Thursday, 16 March 2017

Boy and Computers - Our 21st-Century Dilemma

This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a long time - probably for four years or more — and it’s about computer use, particular when homeschooling boys.

We all recognize there’s a problem. It may not be your child, but you know that Facebook is full of moms (and it’s almost always moms) who write SOS messages about their child’s obsessive focus on some kind of screen, be it tv, computer, laptop, tablet, or gaming device.

I know all about this. I’ve been there … in spades!

When my eldest son, who is now 14, was about ten years old, we went through a period where he was exhausted all the time. We soon learned that it was because he was setting his alarm for 2 am so he could sneak down and play Minecraft all night.

Little Boys and their Games


Ever since then, I have been a loud voice on the internet for vigilance and caution when it comes to screens. I have read just about every book there is on the subject. Some titles that come to mind are Boys Adrift, Wired Child, several titles by Michael Gurian, and numerous scientific studies where changes in white and gray matter in brain scans make for some very uncomfortable reading.

Further, we had an au pair for a season when my children were younger, a Spanish student who was improving her English in order to start graduate studies in optometry (where all the reference books are written in English). She stressed to me almost daily that children need to limit their screen time for the sake of their far vision. Numerous studies backed up her assertions: myopia is on the rise because kids don’t get outside enough and flex those far-vision muscles.

Even with all my research and my vigiliance, I’m still struggling to keep my boy off screens. One reason is that he clearly is a “technopath” (a term borrowed from the delightful super-hero film called “Sky High”). Honestly, if your computer is acting up, he’ll come over and hug it, and it will work again!

He even took an MIT course about computer coding when he was 12, and received an A.

It’s tough. What to do? He’s good at this! 


Got a problem? Let me fix it!


I posed this question to Richard Freed, the psychologist who wrote Wired Child. He said to me in a private email that children need to have screens limited in their young lives for a whole host of reasons. He suggested to me that I have my son pursue a broad-ranged academic path of study rather than focus too much on technology itself, and to ensure that any computer use is productive rather than simply gaming, with an emphasis, perhaps, on coding. He added:

  • “Future tech use will continue to pose risks of addiction as your son has already been there, and because it makes it harder for kids to use tech productively as they get older.” (private correspondence)

All these years of concern and suspicion came to a head this week. He was supposedly doing his homework for an online class, but he was acting especially secretive when his siblings were walking into the room, so I decided to secretly film him. The 35-minute video was very telling.

As I thought: it was 25 minutes of swapping between windows - Reddit social media threads, pop-up windows of games, notifications from his buddies on Steam, chat boards with classmates - and, mixed among these numerous and frequent distractions, he probably managed ten minutes of reading an online summary of his book and re-wording it for his assignment.

Thirty-five minutes of screen time where five, at most, was productive. (Although I would argue that even that five minutes was also unproductive because he read a summary instead of the book - since I teach this class, I can tell you that the teacher is MOST UNIMPRESSED!)

So you know what happened, don’t you? Time for confrontation.

"I'm comin' after you, Boy!"


But here’s where things go a different path than you probably expect. A fourteen-year-old is a much different animal to a ten-year-old, and he actually stated his case. 

Sure, he says — summary and not book? Bad. Sorry. Swapping back and forth between work and play? Could do better. 

However, he notes that he swims up to 2 1/2 hours every day for swim team; he contributes to jobs around the house like mowing the lawn. That day, he had cooked lunch for everyone; walked the dogs with me; wanted to go on a bike ride to the shops but I said he couldn’t (not exactly what I said, but the bottom line is the same - I talked him out of it); he had showered and played guitar and helped my younger son fix something on the computer game he was being allowed to play, and that night, he was going to his friend’s house for a night of socializing. He had even done some of his homework even though it was Spring Break.

In the course of a normal week, he went on, he had youth group one night, a leadership class every other week, a 3-hour slot for volunteering in the library, an academic co-op, Trail Life (a group like Boy Scouts), and church. He had spent the weekend camping. In the pouring rain.

"I'm really a sensible guy."

Where in there, he asked me, was his life not well-rounded?

Suddenly, I felt a bit foolish.

So I have re-evaluated what it is that I’m so concerned about, because I still have an uneasiness about the length of time he’s on the computer, especially if it’s going to be lop-sided against his academic things. 

I’ve boiled it down to this: I would like more reading from a hard copy of a book and more writing by hand. I think these are media and skills he still needs to cultivate, and I realize that to be reasonable, I’ll have to give him a check-list of exactly what and for how long. We can both measure the progress then, and I won’t have a leg to stand on after that. 

Further, I still feel he needs to limit the time he’s looking at a brightly lit screen. if we could negotiate no more than 2 hours on the screen a day, plus some time for him to do social media on his wifi-only smart phone, and no screens at all between 9 pm at night and 9 am in the morning, then I think I would be fully satisfied that his life was balanced.

Judging from our reasoned conversation this week, I have every confidence that we’ll come to this mutually acceptable arrangement, and we will have both moved forward in our relationship, especially in terms of honoring each other.

Most of all, I've learned something really important: this teen-parenting stuff isn't all bad.


My lovable teen!

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