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Why I Gave My Kid More Screen Time

I went to pick up my 10-year-old (we like to call him Big Brother) from a playdate recently, and found him and his friend hunched over separate laptops playing Minecraft. “Sorry, they’ve been on the computer all afternoon,” his friend’s mother sheepishly apologized.

Not that I am one to judge. After all, many a playdate at my house has gone something like this:

“Can we play Wii/Wizard 101/Webkinz?”

“No, you and Johnny should play with each other. Go build LEGOs or trade Pokémon cards or jump on the trampoline.”

“But he’s going to show me how to get to the next level/meet me in the server/breed his Pokémon with mine.” (Yes, they really breed).

“Why don’t you do other things for the first hour, then you can play video games?”

Ten minutes later.

“Can we play Wii/Wizard 101/Webkinz?”

“Go play in the backyard!”

“Can we play Wii/Wizard 101/Webkinz?”

“Oh … I guess … OK.”

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I should have seen it coming last summer, when Big Brother turned 10. We were wandering around Toys"R"Us, something that used to take hours because we had such a hard time trying to narrow down what to buy. Even with his fistful of gift cards, Big Brother was indecisive because he couldn’t find any toys he wanted to buy.

“Can we look around that section?” he asked, pointing to the corner of the store where the video games were kept.

We live in Silicon Valley, where plenty of other children are playing video games before they can read. One of my son’s friends builds websites in HTML. (I need to get his number). I may live in the ground zero of technology, but I was a Luddite until recently. We were the last family on the block to get a game console. Until a year ago, all four of us shared one PC. And we still don’t have an iPad or Kindle, and if we want to watch TV, we actually have to park ourselves on the couch at a designated time, because we don’t own a DVR. The last time I enjoyed gaming, it involved borrowing my roommate’s Apple IIe to play Tetris.

So why did I change my mind on video games? Facebook made me do it. Let me explain …

One day, when I was yelling at my kids to end their games (don’t finish the level, don’t save, just turn it off!), Little Brother mouthed back at me, “But you’ve been on your computer for hours!”

“That’s different. I’m working.”

“You’re not working, you’re just … on Facebook!”

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That launched me into a long monologue into how mommy is a writer; reading and commenting and sharing things online is part of how I find out what’s going on and connect with people. It didn’t resonate well with a 7-year old. But as I thought about it, I realized that knowing how to relate to others online is the new people skill. And just like toddlers need to spend some time in the sandbox to learn how to play well with others, tweens probably now need to get gradually introduced to the world of social media—and gaming is now part of social, as well. The boys trade characters over Wi-Fi on their Nintendos and meet each other in different parts of the Minecraft world. We’ve had talks about what kind of people they can interact with and what kind of language or discussion is acceptable.

I know some adults who are perfectly capable of designing circuits, but have no idea what to do with the circles on Google+. I also know some adults who over-share—with no filter—every detail of their lives, especially if it’s numbingly mundane or personal enough to be cringeworthy. I don’t want my kids grow up to be at either extreme.

So I’m letting them get their feet wet, trying on avatars and screen names. There are limits, but not as strict as before. They might be imitating adults and perhaps trying to act older than they are—but that’s how kids learn. After all, isn’t that what play is all about?

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