Monday, July 31, 2017

In Defense of "Screens"

One of the most controversial topics I ever touch on is the issue of “screens.” There are a lot of strong feelings on the topic, but it probably won’t surprise anyone that I fall squarely on the side of more options rather than less, fewer limits rather than more. Seeing as this topic is a big one, though, I wanted to take some time to explore why I feel the way I do, how electronics fit into unschooling, the importance of self-direction, and some reasons why screens might not really be so scary. I hope that, whether you agree with me or not, you find some thoughts worth considering and links worth reading in this exploration of the important place screens can have in a child’s life.


When I think about the distinguishing features of unschooling, one of the first things that comes to mind (I would think unsurprisingly) is that learning is self-directed, which means the learner themselves is deciding what activities to pursue. When self-direction is the goal, a myriad of options are usually given by the adults in a child’s life, a variety of tools made available. Unschooling, to me, is all about providing more options, more choice, more freedom in learning. So I find myself puzzled when some choose instead to narrow options, allowing children to “self-direct” only in a range deemed acceptable by concerned adults. While it’s undeniably important for adults to provide help, support, and guidance, choosing to cut out--or severely limit--one of the biggest available windows into the wider world seems counter-intuitive.

My sister and I are part of the first generation to grow up with easy access to the internet. My family got our fancy dial-up service when I was 5 or 6, my sister a couple of years younger, and we delighted in Neopets and other online games, the ability to make our own pages and blogs, to search out any questions we had (though admittedly there was a far smaller database of information to be had 20 years ago), to chat with friends, and to find communities of people who shared experiences and interests that I didn’t have access to in my daily in-person life. My life was intimately shaped by this new technology in overwhelmingly positive ways, and it most certainly lead to friendships, real world connections to local groups and events, and important discoveries--like my love of blogging and my sister’s love of fiction writing.

Sometimes people, in their advocacy for a screen-free childhood, say some variation of can’t you feel what it does to you? And I can. I feel it opening up possibilities.


While some people are convinced that there’s solid science on how awful screens are for children (no thanks to the prevalence of scare-mongering pop-science pieces that show up with startling regularity), the reality is a lot more complicated, and there is no scientific consensus that Screens Are Bad. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics backed off of its hardline--and severely outdated--guidelines on screen use for children last fall, as evidence of the positive aspects continues to build. For the most part, the fear around screen use seems to be the same old fear that crops up any time something new comes into popular usage, and while there’s still plenty to learn about how current technology affects us, the decisions people are making around “screens” seem to have far more to do with fear than science. This article, though a few years old, still does a very good job of addressing the “history of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook.”

Even when it’s accepted that all screen use might not be bad, the narrative remains that while some people might be fine with “screens,” others will become hopelessly “addicted” if not rigidly controlled. To start with, I’m really uncomfortable with how casually the term “addiction” is thrown around: in the same way an overly controlling boss isn’t “OCD” and a friend who gets upset faster than expected isn’t “bipolar,” a child who spends more time online than their parent would like isn’t “addicted.” It’s important to note that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) includes “video game addiction” only in the section reserved for subjects which need further study, and while the DSM certainly isn’t infallible, that’s a good sign of how little evidence there currently is to support the addiction argument. Undoubtedly almost any activity can be taken to unhealthy extremes, but to single out any one activity as being more dangerous without sufficient evidence seems unreasonable. And while parents certainly want to help their children make good choices, their children will eventually--sooner rather than later if they’re in their teens--be making ALL of their own decisions, so shouldn’t the ultimate goal be to learn self-regulation? And if the goal is self-regulation, doesn’t it make sense to let children get as much practice at making their own choices as possible, before they’re out on their own for real? As one of my favorite quotes from Alfie Kohn says, “'The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.” Or put a different way by Mimi Ito: “The longer parents play time cop, the longer it takes for kids to learn self-control.”


It’s undeniable that the internet provides access to a repository of information unlike any other in human history, and with that in mind, deciding children are better off screen free seems extremely limiting. But even beyond that, “merely” playing on computers (or gaming devices, or phones…), one of the biggest targets of anti-screen rhetoric, is also a positive part of many people’s lives. In a truly excellent piece by Peter Gray, he references studies showing some of the effects of gaming: “Repeated experiments have shown that playing fast-paced action video games can quite markedly increase players' scores on tests of visuospatial ability, including tests that are used as components of standard IQ tests. Other studies suggest that, depending on the type of game, video games can also increase scores on measures of working memory (the ability to hold several items of information in mind at once), critical thinking, and problem solving. In addition, there is growing evidence that kids who previously showed little interest in reading and writing are now acquiring advanced literacy skills through the text-based communication in online video games.” He further elaborates on the social aspects of gaming, pointing out that “Other research has documented, qualitatively, the many ways that video games promote social interactions and friendships. Kids make friends with other gamers, both in person and online. They talk about their games with one another, teach one another strategies, and often play together, either in the same room or online.”

