Navigating Tricky Waters

Disclaimer: This post is full of strong personal opinions. We don’t for a minute think we have the whole balance-with-technology figured out. As you may have noticed in my farmlet post yesterday, we made a deliberate choice to provide our children with opportunities to develop life skills on the land. It’s kind of a lot of work and it costs significantly more than a device that would doubtless entertain them for hours. Did I mention that it’s a lot of work?

Part of my book selling job is doing research about reading versus technology. Thirty years ago it was couch potatoes and TV that distressed Mr. Usborne to the point of doing something radical like starting an educational book publishing company.


There used to be a place where the TV was plugged in and you had to go to that room and sit there. Now the devices go on a full charge and I see children everywhere, no longer just messing with their mom’s phone, but with their own kid-themed otter-skinned iPad minis. I see them sitting in grocery carts in that little kid spot, because they are little kids, but instead of visiting with their mom while they scoot past the lightbulb aisle, they are playing Candy Crush. They watch movies while traveling instead of looking out the windows and playing ABC. They swipe their screens at the doctor’s office and barely look up when their name is called. In fact, one local pediatrician’s office no longer has any children’s books on the end tables in the waiting room. They bow over their devices at museums, at concerts, at the park. They pitch fits if Santa doesn’t bring them the latest gadget and their parents think it is so funny that they take videos and post them on youtube. Even schools are moving toward all digital textbooks.

Aghhh. It is enough to make me want to hold signs and picket outside Bestbuy: Dangerous Items Sold Inside. Enter With Extreme Caution. Not really, but may I share some facts with you?

The University of Southern California did a 5 day test on a group of 6th graders. They split them into two groups. One was business as usual and the other group spent 5 days at a wilderness camp with no screen time at all. “Researchers found that the students who went to camp scored significantly higher when it came to reading facial emotions or other nonverbal cues than the students who continued to have access to their media devices.”

That is just one study. There are many obvious side effects of digital addictions: obesity, irregular sleep patterns (text alerts when you are falling asleep), behavioral issues (and they are not cute), damaged grey matter (brains of internet-addicted kids actually shrink significantly, proven by CAT scans), sensory overload and the accompanying boredom with all normal activities, disconnect in the neural pathways that aid survival in extreme situations, inability to do something as elementary as holding down a job.

“The majority of people we see with serious Internet addiction are gamers – people who spend long hours in roles in various games that cause them to disregard their obligations. I have seen people who stopped attending university lectures, failed their degrees or their marriages broke down because they were unable to emotionally connect with anything outside the game.”

I find this subject to be depressing. Technology is here. It’s not going away. How to navigate it is a huge part of parenting for any concerned mother or father. We cannot bend low before popular opinion and pile stuff on our children that will cripple them for real life. Yet we cannot all move to the bush and fish for our dinner cooked over a campfire.

It is also encouraging to read the studies and hear a growing crowd of parents say, “We cut out screen time because we got so tired of the results.” There has been a lot of media coverage, also known as ALARM, about the effects of too much digital doodoo, and people are waking up and putting their feet down firmly and children are wailing about it, but they won’t when they survive a disaster because their wits have not been fried in infancy.

Figuring out how this works in our family has given Gabe and I fodder for many long discussions. Our children do DVD school for all the main subjects. We figure that gives them more than enough time in front of a flickering screen. One night a week is designated as movie night, which is usually something everybody can enjoy if they aren’t too miffed about another documentary. We have some copies of DVDs that they watch with permission, although Addy would never tire of Flo-the Lying Fly and Buzby-the Misbehaving Bee.

We decided years ago to put passwords on all our devices with internet connections. The children can do research in the living room with permission and we have a laptop that the boys use to do keyboarding practice or to write papers. This is a recent addition and one that taught us the value of a really tight filter. Our goal is to teach them that accountability is freedom and power. Somehow it doesn’t seem like a knee-jerk reaction of “if it requires a cord, we won’t have it” is going to provide them with the tools they need as adults in a computerized world.

