With all its many benefits the virtual world does not confer self-esteem. As an avenue for healthy psychological development and meaningful interpersonal relationships it possesses subtle but important deficiencies. That’s why it is so important for parents to monitor their child’s use of screen time, whether it be TV, handheld devices, laptops or desktops. In previous blogs I have described youngsters whose use of the computer is pathological in that it is an all-consuming activity that does not allow for interaction with peers, family members, healthy exercise or required homework. As I described in my book Family Entanglement: Unravelling the Knots and Finding Joy in the Parent/Child Journey there are children and adults for whom their interface with the computer becomes a substitute for their experience in the real world.
A humorous and graphic example of that confusion is an episode of the TV show South Park, in which the participants become so engrossed in the synthetic gaming world that the demands of the real world have no meaning. A group of children have vowed to rescue the father of one of the boys by slaughtering his enemies in a virtual game. To achieve their goal they must sit in front of the computer for days on end. One of the boys even persuades his mother to bring food to the gaming area and, eventually a chamber pot so that he can take care of his bodily needs. In this extreme example, the virtual world has become paramount and reality, an insignificant distraction.
So just what is an appropriate amount of time for a child to be on the computer? Allow me to quote from a book that I have found to be helpful in addressing all aspects of screen time. By Hilarie Cash, PhD and Kim McDaniel, MA, it is called Video Games and Your Kids. (Issues Press 2008) After reviewing psychologists, educators, and child development specialists over the past ten years, they have come up with the following guidelines which seem to me quite reasonable:
No screen time for children under two
One to two hours of daily screen time for pre-school children
Two hours for elementary-school children
Two to three hours of daily screen time for middle school and high school youngsters
No Internet, television or gaming console in your child’s room
Different families would probably allocate the time differently but these guidelines seem like a good approximation. So now we come to the tough questions. How do we get our children to follow these wonderful guidelines? Can we monitor their time when we are not around? What do we do if they go over? Again Cash and McDaniel have some very good suggestions. One of them is that of discussing the guidelines in a family meeting. I have also talked about the family meeting in my book (p. 74.) We found family meetings to be an invaluable tool if held on a regular basis. It is a way of organizing schedules, connecting with each other, hashing out problems and conflicts (hopefully before they happen), and reinforcing our family goals and values. What better way to discuss screen time than in a family meeting!
Next week we will talk about how children can contribute to a family meeting about screen time! We will start with questions such as the following: What is an appropriate amount of screen time? What should be the consequences if they go over? Who monitors it? How much time should Dad or Mom have? It not only allows children to be participants in the issues at hand but also gives parents a window into their children’s engagement with the virtual world. It is an opportunity to know your child better and that is always good!
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.