The image many have in their minds of lone individuals glued to their screens like zombies, cut off from all interactions with others, just doesn’t reflect reality in the majority of cases. Whether it’s gaming, TV shows, social media sites, blogging, or anything else, “screen time” is usually “social time” in one way or another.

A frequently expressed “socialization” concern in regards to school-free learners is that they won’t share common experiences with their schooled peers, and yet I’ve often thought that shared culture--shared arts and media--is a better point over which to bond than shared institutionalization. While culture is experienced in different ways, both online and off, it most certainly includes TV shows and video games, web comics and YouTube channels, social media sites and blogs. Finding people who love the same things you do is one of the great joys of the internet, and is often the spark for friendships online and off.

On the other side of things, parents of school-free learners often express concerns over negative content in popular media: racism, sexism, homophobia and the like. While that’s certainly a big issue, I’ve always thought the best way to learn to think critically about the media we consume is to interact with and interrogate it, to have thoughtful discussions about what is done well and poorly in any given show or game (or book, for that matter). I’d never suggest that adults leave children to fend for themselves, without involvement or guidance, and instead I think parents can help their children learn to think about what they’re playing or watching by playing and watching it with them, and having those discussions from the time a child is young.

Some of the most frequent questions I get about my unschooling experience are about passion: What were your passions? How did you discover your passions? What did your parents do to help you find your passions? And my partial answer to the last of those has to be that they didn’t treat my interests with fear and disdain. They let me have my own interests--my own passions--even when they didn’t understand or “get” them.

You can’t choose what someone else cares about. It doesn’t matter if they’re your children; their minds are their own, and if you’re serious about self-directed learning, then their interests must be allowed to be their own as well.

Right now, I love makeup. Love it. I spend hours watching YouTube tutorials and unboxings, reading product reviews, sorting through my makeup collection, putting on my makeup… For me it’s a form of artistic expression, something I can get lost in, by all judges a true passion. Yet to many people this would seem like a mind numbingly boring pursuit. They’d find it shallow and pointless.

On the other hand, I’ve never been very into video games: I find them uninteresting, and even when a game initially seems interesting, I find it bores me incredibly quickly. But that doesn’t mean I see them as a lesser pursuit, or see my interests as in any way superior.

It’s often hard to see, from the outside, what someone else is getting out of an activity or interest that we don’t share, but rest assured that they are getting something out of it, or they wouldn’t be doing it. And if you try and get involved, or talk to someone about the things they care about, you might just start to see why they’re so passionate.

Or you could just dismiss it out of hand, miss an opportunity to get a window into someone else’s world, and crush a budding passion.


Sometimes I spend too much time scrolling endlessly through Facebook, or watching YouTube videos, or reading a really long piece of investigative journalism. I consider the time spent to be “too much” because my leg falls asleep from sitting too long, or I regret staying up as late as I did, or I wish I’d gone out to the garden while the sun was still up. But as an adult--and as a teenager who didn’t have “screen limits”--those decisions are mine to own and the consequences are naturally occurring (as opposed to punishments, which some parents name “consequences” in order to make themselves feel more justified). Once again I return to the concept of self-direction being crucial to unschooling, and to be truly self-directed is to sometimes direct ourselves into choices we regret. That’s just part of learning, no matter what age we are.

I also see a big difference between parents intervening in an actual problem, and parents creating arbitrary limits in order to feel some control over possibly preventing future problems (which may never manifest). There’s a difference between saying “you’ve been playing that game for a really long time, let’s go do something different now” and an inflexible rule that children are only allowed two hours of screen time per day. And there’s a difference between deciding not to let a 2 year old spend time playing on a tablet versus deciding that the bulk of childhood should be spent without access to a whole category of play and learning.


In deciding that screen time is automatically damaging--or at the very least suspect--and casting almost any other activity as better, a whole bunch of unneeded conflict arises: suddenly it’s screens versus books, screens versus outdoor play, screens versus family time. Electronics become the forbidden fruit, made more tempting by its exclusion from a list of acceptable activities. In pitting activities against each other in such a way, the supposed “good” activities can be made to feel like a chore (something I explored recently in my post Summer Rules?). A child is told they have go outside for an hour before they can go online. This then becomes an interminable hour where all they do is kick at leaves and wander around restlessly, unable to think of anything but how much they want to talk to their friend who’s only online for a couple more hours, because they live on opposite sides of the globe in a very different timezone…

Then there’s the matter of how frequently hypocrisy comes into play, when a parent spends all day inside on their phone and the computer, yet kicks their children outside and admonishes them to “go play!” instead of allowing them to spend a similar amount of time on their respective devices. If you want to instill a joy of the outdoors (or reading, or anything else you deem important) you have to show that you take joy in it, yourself. As Lori Pickett said in a wonderful post on screen time:
Whenever you make it about “give up this thing you really love,” you are probably going to lose. Even if you win on paper, you are still losing in the ways that count. You’re losing credibility. You’re losing their attention. You’re losing their trust. 
You are sending all kinds of subtle, between-the-lines messages about what’s broccoli and what’s candy. You’re sending those messages every day when you choose how to spend your free time, too. Before they learn how to velcro their shoes, kids know when your words don’t match your actions. 
We have to change our entire approach and start saying, “If these things are really important to us — as a family, as a community, as a society — then we need to start enjoying them, together.”

