Perhaps you’ve been reading about unschooling and you like the idea, but there’s one thing that makes you feel uneasy: unlimited screen time. What if your child spends an excessive amount of time on their computers or phones? What if you feel they’re wasting their time? What if their screens seem to be causing them to behave in a way you don’t feel is healthy?
Will kids learn to self-regulate their screen usage?
There are lots of unschooling articles that will reassure you about screens. Their message: If we allow our kids to have as much screen access as they like, they will learn to self-regulate their usage. We just need to let go of control and trust our children. They’ll work it out for themselves. And I have found this to be true. My children have always had free access to screens. I have never made any rules. And they all use their screens in productive and balanced ways.
But are my children representative of all kids? Is it okay for me to say, “Look at my family? Follow our example. Your fears are groundless.” Or are you right to worry about the effect of such things as screens, the Internet, social media and computer games on your children?
Do adults have trouble self-regulating?
Even though my kids handle these things well, I don’t. I have got very entangled with the Internet and it’s affecting my life. Not so long ago, I faced up to the fact that I need to make some changes. I want to regain my peace and my concentration which affects my ability to do worthwhile work. I also want to strengthen my face-to-face relationships. These have been suffering because my attention has been online rather than offline. I spoke about this in episode 105 of my podcast: Social Media, Internet Addiction and Screen Time. I pondered the question: If adults have trouble handling the Internet, why do we think all kids will be able to deal with it?
Since making that podcast, I’ve been thinking further about this topic. Here are some of my thoughts:
Should we respect our kids’ choices?
Screen time. How do we feel about this word? Does it make a difference what type of screen our kids are using? And are we more comfortable letting them have access to a screen if we feel they are doing something worthwhile with it? For example, we might be happy for our children to do research using the Internet or complete an online course or belong to an online book study group. We might be willing for them to spend a lot of time on their computers if they are writing.
But what if our kids are on social media or playing computer games or watching Youtube videos? Perhaps we label these activities as time-wasters because we, personally, don’t see the value in them. However, we learn from everything in life and we all have different interests so maybe our kids should be allowed to spend time doing the things that are important to them, regardless of our feelings. If we accept this idea, we should let our kids have free access to screens. It’s the right and respectful thing to do.
But what if we let go of control and our kids go wild (in our opinion) and don’t want to do anything except sit in front of a screen? We might reassure ourselves that once they realise the screens aren’t going to be taken away, they’ll relax and slow down. It’s all a novelty at first but after a while, they’ll want to do other things as well. They’re not always going to want to spend every available hour on their computers or tablets or in front of the TV.
Why do we fear letting go of control?
However, despite what other people tell us, we might not really be convinced this will happen. Deep down, we don’t trust our kids will be able to self-regulate. Do children pick up on these feelings of doubt? When we say, “You can spend as much time on your computer as you want,” we could also pass on the message, “I’m not sure I’m happy about this situation.” Are we waiting for the first opportunity to grab back control? Kids know when we don’t feel comfortable. They don’t trust us just like we don’t trust them. So maybe if we aren’t 100% committed to an idea, it won’t work. We’ll end up changing our minds about unschooling.
Why do we fear letting go of control? Why do we feel very uncomfortable when we are asked to trust our kids? Do our own experiences affect how we feel? Are we untrustworthy? If we don’t trust ourselves to behave sensibly when we’re using our computers, how can we ever trust our kids?
What is sensible screen behaviour?
What is sensible screen behaviour? We might all have different ideas about this. Do we think it’s okay for everyone to live life with one eye always on a screen? Are we happy living in a society where most people communicate via their screens instead of having face-to-face relationships? Do screens and the Internet bring great value to our lives? They allow us to be constantly connected with information and each other regardless of where we are in the world. Is society evolving in a positive way because of technology?
Or do we yearn for more face-to-face conversations? Do we need to do things with our bodies? Do we need to connect physically with other people? Perhaps we feel technology such as the Internet is distracting us from living real life and doing deep work.
There is no doubt that technology has enhanced our lives in many ways. And we can’t go backwards. This is the world we live in, the world where our kids will one day get jobs. We can’t close our eyes to technology even if we, at times, don’t like it. But do we need to be careful when using it? Do we need to guide our kids when they want to use such things as the Internet?
I guess a lot depends on whether we think the Internet holds any dangers for our children. Are we happy letting them be exposed to it? Or do we worry they will become addicted to it and therefore become unhappy?
Is the Internet really addictive?
