In amongst the "all my kids are doing math" and "summer music challenges are so much fun" posts I feel the need to confess something about the dark underside of our family life. We have a frightening degree of computer addiction in our family. It's a Saturday afternoon in July. Look what my children are doing:
(Okay, all of you who are silently posing the rhetorical question "and just what is their mother doing on a Saturday afternoon in July?" can just go off and read some other corner of the webiverse, thank you very much. I've spent the afternoon steam-cleaning carpets and dealing with unmentionables in the mudroom. I deserve this time.)
So anyway, I've been told by radical unschoolers (am I one? I don't feel 'radical' but I guess the label fits in a lot of ways) that children given free access to media will learn to self-regulate. That it will lose its power over them. This has worked beautifully for us in the realm of television. But on the computer front I have a harder time seeing the success.
The kids have free access. I've provided guidance in helping them learn to self-regulate. And yet my two older kids, Noah especially, are totally addicted to the computer. Sometimes they'll be on different computers for the better part of the day and night, up to 14 hours a day, always many hours a day ... for weeks and months and years on end. When they lose interest in whatever they're doing, they dig around until they can find a new game to capture their attention for another two-month obsessive blitz. Or they hunker down at YouTube and watch videos. They don't suddenly get up and say "enough computer ... I'd like to build a fort outside now!" or "think I'd like to call up a friend" or "where's that novel I was going to read." Instead they say "I need a new game ... I'm bored with all these ones." Or "wonder what's on YouTube?"
They decline social opportunities they later regret missing. They stay up later than they want and feel lousy the next day and miss out on fun time at the beach or the productivity they had resolved to undertake. They make resolutions to self-limit, and break them. They resist in-home and out-of-home activities they willingly and eagerly committed to. On several occasions they've asked me to help them self-limit (i.e. they want me to restrict their use) but I don't like being the heavy and they inevitably resist the limits that they want me to enforce. That's no fun for me.
I think that Erin has actually decided to go to school next fall in large measure because she can't deal with her computer addiction. She needs to get out of the house, to where she can't play games and surf the internet. I guess in a way for her this is the ultimate radically-unschooled solution to screen-time self-regulation: school. For better or for worse.
I think that Sophie self-regulates pretty well. She plays games in spurts, but she also leaves the computer to do other things. Fiona has had periods of obsession, but mostly doesn't bother with the computer much. These younger kids are more people-oriented, so perhaps that explains why they've been more able to self-regulate. Other things going on, people chatting, activities and projects being begun ... these things all hold a certain attraction for them. For the older two there seems to be little that will draw them away from staring at a computer screen.
I also think that these older two kids have always displayed a tendency to get "locked in" to various pursuits. They are the kids who would spend hours upon hours with Duplo, or digging in the sandbox, or reading a book. Just last night, after I tore Noah away from the computer for readaloud time and left him, presumably to go to bed, he got hooked on a book, and then another, and another, and didn't fall asleep until almost dawn. At age 6 Erin often read for more than 12 hours a day. Obsessiveness is a temperamental thing with these kids. It just doesn't burn itself out with the computer the way it does with other things.
So I'm not sure where I stand on this. It seems to me that some kids, in some families, with some media, don't learn to self-regulate naturally or well. Sometimes, yes, self-regulation, as with my kids and TV, or with my younger girls and the computer, works just fine and it's easy to feel smug and secure in one's non-coercive no-limits approach. And yet sometimes, with the same approach, even the children end up feeling that it's a failure.
There are silver linings. Noah is doing amazing things out there in cyberspace. He's learning lots about gaming and scripting and problem-solving and writing and reading and virtually socializing. He's managing his own domain and message board system, forming opinions, communicating, creating artwork, modifying code, dealing with graphic design issues. I think Erin has done some creative writing and research on the computer, though I suspect that most of what she's done, other than playing games, is browse pop culture sites with voyeuristic intent.
The funny thing is that Noah especially loves "screen-free days." These happen sometimes because of power failures, but sometimes we've declared them just for the heck of them. And he usually rediscovers interests and inclinations he enjoys. But where does it all go once we boot up the computers?