeebies and Thomas the tank engine or Bob the Builder on repeat. We went to an international play group with well educated largely middle/upper class parents. The general consensus was that TV should be strictly limited or not watched at all. When friends came for coffee the TV went out. I hid my sons TV habit like an addiction.

Next came the game consoles. First the small handheld things and later attached to the TV. Big lad was hooked. Our world became filled with Mario and Skylanders. Again the screen time dilema raised its ugly head. I tried believe me. I wanted him to have a balanced diet of play. I took advice from the psychologist. First I built it into Big lad's schedule (visual timetable) but he raced through some tasks to get to the computer. I built in timescales e.g. half an hour at least doing puzzles/drawing etc then computer. He just laid on the sofa doing nothing until it was computer time. I limited the computer time 2 x 30 minutes per day. I tied myself in knots one holiday organizing "fun" activities for us to do. On good weather days we could get out for bike rides, walk the dog, go to the park. Very often he would ask; when I go home can I play on my Computer? Or can we go home now I want to play with my computer? I bought toys, building materials, made play dough, got cook books etc And made any number of cards for visual schedules. Why was I doing this and who for?

One day we went to a friends for coffee and the big lad asked to play on the computer but wasn't allowed because her son had had his screen time for the day. He kept coming downstairs and said there was nothing to play with. My friend rather abruptly told him that there were loads of toys up there to play with. I kept my cool as I tried to explain that without adult support the big lad can not play as he does not have the self organisational skills to choose a toy out of the cupboard and that he does not have the motor planning or motor skills to build a train track etc I felt like my parenting skills were being judged. I made an excuse and we left pretty quickly before I ruined another friendship.

Finally, I have admitted defeat. My husband was right the ridiculously expensive robot dog we bought for Sinterklaas was a waste of money and will sit unplayed with in the cupboard. We should have stuck to computer games and board games that are well played with and worth every penny. The big lad overheard this discussion and his response was very enlightening; I am sorry, I will play with my other toys, I just really love playing on the computer and nothing else gives me a good feeling like that. I just feel good when I play on the computer.

I am well aware of the recommendations from Nice that screen time is limited to 1-2 hours per day. However, I think this is totally unrealistic in today's modern technological world. I also do not agree with blanket rules being applied to people regardless of their circumstances. Children have different needs and different interests. Some obsess with Lego, Star Wars or comic books, do we limit that? Being "good at" computer games has actually benefited the big lad socially as it has given him greater confidence and provided a common interest to share with friends.

My Christmas holiday was one of the most relaxing I've ever had because I didn't obsess about screen time. I had one rule, no computers after dinner. Surprisingly my big lad didn't spend all day on the computer. He limited his own time (more so as the holiday progressed). He choose to call for friends, walk the dog and asked to go to an indoor play area. He started to ask, what shall we do today? A step towards self organization, a huge achievement! Did we stick to the guidelines? No! But we did find something that works for us!

So let the critics begin. I've read the articles and there are some that tell parents ...be parents, step up to the plate, make the difficult decisions. I don't need high profile people to tell me what is right for my family and find it ironic that people like Steve Jobs didn't allow his kids to use iPads. Others err on the side of caution and common sense. What gives anybody the right to judge? Parents are after all are as different as their children.

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