Could it be one of the most controversial topics?  ‘Screen-time’. Anytime I have clicked a link to an article about the use of technology, in particular “screens” use in children, it clearly divides the masses. Its a topic with many different layers and I think its difficult to really place a one size fits all solution. I think for many families parents are really unsure how to navigate the issue of ‘screen time’, with most things unknown we tend to follow the idea that limiting or removing it is the best option. It seems to be agreed upon by many that the alternative, giving children more freedom with technology is negligent, people might assume  that a family who has less restrictions on screens are completely hands off. That their children sit hour apon hour watching tv while they hang out in the other room getting some zzzsss. I am here to tell you that there is an alternative, and its very hands on.

For those who have followed our journey from the beginning, you will know that we have previously been a very ‘hands free’ household. Limiting screen time from early on, encouraging explorations of the natural world and expressing a  dislike for technology as a whole and its apparent damaging effect on children.

You may also know, that we began our journey into homeschooling this way but decided to approach the issue of screen time completely differently. Embracing it rather than being fearful. After realising that technology was becoming a bigger influence in our children’s childhood than what I had experienced growing up, I was naturally fearful of allowing something new into our home without significant amount of research. So research I did. We decided, after looking further into what information was out there, that we would be open minded and open our home to the world of technology,  exploring this with our children. We have learnt about its uses, its history, how it can be a useful tool, how it opens the door to a world of knowledge, while at the same time being aware of some of the dangers lurking on the internet.

By opening the door to the unknown, we really had a lot of learning to do. However we found, that by not relying on limits to keep control over our children’s technology use, we opened the door to experience a greater connection with them and a much more respectful partnership. Many people advocate for being hands free, meaning putting away our devices and limiting technology. While I think connection is the goal here for this sentiment, I don’t think that necessarily needs to come from restricting technology. If your finding yourself on your phone all day while your child plays then yes maybe making steps in that direction is a good idea, but if your wanting to engage with your children more and be more connected you don’t have to restrict all their devices. I have come to dislike the idea, that limiting technology is the answer to enjoying a more initmate and connected relationships with our children. The experience has been very different for our family. The difference with not restricting screen time is that we are very hands on. I think as parents we can be fearful of technology not only because of much of what we have read, or heard about how it causes children to be overstimulated zombies. But also because we feel an incredible amount of guilt for allowing our children to sit in front of a screen while we do what we have to do. So we rely on these limits to give us the illusion of keeping our children safe.

Hands on Technology gives us an alternative. It means that you can still be a connected and engaged parent who is supporting your child in whatever he chooses to do. Hands on means having to delve into their interests. It means researching new games, new platforms, new servers, helping to get through the next challenge. Recently my 8 year old  wanted to find out how to get rainbow dye for his character in one of his games. This involved both of us sitting down together, watching a video, pausing it writing it down, drawing and taking pictures of each step. There were 9 different components some of which were challenging. It took him a whole day to complete. I was with him and helped him complete it. I helped him get comfortable, offered him snacks, offered to help him look for cheats,  I cheered and was equally as excited as he was, when he did it because we had worked on that goal together. He had persisted at a goal and achieved it. Even through his frustration he persisted. Which to me is amazing. I would have given up. This can happen in so many ways with technology. If we stop being afraid of it. Sitting with your child and discussing the development of characters in the favourite series, helping them to animate their toys, joining a game and exploring their incredible creations.

I also believe that we often set limits in order to keep our children safe, which comes from a good place but in doing so we often set them up to fail. Parents often don’t communicate to their children early enough the dangers and possible set backs of being online. By restricting their time online or controlling what content they are exposed to, we miss a valuable opportunity, for them to learn about a world that they will inevitably come across when they are in their teens or younger. A time, when they are less likely to listen to our words of doubt or concern. By creating an environment of parental control and distance between you and your child, we often create the very situation we fear. A situation where a child reaches his teens and ends up hiding his technology use from his parents, behind closed doors, ashamed and afraid and really not prepared.

I am not saying throw your child in front of graphic content as soon as possible. I am saying that by engaging with your child, being by their side, watching what they are watching with them, you are with them when they have questions, and you can prepare them for things that they might see or find that are uncomfortable or potentially dangerous. It also means that they aren’t worried about your judgment, and aren’t scared to come to you when it really matters.  Children don’t want to be in scary situations, they don’t want to watch things they aren’t comfortable with, when it isn’t something limited or controlled. Often my sons will ask to watch something that may be over their age bracket, so I will watch it first. Then I will tell them what scenes they might find uncomfortable and then they get to make the choice whether it is something they want to watch. Often they will turn it down, sometimes we watch it and I skip through things for them.

It reminds me of a story from when I was growing up. I had a fairly strict bed time, going to bed at 830pm every evening, even when I was in my teen years. Not always because I had to, but because that was the time I got tired. I remember never really watching anything scary or over PG rated and I do remember listening, to kids at school talk about  popular shows on tv and Aussie comedies they had watched after 830. I felt like I was missing out somehow. My parents allowed me to stay home one evening without them and I remember watching a number of shows that would have been deemed inappropriate and far too scary for me. But I couldn’t stop watching them, my eyes were glued to the screen, not turning my head away. I had nightmares for months after that night.

Without relying on limits we also have a greater understanding of what things our children are uncomfortable with, I was unaware of what things they avoided or didn’t like and what themes made them frightened. I had one of those aha moments when my boys were sat down to watch a popular new children’s movie on Netflix, at one point my oldest 7 ran out of the room crying and hiding behind a wall, my other boys asked to turn it off. I was bewildered because to me it wasn’t frightening but on discussing it further we realised that they were frightened by the friends turning on each other, the animals suddenly turned on their friends. It was unpredictable and frightening. It was something we learned together and we were able to talk more about how and why that was upsetting for them. Amazingly a movie that I myself thought was disturbing they thought was funny.

