Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Computer epiphany

I am finally finding my peace with TV/computer games in my home. I think. It's really just fallen into place in the past week and may all fall apart again, but here's my epiphany...

Children cannot be expected to self-regulate without having the tools they need to self-regulate. Some kids are naturally gifted in the self-regulation department and need few tools. Other kids need plenty of tools.

My own kids, all of them from the looks of it, have a tendency to get 'locked in' to certain activities. They have difficulty with transitions and tend to get so focused on whatever they're up to that they lose complete track of time, nutrition and sleep needs, the needs of others, etc. etc..

For years we've had a wonderful system for TV. Anyone can watch anything, so long as they choose in advance what they're going to turn the TV on to watch, and when they're going to turn it off. No limits, no parental controls, just this simple procedure. What this does is makes TV into a legitimate choice rather than a default activity. That's all that's been necessary.

This system has worked brilliantly. The kids watch TV extremely selectively and make (IMO) extremely wise decisions about what and how much to watch. Weeks often go by when they don't watch anything at all.

What I've torn my hair out over is the computer use. Each of my three kids are on one of the three household computers for between 3 and 8 hours a day during an average at-home day. As computer use has escalated, creativity, physical activity and social interaction has dropped. While I certainly appreciate the educational and social value of Runescape, there is no doubt in my mind that the outdoor play, social time, community activities, musical, imaginative and artistic creativity that would otherwise fill 8 hours is more valuable. My kids agree wholeheartedly with me about this and complain that they "forgot to go outside" or "didn't get around to calling Bob about skiing" or "keep forgetting to work on the loom." Still, they love their computer time.

Then last week I had an epiphany -- they have good intentions, but they don't have the tools they need to self-regulate computer use. I can trust them to self-regulate, but *only if they have the feedback they need, in the form they need it*. What they need is a system similar to our TV system. Perhaps even more robust, because they need to be able to document and track the progress they're making with this issue. I was reminded of this essay by Donella Meadows entitled "Give Me Feedback and I Will Change the World (Or at Least my Own Habits)". Feedback is probably the most important tool my kids could use ... non-judgmental, non-coercive feedback.

So we now have a little applet called UserTime running on everyone's desktop. It quietly clocks everyone's computer time so that we can print out our individual computer use each week and see how we've done. We have a whiteboard beneath a clock adjacent to the computer desk, and the only rule is "when you sit down at the computer, mark down the time you're going to get off."

Computer use has dropped to under 2 hours per person in the past few days. Kids are writing haiku and stories, working with the electronics kit for hours at a shot, doing math for fun, playing card games with each other, composing music, enjoying readalouds, seeing more of their friends and of each other, playing outside, helping out around the house more and as a result of all this feeling good about themselves.