Saturday, July 05, 2008

Computer self-regulation

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?


  1. I have a middle child who cannot self-regulate with the computer as well. Yet when he came home from a trip abroad he was intent on not getting "hooked" as he called; he had enjoyed actual activity in real life situations. Sadly, he again found himself in front of the computer for many hours a night.

  2. Linda1:17 am

    If Noah REALLY wants to get locked into a computer game he could try Guild Wars - then he could chat to Alex (by voice) in real time, and also continue to spend precious summer sunny days staring at a screen. I'm assured there are some educational benefits. Yesterday Alex told me he had been speaking German to a new member of his guild...

  3. I believe that expecting kids (or anyone, really) to self-regulate on the computer is like asking them to self-regulate in the world (something most of us don't do well without some outside pressure from work, family, the weather, etc.). It's not a TV (as a society, I think we need to move away from that comparison) with passive information... it's an environment. You can play a game, study, communicate, explore, build, etc. The self-regulation you're looking for comes in terms of, "Ok, I've played this game long enough. I want to do something else. Maybe I'll chat with some friends or write some music." As for your younger kids, give them time. Once they make more friends online, you may see different results.

    I guess I think it's your JOB to help them with this. I don't think it matters if it's fun or not, or if they resist it or not. Computer addiction is a real thing and I think part of being a responsible parent is setting boundaries for your kids. If your kids were dabbling with drugs, would you sit back and wait for them to come to their senses or would step in? It seems like your daughter, by returning to school, is crying out for someone to set some boundaries for her. Why wouldn't you want to play that role for her as her mother? (I'm not trying to be judgmental, but just sharing my observation on your post, which obviously had a big impact on me!)

    Maybe if your kids are struggling, you can agree as a family to set up a screen free time each day. You'll have to help enforce it, but they can also "police" each other.

  4. MTM, I do work very hard at helping them figure out how to regulate their use. We've had dozens of family meetings that revolve around this issue. Here's a post from three years ago about it. I'm not expecting them to learn this in a vacuum. It's one of the "issues of healthy balance" that is always a work in progress. The reason I don't want to unilaterally impose my rules on them is (a) I recognize that I'm a different person who grew up in a different media era and I have my biases -- that aren't always valid and (b) I believe that children learn far better by making their own (assisted, facilitated, influenced, guided) choices and experiencing the results of those choices than they do by having standards/rules/expectations imposed on them.

    What I meant when I said it wasn't fun enforcing limits is that I don't like being in a situation where my relationships with my children are relationships of conflict. My children have very strong oppositional tendencies and are stubborn as mules, and even if I 'win' in enforcing something over their protests, our entire family dynamic becomes poisoned by the conflict, such that more and more resentment and conflict develop. It ain't pretty, let me tell you.

    For the record, my daughter isn't returning to school. She's never been, and I'm actually extremely proud of the way she's articulated and dealt with her needs. If you read my first and second posts about the type of school experience she's creating, I think you'll understand a little better. I see this as a kid saying "at home I tend to get sucked into my bad habits, so I'm going to find a place that's separate from home where I am in charge and can learn on my own terms, but where those temptations don't exist." As I see it she's creating her own structure and her own limits.

    I don't coerce my kids unless they're engaged in something immoral or illegal or something that poses a serious and imminent threat to life or health. Drug use would fall into at least a couple of those categories. I see it as a different kettle of fish. Yes, my kids spend a huge amount of time at the computer, but they're bright, creative, kids with lots of talent and ability outside the virtual world -- and they're 'good kids' who are relatively untainted by consumer culture and peer dependency. Adults and other kids love them. There's some context to this little 'problem' in that overall they seem to be turning out all right despite the computer use.

  5. I've always let my children choose how much time they want to spend on the computer, and the main limit was that we didn't have enough computers to go around. Three out of four of them have used the computer much more than their friends, in my opinion, but now that 2 of them have 'grown up' and are in university, I can say that they also have done much more interesting things with the computer than many of their friends have done. They play games sometimes, of course, and they use the computer to do research or write essays or carry on MSN study or chat sessions with their friends, but they have also used the computer to write their own programs, create their own games, diagram solutions to complex math problems, make their own movies or music, and connect to the world in a very multi-dimensional way. They fearlessly post suggestions to professors blogs about physics problems or suggest environmental solutions to BC Hydro. When they have an opinion or think of a way to solve a problem, they seek out the right person to opine to. This is very cool.

    We've always opted to do without the computer on Saturdays until dark (unless there's pressing homework), in an effort to retain some of our Jewish identity. This has meant that Saturdays have been board game days for the boys, or walk days for our family. This has been wonderful, but we didn't do it to limit the computer. We did it for its own sake. I'm pretty happy with their computer enchantment, as they seem productively engaged.

    By the way, my own Noah, who is about the same age as your Noah, also stays up sometimes until nearly dawn (or even dawn, in the summer) reading. He did this all last week, and so I can't really imagine how he's going to manage his claymation course next week. Being a home learner, he is not that used to setting off to school at 8 AM! - Maureen

  6. Thanks for posting about this Miranda. This is definitely a common topic for discussion in our house and I appreciate hearing your views and experience with it.

