The Summer Screen Challenge

Lynn Jatania“Mom, can I have an hour of video game time?”

It’s a common refrain around here in the summer months. I work from home, part-time, so it doesn’t quite make sense to put the kids in day camps; but on the other hand, there are days when they are expected to keep themselves busy around the house while I get a few hours of work in.

In a house full of Lego, board games, basketballs and sidewalk chalk, it’s amazing how quickly boredom can set in. The magical screen seems to fix all – it’s like a siren song, constantly calling them, beckoning them with its flickering blue light.

It’s been such a rainy summer, and I’ve been busier than expected with work, so sometimes it’s tempting to just say yes to a day full of video. But then I think back to my own summers – totally screen free, except perhaps for a rerun episode of Charlie’s Angels before bed. I did so much reading, and filled in the rest of the time playing Barbie with my sisters or hide and seek with the neighbourhood kids. My kids are well past the age of Barbie and hide and seek, but I like to think that, given some free time, they can find something else to do.

So here are the summer rules for video games and screen time: three hours a day, which is probably more than the recommended amount, but it’s what is working for us right now. Each kid gets three one-hour tickets, and can cash them in if we aren’t doing anything else. No video games before breakfast, and I also make them do a small homework worksheet before the screens come out; the third hour can’t be used unless they’ve had at least an hour of outdoor activity.

One of our biggest challenges has been getting them to stop when their hour is up. I don’t want to spend my entire summer as Video Game Cop – keeping track of who’s started when, and whose time is up. And more importantly, we’ve learned that our kids have no concept at all of time passing when watching a screen – time seems to fly by, and they don’t understand how to monitor their own time. So now, we use a timer – they must set their timer when they start, and they have to respect its beeping when it’s time to get off. If they run over, it comes out of their next shift. If they forget to set the timer and we catch them, they have to get off immediately – even if it’s only been five minutes, and that hour is forfeit.

It’s still a lot of regulation, a lot of police work. But at least they know the expectations, so I’m not constantly bombarded with requests and begging all day long. They get some say in when they get screen time, which makes them happy; we’re trying to teach them how to regulate their own time online, which is hopefully working.

The final frontier, something we need to work more on, is coming to video game time with intention. For them, “video time” can be anything from playing an app to watching YouTube clips to viewing a few episodes of their favourite tween sitcom on Netflix (current go-to show: Victorious). They often pick up a tablet or turn on the TV mindlessly, though, not really sure what they are going to do, just that they want some form of entertainment. I know I need to be better at asking them before their hour what they plan on doing – more for their benefit than mine – and then check in with them afterwards to see how it went. I want them to understand that online time isn’t just for frittering away boredom, but rather for doing something intentional that they can then share with others.

And of course, we all want to have fun – separately and together. Screens are a part of our family life now, but they aren’t the whole summer – on non-work days for me, we are out at museums, libraries, pools. Those days of my youth aren’t so far away, I don’t think – we even sometimes have enough leftover screen time for watching a show together before bed. Maybe I’ll dig up some Charlie’s Angels DVDs and see how well it has aged!

How are you handling your summer screen time?