Is there really such a thing as Internet addiction? I don’t think it’s inevitable we or our kids will become addicted to the Internet (or even computer games). But maybe some of us will have more problems with it than others. Could the Internet be like alcohol? Some people are just not interested in drinking. Others depend on it. But why? Could the Internet, like alcohol, fulfil certain needs within us? Maybe we overuse social media because we’re lonely. Perhaps it’s easier to browse the Internet and play games online instead of getting down to serious work. Is it worth pondering why we or our kids feel pulled towards the Internet when there isn’t a good reason to use it?
Recently, I made the decision to reduce my online time. I’ve deleted my Facebook account. I’m making an effort not to hop aimlessly around the Internet. I’ve deleted some phone apps. I’m no longer constantly checking my emails and other notifications. I want to regain control of my online life so that I have a better offline one.
My behaviour hasn’t always been dictated by the Internet. Not so long ago, I used to be like my children. I’d use the Internet in a purposeful manner. I had good concentration skills. I did valuable and deep work. I spent far more time offline than online. So what went wrong?
“Why can’t I handle the Internet and you can?” I ask my daughter Imogen.
“Your work is online, Mum. You’re expected to use the Internet. That’s where you meet people and do things. It’s easier for us because we don’t have to be online as much as you.”
Yes, once we get involved with the Internet, its hold of us can get tighter and tighter. There’s always one more email to answer, one more article to read, one more comment to write, one more photo to post, one more story to share, one more problem to ponder, one more person to help, one more… It’s never-ending. I justify the time I spend online: I’m doing worthwhile work. But sometimes we have to step back and reclaim our lives. We can’t do good work when we feel overwhelmed and unhappy.
Is making screen rules a responsible thing to do?
So if adults can have screen regulation problems, is it reasonable to think that some children might have them too? And if they do, how can we help them? Should we limit their screen time? Should we let them use their screens only for certain purposes? Perhaps we need to exert our parental control? This might be the responsible thing to do.
Or do rules about such things not work? Do they result in battles? Will kids look for ways to break the rules? Will they try to use screens without our knowledge?
I’d rather my kids were free to do things in front of me rather than in secret. I want us all to be honest with each other. So I don’t make any screen rules and limits. But if we don’t make rules, how do we ensure kids don’t get themselves into situations where they become unhappy because they are unable to deal with their screens? Maybe connection is the answer.
Do we have to do more than just step back and give our kids complete freedom to do what they want?
We can’t say to our kids, “Go and do what you like,” and then step back and let them get on with it. Unless, of course, we have strong connections with them. Maybe we need to build up the bonds between us so that our kids value our opinions and look to us for guidance. We can then talk about our own experiences, our struggles, the dangers that we face and how we’re dealing with them. Of course, we should also listen to our kids as they share their opinions, thoughts, ideas and what’s important to them. Parents also have to be good examples. We might have to make changes in our own behaviours if necessary. And maybe we have to help some of our kids determine what their needs are and how they might be fulfilled in ways other than by spending excessive time online.
Perhaps we have to guide and support our kids towards self-regulation in a respectful way.
So is it really okay to give unschooling kids unlimited access to screens and the Internet?
I say to Imogen, “Most unschoolers state that if we trust our kids and let them have free access to such things as the computer and the Internet, they will learn to self-regulate their usage. Do you agree?”
“And if kids seem to be overdosing on their computers when the restrictions are lifted, this will pass once the novelty wears off.”
“Yes, that makes sense.”
I then say, “I’ve never made any screen rules and none of you kids has a problem. It’s all very simple, isn’t it? Or maybe it’s not. I’ve been thinking about how I have free access to the computer and I’m having trouble controlling my behaviour. I waste time online. I get distracted. I feel unhappy with how I keep checking my phone. So if adults like me can show addictive behaviour online perhaps kids can as well. Maybe it’s not enough to reassure other parents that if they let go of control, everything will be okay.”
After listening to me, Imogen has something of own to add: “If parents are worried that their kids are using their screens in a way detrimental to their health and happiness, they can’t just say, ‘Turn off the computer and go do something else.’ It’s not that easy. What will kids do? It’s important parents build up an offline life full of rich experiences that a child will want to be part of. A parent has to do something. They can’t just stand back and make rules.”
“Perhaps parents have to work on their connections so that their kids trust them and value their opinions. This will also ensure parents know their kids very well. If we all have strong bonds of connection, maybe we can allow our kids free access to their screens and there won’t be any problems…”
Our conversation continues. There’s a lot to say. This is a very involved topic.
I could keep writing. There are other points I might make. But maybe what I have already written is enough to begin a conversation, to get us all thinking. If you’d like to stop by and share your thoughts and experiences, please do!