  7. Tiffany7:32 pm

    I am fascinated by your blog. I have three children ages 6,4, and 2. While my approach to computers is very different, I realize that I am at a different stage of parenting. My initial reaction to your post is to ask some pointed questions pertaining to limits etc for the computer. However, your response to MTM, particularty the part about children with oppositional tendencies made me reconsider. My 4 year old is very much this way and the most simple basics of daily life can produce such conflict and pain. It is difficult to find the right balance between freedom and limits. We all have our different challenges. So Miranda, thanks for offering an honest, open glimpse into your life. I love to read about it.

  8. Anonymous8:51 am

    I think your kids do need help, they even asked for it. What you are talking about sounds like a real computer addiction.

    May be try turning the Internet off for a few hours each day and see if that helps.

  9. Anon, on average they spend no more than a couple of hours using the internet most days. The exception would be days when Noah's doing lots of work on his website and uploading and downloading files -- then it can be more than that. But overall the 'net's not really the problem. They're mostly playing games (installed games, not internet RPGs), but also writing stories, coding, tweaking, reading, trouble-shooting, recording and editing videos, creating lists and spreadsheets, stuff like that. The games they play are usually with a view to understanding the logic and code and picking the code apart, or writing their own 'mods.' For examples of this sort of thing, you can look at this post from last year. Recently Noah has been spending hours a day recording reviews of computer games and producing video-guides. So lots of pretty creative stuff... most of it not internet dependent.

    For all of last fall and early winter the kids were doing completely without the internet for 1-2 weeks a month due to bandwidth over-runs (we were on an extremely low-bandwidth plan for a family of six). That didn't seem to faze them too much. So clearly the 'net isn't a problem.

    And they actually didn't ask for help. They've been quite explicit in telling me that they don't want me to create and enforce limits for them. Two or three years ago they did briefly give that a whirl, but they very quickly decided it was a terrible idea, and I'd tend to agree. See my response to MTM above.

    Not sure if you follow my blog on a regular basis or not, but if you do, I think you'll agree that even though their computer use is high, by virtue of not going to school my kids still have plenty of time and energy for lots of other passions, interests, skills and experiences.

  10. Miranda, thanks for an honest look at what I can see might be my future. Actually, I think DS is better at managing computer addiction than I am (the one who is here instead of practising :) ) The only way I control his computer usage is by not providing new interesting games too often. At the moment he isn't using the computer at all, because he stalled on the latest game and is bored with the old ones. It does help, of course, that he is only reading beginner readers. When he can read better, I think his interest will rise.

    I had a rule of "TV only when you are ill" for ages, partly because I can't stand children's programmes, and felt I should watch with them, and partly because DS was scared of nearly everything on TV. Now they get to watch two 30 min programmes in a row (excruciatingly babyish stuff - Teletubbies is one show!), or one Asterix DVD, and the limit of that is just because DS gets crabby if he watches more, from sitting still too long, I guess. I work on distraction if I think it's getting to be daily, and so part of their normal routine. We do have the advantage of pretty much always having fantastic weather, so playing in the mud outside is always a viable option.

  11. Thanks for the clarification, Miranda. I really wasn't trying to attack you. =}

    The point I really wanted to make was that a computer is so much different than a TV or a phone or a book, or any one of the "real world" objects it can emulate. I think that people are more likely to self-regulate their activities on the computer rather than actual computer time.

    As for not wanting a conflict-filled relationship with your kids, I can identify. My oldest is 2.5 and there are days I just feel like the do-no-harm police when I'd rather just have fun with him.

    By the way, I started using a computer at the age of 8 (before most people had ever SEEN one) and spent a good part of my high school and college years plugging away at it. As it turns out, I am still intelligent, creative and capable of doing a variety of other things. Sometimes parents worry too much. =}

  12. Miranda, I agree that with your kids home all day, they have more time to do things like this. And I think that people who think computer use should be severely restricted might not understand the possibilities there, or their kids might not be making best use of their time online.

    Mind you, it's hard to compare kids who are in university (where work is often assigned online) with a 6 year old. So, some of my kids are older than your other blog readers' kids, and mine also use the computer as part of their income-earning work.

    But even for my home learner, who has just finished grade 6 and who is also named Noah, I believe there is a great deal of education happening when he uses the computer. Take a look at his blog post, where he talks about using trigonometry to design a computer game:

    My other kids, who are pretty good at math, could not do trig at his age. But it turns out that math is useful for quite a few of the things he does on the computer. (I'm not talking about educational computer games -- we rarely use those. The computer is educational enough if you just try to figure out how to program it.)

    I think the key to good computer use is that it shouldn't be passive. And it should include some training in how to take the thing apart and rebuild it.


This blog is moving to archive-only status. Please consider posting comments instead at the active version of the blog at

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.