Speaking of screen time

One of the things I enjoy most about being an SVS parent is talking to prospective families at Open Houses. Not so long ago, our family was taking a tour, and I still remember the combination of hope and anxiety that filled me that afternoon. We were already sold on the concept of unschooling, so I had no doubt that my children would get an incredible education at SVS. But, I still had so many questions. Will he be safe? Who’ll watch out for him? Why do they have to sell junk food at Concession?

And though I cringe at the memory, I was that parent, the one that asks, “But what if he just wants to sit around all day and ________.” (Insert your choice of questionable activities here: watch TV/watch movies/play videogames/stare at a screen.)

When I first started leading tours, this question was met with an awkward pause as I frantically thumbed through my mental talking points, looking for an academic study to cite that proved that TV makes kids smarter or more attractive or just better all-around people. It’s amazing how I’ve changed since then. Nowadays I briefly meet the questioner’s eyes, turn my attention to his or her kid/s and say, “then they watch TV/watch movies/play videogames/stare at a screen all day – and that’s ok.”

Of course, I don’t stop there. I tell them about my son, who spent several years glued to whatever screen was available and now can’t seem to find enough hours in a school day to squeeze in Capture The Flag, Foursquare, video editing, and School Meeting (if it’s Thursday). Or the kid who spent years with his friends playing videogames in the Barn until the day he picked up a guitar on a whim and decided to learn to play. Same kid, same focus and intensity, only now, it’s directed toward a new goal – playing killer guitar.

The Parent Trap

It’s no wonder that the topic of “screen time” can turn a roomful of parents into defensive, fretful wrecks. Along with the stack of books on how to raise the perfect kid (Confession: I never made it past chapter two.), I had Marie Winn’s classic, “The Plug-in Drug,” which convinced me that exposure to any kind of visual media other than art and flashcards would turn my baby into a turnip. For five lonely years, I fought back the onslaught of Sesame Street, Baby Einstein, and other “educational” media. I quoted American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Guidelines while arguing with friends and family members, and dreamed of future vindication when my kids won Macarthur Genius Grants and theirs had to be satisfied with “I made the Honor Roll” bumper stickers.

The AAP “discourages TV and other media use by children younger than two,” and recommends that older children be limited to 1-2 hours per day of “educational, nonviolent programs, supervised by parents or other responsible adults.” But, as author Hanna Rosin put it in her recent piece for The Atlantic: “The statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics assumes a zero-sum game: an hour spent watching TV is an hour not spent with a parent. But parents know this is not how life works. There are enough hours in a day to go to school, play a game, and spend time with a parent, and generally these are different hours.”

The Kids are Alright

At Sudbury Valley, there are enough hours in the day for whatever students decide they want to do. They are free to spend their time as they please.

There’s a TV and DVD player in the basement that students can reserve for half-hour time slots. To watch a 2-hour movie, they have to get four people to sign up for slots. And, of course, all four must be “certified” to use the TV. This involves learning the rules and responsibilities involved: Turn the TV off when you’re finished. Clean up any messes you leave behind. Don’t climb on the furniture.

It’s completely acceptable to spend the day playing Minecraft or Call of Duty, or watching a few hours of Cartoon Network. Because at Sudbury Valley, it’s understood that time spent in front of a screen, whether it’s watching a movie or playing a game, is not wasted time.

• When kids are playing videogames, they’re navigating complex interpersonal territory, from figuring out how their behavior might cause someone to rage quit, to understanding the nuances of server etiquette and online communication.

• Who doesn’t love watching a movie with friends? Imagine the conversations you’ve had or the ideas you’ve shared after seeing a particularly compelling film.

• With great power comes great responsibility. There may not be any rules about five year olds watching “Dawn of the Dead” here, but it’s highly unusual for this to happen without the five year olds getting a serious warning from their older peers about just how scary the movie will be.

• And of course, there’s this: the desire to operate a remote control, play a videogame, or download an app has motivated countless children to learn to read.

I want to end this with a message to any prospective parents out there who fear that their kids would have no ability to self-regulate around TV, videogames and the computer: I’ve been exactly where you are. I worried about the same thing. But I have seen for myself that if you give children the freedom and the responsibility to make their own choices around this, they will eventually come to a place where screen time is just another activity competing for their attention. Every child –yours, mine, and everyone else’s – gets there. You just have to let them get there in their own time.