I’ve been listening this month to the conversation at our house, and it is deflatingly predictable: “Have you finished your homework? Then why are you playing computer games?” “Your room is still a mess, put that down until it’s done.” “Have you gotten off the couch today?” And this recent favorite, “You are banned from playing games until the end of the school year.”
We have a bad case of digital distemper, but it has been hard to find a solution. As with going on a diet, you still have to eat. Our girls have hours of computer-based homework almost every night. We have a terrible time knowing when the work is done and when the play has begun.
On one infamous Sunday in December, we watched 14½ hours of Netflix. I knew it was bad but didn’t know how bad until I looked back at the log and spotted a dozen episodes of “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.” I immediately canceled Netflix. But that’s like cutting the head off the hydra.
What would Hercules do?
John isn’t the least bit interested in the shows, games and websites that the children are drawn to. He feels that they’re big time wasters, and that our lives would be improved if the girls had zero access. I have a less-draconian attitude—in part because I see no harm in some online entertainment, and in part because I think spending leisure time online helps prepare children for tomorrow’s workplace.
Still, I know something has to change. But what?
Some parents I know have taken the tough approach. My friend Suzanne has simply banished the iPads her 12- and 14-year-old daughters brought home from their dad’s house. “They were immediately completely addicted,” she says. In addition, other devices must stay in common rooms and can’t be taken to bedrooms. She insists her children finish everything else before relaxing with computers. And between community service, sports, music and schoolwork, she says, “they never get to the place where they have spare time.”
Convinced there was something between Suzanne’s approach and mine, I decided to call a family meeting.
My opening proposal: hats for each child, festooned with colorful feathers to signify homework done, room cleaned, workout accomplished, so that we wouldn’t even have to ask when we spot them lying around like unblinking zombies.
The children immediately countered.
Isabella, 11, thought everyone should be limited to one hour of goofing around on the computer every weekday, with a higher limit on weekends. Using the honor system, time would be logged on a notebook near the computer, and could be saved up for longer sessions.
Anna, 13, wished we could set a time limit on every device, so that it would just shut off when the time was up.
Emily, 14, suggested I change the passwords every day and only give them to the children when homework is demonstrably done.
Jamie, 16, wastes the least time among us online, but she does miss the documentaries she used to watch for her history class. She agreed it would be nice if we knew exactly who on shared accounts is doing all the watching.
Jamie’s boyfriend, Daniel, pointed out that computers already have parental controls along the lines that Anna was suggesting. He told me how to turn off the desktops at 10 p.m., for example.
Daniel offered himself up as an example of someone who, until recently, was addicted to PlayStation 3. He said he would play for hours every day after school until his parents got home at 7 p.m. Just last fall, as his junior-year workload intensified, he began to recognize “the fact that I need to worry about college rather than beating my friend’s high score.”
“After a while you get used to not having it, and it becomes such a minimal thing in your life that you don’t think about going back to it that much,” Daniel said.
We kicked all these ideas around, really digging into Isabella’s honor-system idea, but acknowledging we would all be mentally clocking each other, leading to more tiresome nagging. Emily objected most strenuously to the bedtime curfew, pointing out how frequently her homework takes her past 10 or 11 p.m.
I had looked into getting an automated report on the time each family member was spending, broken down by website. Apps can do this, but we have so many disparate devices, we’d have to manually correlate the data. The idea of entering personal ID codes for every session seems onerous and nanny-state-ish.
In the end, it was John who put out the winning solution.
“The key is not to lock them out—having them learn to decide what’s right and what’s wrong is 10 times more important,” he said. John proposed that grades decide the access issue. If a child is holding a 95 or higher average, we simply won’t interfere with her digital consumption choices. Between 90 and 95, as long as report cards show an upward trend during the six grading periods our school uses, again no interference.
Anything below a 90 will merit restrictions on discretionary computer time, including a girl losing the privilege of working in her bedroom.
Additionally, the girls are willing to be more clear with us about where their work stands before they shift gears. They’ll be more on top of their chores and the chaos in their rooms. They agreed to look for things other than screens to entertain them.