I love that they are able to learn far more about themselves this way. With limits we limit the possibilities of learning and restrict it only to what we deem appropriate which often, is just not. Demonising technology is not the answer. Young people are wired to become accomplished in the tools of their culture and for our children’s generation its technology, if we restrict their access completely they miss a wonderful opportunity to explore an incredible platform for learning. It also doesn’t have to have the dreaded outcome that some research suggests. How do I know? Because I have witnessed it with my own eyes, because I have spoken to countless families who have also seen the joy in their own children and disagree entirely with the idea that technology makes us distant from our children, that our children become hyperactive, unfocussed and damaged in some way.

I get that we are afraid, there  is an abundance of research out there that will infer a parent who doesn’t restrict access to technology is negligent.  But I just don’t buy it anymore. All of our children have unlimited access to an Ipad, Xbox, and pc. They can play on it whenever they want for as long as they want, they are never told its time to put it away, they are never told those things are bad for you and you should go play outside instead, technology is never used as a bribe for good behaviour. It is just another tool they can use to learn with, have fun, and connect with their friends with.  We share the enjoyment together, playing together, learning together and being very hands on. I am their partner in helping them achieve what they want, not their opposition.

But won’t they just watch tv and play on their iPad all day? Initially that was something we witnessed but as we delved into what they were doing, we were able to see that it was much more than just “screen time”. They were exploring an array of different interests and learning an incredible amount, listening to music, playing with photography, animation, mathematics, building, creativity, story telling and much more. Now 1 year later my children still enjoy using their Ipad’s, computers and tv but I often find that several days will pass and they don’t even pick it up. The greatest gift I have given them by not controlling their usage is confidence in themselves. I haven’t allowed my own fear to predetermine what interest of theirs is of value and what is not. I haven’t allowed my judgement of their activities fill them with self doubt and shame. I haven’t allowed my own perspective to cloud their own view of themselves or the world, and I have opened the door for it to be something very hands on and joyous. Not something they do on their own without my input. We play together and laugh and enjoy all that it can be. We also discuss more than we ever did when we had strict parental controls.

And guess what, they aren’t zombies. They are clever, curious, happy, engaged, passionate, always seeking more, joyful children. Technology has not dulled their imagination in anyway, in fact it has been the opposite, it has enhanced it for them. The impossible has become the possible. I often get comments on how creative my children are, how busy they seem to be with creating, playing elaborate games and being inspired.  I have also found it to be true that the more you limit something the more of an appeal it has. They find so many other activities enjoyable now and even more so than before. Funnily enough, I can rarely get them to sit and watch a movie with me anymore, they are too busy with so many more interesting things.

Even if they didn’t, even if they wanted to follow their passion of gaming, which my oldest is most passionate about that would be ok too.

It is also important to remember that many of the studies done on children and technology are done on school children, children who don’t have unlimited access to technology, and who also don’t live in partnership with children.  These elements are all important in creating what we are creating here, and not creating an negative relationship with “screens” . A child who’s environment is over controlled either at school or at home, can often use “sreeens” as an escape, its a way to play out the frustrations of the day, of having to be ‘good’ all day. He can behave erratically if someone tries to take this tool away from him, he can appear addicted, zombified. What I suggest for parents, is loosen up the controls at home in all areas, especially if a child is at school all day, the need a safe, comforting place to come home without more controls. If your worried about connection, join alongside them. Even if its not your thing, once you see how much they are learning, having fun. It will put you more at ease too.

The connection and energy surrounding technology is a massive piece of the puzzle. Sure you can have unlimited access to technology and parents who have no desire to connect with their children and learn what they are doing. They are the children who sit for hours in their bedroom with the tv buzzing along. This is not what I am advocating either. CONNECT, CONNECT, CONNECT.

I am going to leave a great excerpt here by Teri Demarco on Living Joyfully as she discusses balance and technology.

“But you know, the values in our society are about balance and moderation, and technology generally, when you see it used by kids, it’s not that, right? They tend to deep dive and are very happy and joyful. So that I think that those that were brought up with balance and moderation as kind of a family value, we get uncomfortable with excess. You know, excess in anything. Excess in food, excess in joy, you know, when kids are too happy? I think people get uncomfortable sometimes. And I think kids are just trying to figure out, they always want to come to stasis of joy, or happiness. And they’ll get there, sometimes even they’ll force themselves there, because they are always seem to want to get to that equilibrium. And if we just let them get there, they chill out. They relax a lot.

I think greatness comes from passion. And passion in general, where you meet someone who has had a great success or is very passionate, they rarely have balance. You know, you don’t see, like, Michael Jordan, you know, basketball player. I doubt he had a lot of balance in his life, right? Or a lot of moderation.

I think it’s a really great conversation. I’m guessing its true for most of us in conventional society. We don’t mind a little bit of everything, but then its time to go out and play with sticks or in the dirt. Children can have balance with technology as they work out the world and what their passions and interests, are. Not all with delve as deeply into technology as others. I have three children who probably spend less than the ‘reccomened daily amount’ on ‘screens’ and one who is very passionate about minecraft and several other games.

So instead of advocating for being hands free and loosing the tech in your house. Im advocating for getting involved, being hands on, find out what your kids are really doing, what they are interested in, play along, have the conversations. Be their partner.  Be there. It is possible to have a close relationship with your kids and still have access to technology.