Whether people are delighted by the technology available to us or concerned by its rising prevalence, the reality is that it’s here to stay, and has become a vital tool in virtually every sphere of life. Children growing up today need to understand it because they need to have the skills to navigate this world. There’s beauty in balance, but what balance means to each individual is something they have to figure out for themselves, and while caring adults should be ready to offer guidance to the children in their lives, ultimately those children are their own people, and need to to be making their own choices--or at least moving in a direction of increasing freedom of choice. Self-direction is such a powerful thing, and when adults can move past their fear, there’s such a wealth of learning and fun and connection to be had with those oft reviled screens. So many opportunities! Almost limitless options. Personally, I’m grateful to have always had so many “screens” in my life.

*I put screens in quotations because I find it a very reductive and misleading way to talk about a whole range of different devices.

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Summer Rules?

There’s an image I see going around Facebook a lot lately. Titled “Summer Rules,” it sets a long list of requirements that must be met before children are allowed to “use electronics.” While I’ve certainly seen some dissenting voices, the overwhelming response seems to be one of great satisfaction. That’s the way to make kids live life right, people explain, congratulating each other on assuring that children make exactly the choices that the adults in their lives think are most appropriate, even during what, for many, is their one real break from school all year long.


As you’ve probably already guessed, I find this graphic frustrating at best, infuriating at worst. Why? Here are just a few reasons…

I already fail to meet this list of requirements every single day. My bed gets made at night, right before I get into it, because that’s my routine and there’s nothing wrong with it. I spend plenty of days in my PJ’s. My hair rarely gets combed out (the breakage! The frizz!), as a light finger combing that doesn’t unnecessarily disturb my curls is usually all that’s needed. I tend to brush my teeth while I open up my computer for the day, checking email and Facebook notifications while tending to oral hygiene. Ditto for breakfast. I get to make all these decisions for myself, because I’m an adult, but I also got to make these decisions for myself when I was younger, because my parents respected me. As I hope I’ve just made clear, doing all of these first section “rules” before electronics every morning, or even doing all of them every day, is pretty arbitrary. Yes, I get that we want children to be clean and to eat well and all that, but there are a whole bunch of better ways to encourage healthy habits besides holding electronics over children’s heads as bribes/blackmail.

Making some things “good” activities, and others “bad” (the old books versus screens dichotomy) is a great way to teach kids just that… But not necessarily in the direction you want. What is forbidden usually becomes more desirable. Screens! What is forced generally becomes less desirable. Books! Art! Playing outside! Tidying! Helping others! Is that really what anyone wants? When activities are instead presented as equally valid choices, when children are involved in family life, and when adults themselves are engaging in a range of different types of activities, children are going to be influenced by that. And sometimes? Sometimes they really love something and will want to spend all their time engaged in that something, and if we want to nurture passion, sometimes we’re going to have to accept that other people--children included--will be passionate about something we neither like or understand, and learn to be okay with that. No one gets to choose what someone else will love, whether they’re children or adults. Also? Lumping things like artistic creation and reading into the same category as cleaning is a good way to extra, super duper discourage them. Like, has anyone really thought that one through?

There are a whole lot of different uses for “electronics.” I’m going to assume here that the creator of the List Of Rules means computers and video games here, and not, say, a microwave, because they’re not very clear. If we’re talking about video games, see above on passion. If we’re talking about computers… Well. Some of the things people regularly do on the computer include: writing emails, reading (fiction and articles and essays and poetry), writing (blog posts or essays or fiction), watching YouTube videos (for both instruction and entertainment), playing games (strategy games and simulation games and puzzle games), talking to friends, creating art, participating in online discussions and forums, researching any topic you can imagine, looking for new hobbies or activities, looking at art… Whenever people decide to generalize “screens” or “electronics” I can’t help but be exasperated. You’d think that when we opened up our computers, there was just one option: Stare At Blue Screen Like Zombie. In reality, the amount of activities it’s possible to engage in on screened electronics is huge. It’s a really big window into a whole lot of the world, and dismissing it as bad, or deciding (as the above image seems to be doing) that virtually any activity off of screens is better than any on seems completely absurd.

Luckily, someone out there named Laura Sweet did a bit of fixing:

“Have you: Woken up today? Then you can enjoy summer like kids should.”

Now that’s something I can get behind.