One of my least favorite roles as a parent is Bad Cop. Yes, I realize someone has to do it. I understand kids need boundaries. But it’s so much better to be The Fun Mom. The Mom who allows Popsicles (only 100% fruit, of course) at 10am on a summer morning and thinks mandatory afternoon ice cream breaks are totally acceptable.
As this year’s summer vacation rapidly approaches, I am thinking about how my 8-year-old and I will spend our 56 weekdays together (yes, I counted). We will have a trip which will take up 9 of those days. Fifteen of those days he is signed up for day camps, and on 10 others, we’ll be heading to classes or lessons for part of the day. That still leaves a whole lot of summer.
I’m excited to have the chance to go to the pool, take day trips and plan spontaneous outings. While I’m grateful that my work schedule slows down, I will need to spend some time each day on the computer. I know we will need some down time. Some afternoons it just seems too hot to think about going out.
Enter the modern parent’s crutch: screen time.
By no means am I judging any other parents who ditch the idea of screen time limits over the summer. I get it. Maybe you have swim team all morning and your kids just want to veg in the afternoon. Perhaps you need a few uninterrupted hours to finish up a project. It could be that the only thing keeping the siblings from a physical altercation is a little time on the iPad.
My son recently discovered Chima Online, which is a MMO (massive multiplayer online) LEGO-themed game. As with all things LEGO, he immediately became obsessed with the game and talked about it every waking minute. As a parent of a (rare) kid who has never expressed much interest in Minecraft, this has been our first foray into video gaming. While it’s been pretty benign, I had an epiphany as I was making dinner a few weeks ago.
My son was using his screen time (loosely defined, as it was rarely more than an hour or so on a weekday and never interfered with his other responsibilities) while I was cooking. “Oh, I’m so glad I got that new weapon. I can now kill a Croc in one hit!” he shared, excitedly. “Oh…great.” I couldn’t mask my disdain, but my son didn’t seem to notice. “Mom! I just made a friend!” he gushed. “WHAT?!” I responded. My mind was flooded with thoughts about online predators and my-kid-is-only-8-how-can-he-have-a-friend-online? Perhaps it wasn’t wise to just click on Accept to the emailed request I received to allow my son to play the game. That night, I made some decisions:
We will have screen time limits over the summer. I want to enjoy spending time with my kid and not have either of us tethered to a device for long stretches of time.
We will have a digital contract for all our family to sign. This will help establish some healthy habits early and help jump start my child’s online literacy.
I will invest in a time limiting software to help manage screen time. “Five more minutes!”, “Just one more show!” and “Let me finish this level!” are common phrases which routinely raise the blood pressure of parents and I think paying to preserve my summer sanity is entirely worth it. Plus, I want help with consistency.
I will research any games my son plays (before he begins playing them) to set any necessary parental controls. While I do understand that he may stumble upon content and/or situations which are not appropriate, I want to ease him in and help protect him while he is younger.
I should mention here that my kid has never been very interested in movies or TV, beyond 30 minute shows, so most of my focus here is on the time he spends online, although for limits, I plan to include all types of screen time.
Although this is still a work in progress (and we have two more days of school…ack!), I am thinking that my son will have 30 minutes of screen time each day. While this doesn’t sound like a lot, he will be able to earn more time by either completing chores (above and beyond what he normally does) or reading. Screen time will include time on the laptop, TV and watching movies or videos. At this point, I am thinking the maximum time each day he can spend online will be two hours. If we decide to go to a movie with friends one day, I will probably still allow 30 minutes of screen time, but not much more.
Drafting a digital contract
Most contracts developed for children around the use of technology are geared towards older children, but I didn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t introduce a contract now. After searching online, I came up with a contract which works for our family, cut and pasted from a variety of places. In it, I covered:
- Never providing his name, address, phone number, photos or any other identifying information to someone online
- Not responding to messages which are mean and notifying an adult if that happens
- Never paying for access to special “areas” which cost money (or downloading software) without discussing it with a parent
- Respecting screen time limits and ensuring screen time is not interfering with other responsibilities
- Sharing with parents about fun things to do online (it’s a two way street, after all, and a little interest in what your kid is up to goes a long way)
- Not being mean online
- Not playing games or visiting sites parents prohibit, in our home or at friends’
I had to spend some time explaining a few of these in a way my kid could understand, and hopefully we can continue the conversation over time and as he has more experience online. I attached the contract to the bulletin board just above the laptop my son primarily uses so we can refer back to it as needed.
Investing in time limiting software
I know myself, and if I’m upstairs while my son is having his computer time and our oven timer will go off, I will ignore it. I will keep answering my emails, just like my son will keep begging to have more time online. I will wear down if I’m tired and say “yes” to screen time when I really don’t want to. These are just a few reasons I decided to investigate time limiting software.
Luckily, many of these programs offer free trials. (I should mention that some routers come with different parental controls. Since we recently replaced our router, I didn’t investigate this option more). A friend uses and recommended ComputerTime, so I tested that out first. You can set limits for each child per day, week or month. You can also determine what hours of the day your child can use the computer. Limits can be set across your network, too. “Time Tokens” can allow your child extra computer time. A disembodied voice tells your child when he or she has 15, 10, 5 and one minute of time remaining. My son understandably chafed at the limits and told me he thought the computer voice was “creepy”.
After coming across this article, we tested out KidsWatch. In addition to setting time limits for each child, KidsWatch gives you the option of receiving an email telling you how your kids spend their online time. For us, this is not necessary and seemed a little overboard, but I can see how it might work for other families. Administrators can choose recommended limits/restrictions, based on a child’s age, or come up with their own. KidsWatch offered more features overall, but it’s unclear whether I would take advantage of many of them. In the end, KidsWatch was a little cheaper. Other programs I had heard recommended are Net Nanny and Mobicip. Net Nanny has no free trial, but Mobicip offers its Basic service for free. For now, I’m leaning towards KidsWatch, although we are still on our free trial so I’d like a little more time to test it out before we make a decision.
Researching parental controls
Of course, I am no parenting expert, nor am I an expert on online gaming or kids’ websites, but I’ll use tools like the CommonSense Media app to determine which games and websites are age appropriate. Before I allow my son to play a game online, I will research the parental controls and restrict my son’s ability to go into chat areas and have other players contact him (for now, at least). I’ll revisit these as he grows older.
No parent I know relishes the idea of setting up screen time limits. Frankly, it’s exhausting to do the research, and, most importantly, to follow through. We all need breaks from time to time, and technology makes it (perhaps too) easy to give our kids down time which is digital in nature. I have no way of knowing how our summer will go, but I do feel good knowing that I put some effort into thinking about what my goals are, so we can hopefully start off the summer on the right foot and keep screen time to a level that I feel good about. It is vacation, after all, but for me, that means adventures, laughter, flashlight tag, stories, inside jokes, inventions, splashing, sno cone mustaches, experiments and spending time together…IRL (in real life).
Do you have screen time limits? If so, what are your plans for the summer?
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.livemom.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Nicole-Basham-Sara-Marzani-Photography-livemom.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 8-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau’s words, her mission is to “suck out all the marrow of life”, or in her son’s words, to cultivate in him a love of “advenchers”.[/author_info] [/author]