Figuring out the screen time problem

posted by Jeff | Monday, February 8, 2021, 10:47 AM | comments: 0

While the mid-80's were definitely a different time, I can't even put into words the feelings I had when I had the opportunity to use a computer. In sixth grade, Benjamin Franklin Elementary school had a TRS-80 on an AV cart, which is to say the computer sat on the shelf while the TV was on top of it. If you were sitting in a chair in front of it, you had to crane your neck up to see what you were doing. But pecking in stuff like this blew my mind:

10 CLS
20 PRINT "WHAT'S YOU NAME?"
30 INPUT N$
40 PRINT "HELLO ";N$

That was magical. In grade seven, in middle school, I was able to get an extra period here and there in the computer lab, where we had a room full of IBM PC Jr.'s, and it was never enough time. The teacher suggested he would look into me getting one as a loaner for the summer, but it never happened. I would stare at the ads in computer magazines for hours wishing that I had one. Finally, the next year, my dad gave me an 8-bit Atari computer (with a cassette tape drive!) that he received for going to a time share presentation or something. Shortly thereafter I wrote my first program, a text-based Wheel of Fortune game.

Grownups mostly seemed to treat my strong desire to create things with computers as an inconvenience, and I'm still resentful about that. Now I'm a parent, and my son is in many ways like me. He can't get enough time. For awhile I was concerned about this because Simon was largely passive, playing games and sims by downloading things, but he has pivoted to use much of his time creating things. Games like Planet Coaster, Parkitect and Minecraft are inherently creative endeavors. So while he's not writing programs, he is being creative, and I think there's enormous value in that.

But the problem is that he spends too much time behind the screen, to the extent that it results in poor behavior when it's time to disengage. It does look like addict behavior, when he gets angry because he can't get just one more hit. It was becoming particularly problematic in the evenings before bed. There was always one more thing that he wanted to do, and it didn't take long before the shouting began.

We were not well aligned about the solution to this. Some of his challenge is that he struggles to transition between things, a very typical thing for ASD kids, so you try to mitigate that with timers and schedules and such. Diana wanted him to have some visual cues indicating his time was up. I wanted to take the blunt force approach, by making the Internet router simply turn off access for him at a certain time. I want him to be accountable and learn responsibility and not have guard rails for everything. Unsurprisingly, his therapist suggested we do both, and give him the warnings (we're telling him to set a timer) in the short term, and eventually let him own it without warnings.

Three nights in, this is working pretty well. He can't argue with the machine cutting off access, because the machine doesn't care. The positive is that he's owning it, with relatively little discomfort. The negative is that it feels crappy that when it's his human parents directing him, he resists and is often disrespectful about it. But whatever, it's not delaying bedtime activities, so it's a win.

I still want to make sure that he gets to exercise his creativity, because I see it's important to him, and I know what that feels like. I understand the intensity of his feelings. But I also want him to do other things, and I think we've got a path there now.


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