We don’t really know how to answer the phone question. Our house phone is a little Trac-fone that the children can use, but we see no reason for smart phones for a very long time to come. This is a sore point for the teen in the house, but he is trying to understand our views. Many times we tell our sons that we are finding our way, just like they are. As for now, a smart phone that is taken to the privacy of a bedroom seems like handing them some sticks of dynamite with the fuses already lit. It’s not like the children want to become casualties, and maybe it’s just time for parents to say, “Enough with the maiming and dying. We aren’t putting that dynamite in our children’s hands.”

Our Kindle Fire has some games on it. The standard time for playing is 30 minutes. When there are five people taking turns and the timer beeps, trust me, there is not a lot of grace for longer than a half hour. They police each other very diligently. I made a flow chart this winter that they are need to go through before they come to have the password put in. It looks like this, which is to say, customized and unprofessional, but it works for us.


There are many days when no one uses the Kindle unless it is to listen to audiobooks while folding laundry. And there are times when we bend the rules. The requirements change from season to season. Sometimes when there is too much whining going on, everybody fasts for 2 weeks.

This is not the way of least resistance. Our children do not naturally desire disciplines. They don’t prefer work to leisure, especially not that glittering world of make-believe. They would eat candy and drink pop all day if we allowed it. They wouldn’t bother to write neatly if we didn’t give them penmanship copywork. In so many areas we can easily see where we just need to be the parent and say, “No more sugar today.” Why is it any different to do that with the allure of technology?

(I am aware of the inconsistency of making rules for the children that I do not abide by myself. Ow.)

I would love to hear how you decide on a wise course for your family and yourself.

Tomorrow’s post: 10 Things That Won’t Rot Your Child’s Brain.

9 thoughts on “Navigating Tricky Waters

  1. Love the flow chart idea. Maybe I will borrow it! We’ve also decided no smart phones for a long time, and are trying to find our way through the uncharted waters (as in, not something we remember the teaching of our own parents) of technology and teens.

  2. Thanks for tackling a tough subject! So much truth here. It’s interesting to me how parents can take different approaches and still work towards achieving the same goals. My husband and I have smartphones, which is our only internet access. A small screen and a bit slower internet kinda cramps the use and our children may only use them for specific purposes with our permission and supervision. Our children will not have their own until they have the means to buy one and pay for it’s use themselves! We have a computer and an iPad which have only games/stories that we download or buy. Movies are a rare treat.

    Totally with you on teaching them to think and make good choices rather than just saying “if it requires a cord we won’t have it”!

  3. YES YES YES YES!!!!! Love reading about other parents taking a stand. We very closely resemble your family rules. 30 minute max screen time per day. In winter time we allow a tiny bit more screen time and if screen time is a game where two people can play together we allow them to double their time. The boys love playing football on the Xbox. Summers the only time they get screen time is if all chores are done and the weather outside is too bad to play outside. In MT that seldom happens. Movie night is twice a month and it’s usually replays of old favorites. (The children did say that “Mr Smith goes to Washington” was getting tiresome..:-) WE are trying a new thing this year that I am imposing on myself as well as the family. I have been concerned enough with my own penchant for gravitating to the little screens that we are implementing a blackout time from 8 pm till 8 am with no screen time whatsoever for anyone unless we are watching a movie together or doing emergency research. I’m still struggling enough with being disciplined at that, that I’m more sure than ever that we need it. No texts, no IM no screen time period. If someone needs to get in contact with us they can call. Our teenage driver so far has not grumbled about no smart phone. She has a “dumb” phone simply because I’m not comfortable with her driving to town 30 miles away in the winter with no phone. We see no reason at all in any near future for any of our children to have a smart phone. If I didn’t have a business to run, I’d ditch my own.
    God bless you guys.

  4. Your flow chart filled me with utter glee. I am so making a flow chart like that, asap. My children are hard workers, and happy about it most of the time. My girls really don’t mind not watching movies or have playing games, but the boys, oh my goodness, the boys would give limbs to be allowed to have eyes glued to the screen. My husband has a strict no electronics rule, however they are allowed to watch a movie if I need to go take a nap and have them occupied.

  5. This was great! Thanks for allowing us a peek into your convictions (?) about these things and your desire to protect your children, ‘screen-wise’. They may not thank you now but someday in their maturity they will. Keep it up!

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