Our boys (ages 10 and 12) love video games. And following the truism that every generation has media choices that baffle their parents, they also love watching videos of other people playing video games. They would play and watch all day, if we let them. On weekdays, by the time they get home from school and finish their homework, we don’t mind if they spend the free time that remains playing games. On weekends, we have always limited their screen time.
This policy has always chafed. A few months ago, our twelve-year-old protested, exasperated, “Do you have any evidence that too much video games is bad for you?” I patiently explained, “It’s not that video games are bad for you. It’s that we want you to have a balanced life—read a little, get some exercise, play some video games, practice your saxophone. If you did any one of those activities to the exclusion of others, we’d ask you to balance more: ‘Put down that book and go play a video game! You can’t read all day!’”
Five months ago, it occurred to me: Why not make the policy better match the rationale? Instead of limiting our kids’ screen time, we started requiring them to do a variety of activities each weekend day: read, exercise, and practice their musical instrument. As long as those things are done at some point during the day, they can have as much screen time as they like.
So far, the policy is a huge improvement. There is much less grumbling, and better balance in their weekend days. When asked how the policy is going so far, our twelve-year-old explained that he agrees that reading and exercise are important. (He’s less sure about music practice!) He also finds the new policy makes for a more relaxing weekend day. Our ten-year-old comments, “I like it better. The point is so that I do other things with my day, and I think it’s fair.”
The day-to-day implementation is not without challenges. We still need to remind them, “Did you exercise yet today?” And if the reminder comes too late in the day, it’s just not going to happen. If we forget to remind them and monitor, the new system deteriorates to a full day of screen time. But then again, the old system did too (“Did you forget to turn the timer on? How long have you been playing?”)
It’s encouraging to me that our kids have embraced the values that underlie this system—that you must make choices about how you spend your time, certain activities are important, and balance is important.
What approach does your family use? Leave me a comment!
I wrote a couple years ago about how much I enjoyed playing Farmville, and how glad I was to quit it. And a week ago I quit another fun game: Words With Friends (WWF), Zynga’s version of Scrabble on Facebook. It’s been a peaceful week. My quality of life has improved. Which is odd because the game seems so lightweight–a social and casual game that doesn’t demand your attention at any particular time (like Farmville does), or any particular quantity of time (you can play for a minute or two). So why do I feel like a burden has been lifted?
I first need to tell you how much fun WWF is. I like word games, and WWF is a challenging one. I take genuine pride in a good play. And though there is certainly luck involved, it’s primarily skill based–and I’ve been improving in both knowledge and tactics. I can tell you now that there are no valid two-letter words beginning with c or v, that there are five s’s and two blanks, and that a ‘ratel’ is a small african mammal also known as the honey badger.
As I wrote in my last post, I feel close to people when I play WWF with them. I’ve played with my cousin, colleagues in my field, friends from high school, college, and graduate school, a former student, and my new department chair. I feel closer to all those people as a result. You do learn something about people based on the words they play. I had to laugh when a mischievous friend from college was playing naughty words, while in another game a kindly colleague from another department was playing Christmas words just in time for the holidays. People are funny.
It’s a fun game, and making a move takes only a couple minutes. You can play right away after your opponent, or you can wait a day. It’s creative, challenging, and fun. So what could be wrong?
Well, one big thing: WWF was slowly taking over my life. Consider the following situation. I’m picking my kids up at aftercare at their elementary school. When I arrive, they are somewhere in a large school building (Doing art in the cafeteria? Out on the playground?) and they are paged to come to the lobby. It usually takes about five minutes for them to stop what they’re doing, clean up, travel across the building, find their backpacks and coats, and be ready to go. So it’s a perfect time to make my WWF move, right? Perfect except that if I’m playing a couple different games, I won’t be done when they arrive. So I put away my phone, but part of my brain is still thinking about my move (what words end in ‘u’? ‘Tofu’? ‘Bayou’?) rather than paying full attention to what happened at school today. Until I finish making that move, I won’t fully be there. And it’s like that through my entire day. The little gaps I have don’t match the amount of time it takes to make my WWF moves. The fact that you can play on your phone makes the temptation pervasive.
The design of WWF draws you into playing more and more games in parallel. Once you start a game with anyone, it will suggest you as an opponent to other friends. And it seems rude to decline, especially when invited by someone you are fond of but haven’t seen in a while. After each game, it asks both parties if you’d like a rematch. If you don’t say, “OK, one more,” your opponent probably will. It seems impolite not to–especially if you just won. And pretty soon one game at a time becomes four or five. A single move can take less than a minute. Or you could pore over it for longer than you realize (‘I know there’s a seven-letter word in these letters!’)
I confess that I can get intense about the game. It’s funny because I don’t care if I win at other computer games I play like MMOs or puzzle games. But I guess I take pride in my skill with words more than other things, and I take the game too seriously. I don’t mind if my opponent makes a spectacular move–bravo for them! But if I accidentally leave a triple word score open when I didn’t mean to, I’m genuinely angry with myself. When I’m focusing on a WWF move, I’m seriously concentrating. It brings out a competitive side of me that I don’t like.
Fitting WWF into my life worked better when I was playing fewer games. And it worked better when I decided I would only make moves at the start and end of the day. But then I’m waiting for a meeting to start and folks are late… OK, I’ll make a WWF move. But wait, now the meeting is finally started and I’m still thinking about words ending in u again. You’ve heard this story before, haven’t you? This story was weaving its way through my life.
I’m definitely never playing Farmville again. I’m not sure about Words With Friends. The challenge for all of us is to understand how the technologies we use affect the daily rhythms of our lives. And to make mindful choices.