Otherwise, they know I’ll be measuring their heads for feathered hats.
It’s been about three months since we began confronting the electronic elephant in our living room: the huge amount of time our girls spend online, captivated by games, shows and web surfing. After much brainstorming, we settled on a grade-based solution, which I wrote about last month, ultimately letting the girls’ performance in school decide how much freedom they’d have in using computers.
I can’t say that we’ve completely solved the problem. In fact, our confrontations over this have turned a peaceful home into a bit of a battleground. One child initially lost unsupervised use of her laptop in her room and has since lost use of her laptop altogether and now must queue up with the other girls for use of the main family computer.
But on the positive side, not only are we talking about a problem everyone seemed happier ignoring, we’re also pushing each other to solve it and planning some even more ambitious experiments.
Here are a few things we’ve learned—from our own experience so far and from readers—which may help others trying to get their arms around this problem.
Don’t be oblivious: Parents need to be in a position to understand how much time is being sucked away from their children. That may simply mean being home more often and in a position to monitor when the child is in front of the device. Or it may mean doing an occasional audit through the browser history or Netflix viewing log (which may alarm you as much as ours did me—we ended up canceling our subscription).
Frank Seldin, a reader in Dutchess County in New York, says he warns friends not to get their children tablets because they’ll lose control. “When the girls play videogames, it is on my wife’s and my iPad/Fire, and we know exactly what is on it and what they are playing,” he says. “All computer use is in the kitchen (where homework is done as well), and it will stay that way.”
Find individualized solutions: Every child is so different. My kids are at different levels academically, different ages, and have varying amounts of maturity around the concept of self-monitoring. You don’t have to solve this for all time. Instead, you want to stay tuned in to where your child is and what motivates him or her.
Insist on clearer communication: I’ve learned it’s first a process of educating the child about which activities constitute work and which are better defined as play. That distinction may not always be obvious to them as online chats about homework turn into silliness and become a big time waster.
As I suggested in my original column, the best way to minimize nagging is when a child learns to send very clear signals about where he or she is in the continuum of work and play. My kids now say to me, “Mom, I’m going to take a half-hour break because I’ve been working for the past two hours on homework.” That kind of communication on the child’s part makes all the difference.
Another reader, Bob Larson of Folsom, Calif., insists on honesty from his kids. “If we catch them abusing any of these privileges, they automatically are banned from all electronics for 2 to 4 weeks depending on the severity,” he says. “We have had some of our kids banned for 6 months when they told blatant lies to our faces when they were old enough to know better.”
Give kids a chance to earn autonomy: This may be the grade-oriented solution we found, or, as suggested by Brian Verhaaren, a reader in Salt Lake City, Utah, it could mean letting your children actually pay the cost for their computer devices, their game memberships, their Netflix subscription. Ultimately, you want kids to be able to police themselves.
Consider a router “kill switch”: This solution comes from an online commenter, who literally is remodeling her home to put a router kill switch in the master bedroom. You don’t have to take that drastic a measure, but there are easy ways to get devices powered down at bedtime, including parental-control settings on PCs and Macs, and simply taking the router power cable to bed with you.
Own the problem: What kind of example are you setting? How much time do you spend with your own nose to a screen at home? Mine has been excessive—I’m always finishing work or catching up on personal email or doing computer-intensive school volunteer work. Lately, as we’ve been pushing the girls to shift their own gears, they’re pushing me, asking me to read aloud or snuggle or play a game. I sometimes have to say no, but I say yes whenever possible, so grateful that they’re asking.
A few weekends ago Emily, 14, suggested to me that we have a computer-free day. I was so refreshed that the idea came from her, I hugged her. It wasn’t possible because of another daughter’s homework load, but it got us thinking about spring break, and even more time in digital detox this summer.
—Demetria Gallegos is community editor for WSJ.com. Write to her at SundayJuggle@wsj.com. You can also join the conversation at WSJ.com/Juggle.