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My oldest son, 27, was visiting recently while his youngest brother, 17, had a friend over. He poked his head into his brother's room to say hello, then joined me on the porch. “Those guys really have an advantage,” he said.
I laughed. “Why? Because they're gaming?”
He nodded. “Think about it, Mom. It's Saturday night, and those guys are in there playing 'League of Legends' and 'Minecraft.' They already know how to write software code and design things.”
I wanted to push back. Thinking about how many hours a day kids spend in front of computer screens always makes me want to argue with somebody.
I've come to believe that imposing arbitrary rules on your child's internet use isn't the way to go.
With five kids in our household — three of them boys — I fought a lot of battles around screen time. Every time I made a rule, my sons would find a loophole. Like the time I told them they couldn’t go online between 9 and 5 on weekends, only to discover they were setting their alarms for 6 a.m. to play "World of Warcraft" before breakfast.
Old habits die hard, but I think my son is right. Like many parents, I've worried about how much access our kids have to the Internet, but I've come to believe that imposing arbitrary rules on your child's Internet use isn't the way to go.
The other night, for instance, I was doing dishes and listening to an radio program about Internet addiction. My youngest son wandered into the kitchen and listened to the program as he ate an ice cream bar, then shook his head. “What if kids are actually better off if they go online?” he said. “Why don't people ever talk about that?”
“Why would they?” I asked. “Who's better off?”
“A lot of kids,” he said. “If a kid is lonely or depressed, going online can help him talk to his friends or escape his life. Plus, you can learn stuff online that they don't teach in school. I bet a lot of kids stay out of trouble if they're gaming.”
Ironically, a friend of mine, a juvenile court judge, agrees. “Even some of our most impoverished families have computers at home now,” she notes, “and we've seen a reduction in delinquency cases. One theory is that kids are gaming, so they're not out committing crimes.”
The whole issue of how much time kids should spend online strikes me as yet another of those gray areas where experts issue hyperbolic examples and hysterical warnings, causing parents to experience knee-jerk reactions, like, “The Internet is evil! Satan lives there, alongside the pedophiles!”
Yes, of course we need to be involved in monitoring what our children are doing online. But we must also be respectful and thoughtful about helping our kids manage their own time, especially now that most children have cellphones and are carrying these tiny but powerful computers in their pockets. According to the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of teens go online daily, with 24 percent saying they're online “almost constantly.”
Family discussions can't be as simplistic as talking about “how much time” our children spend online. Sure, get kids outside, have them take music lessons, show them the world. But we must also focus on what they're doing online, too, and gauge the quality of those activities, not the quantity.
That, too, is a new gray area. For instance, too few parents grasp that the gaming culture is an important one, made up of diverse, interactive communities where our children learn how to create strategies and communicate with people of all ages and backgrounds as they master problem-solving skills.
A number of studies have shown that video games have a positive impact on cognitive abilities such as perception, memory and decision making. My apologies to the parenting experts I will offend by saying this, but it takes a lot of hours to master those skills. Are my sons really better off, say, limiting their gaming time to an hour a day, so they can spend five hours a day playing basketball? Not if they want jobs.
My own three sons still spend hours a day online. They're not gaming as much as they did while they were younger, but they continue to use skills they mastered online. Our oldest graduated from college with a film studies degree and currently works as an art director in Hollywood; he relies on computers to design sets and implement special effects.
Our second son graduated with an English degree and works as a contextual marketing specialist — his entire job is digital. And our youngest is headed to college in the fall, where he plans to study chemical engineering.
It isn't only computer games that helped our youngest earn a place in that engineering school. He also went online to watch demonstrations and lectures whenever he wanted to learn something they didn't teach him in school. He has built a hovercraft, a Jacob's Ladder, and even, with the help of an online community, a small nuclear fusor that he then presented at an inventor's convention.
What a wonderful world it is, where our children have access to games, science demonstrations, card tricks, movies and lectures on any subject in the world right in their own living rooms.
What a wonderful world it is, where our children have access to games, science demonstrations, card tricks, movies and lectures on any subject in the world right in their own living rooms. As parents, our job is to steer them in the right directions online, just as we do in other aspects of their lives. But their passions and goals are uniquely theirs, and they deserve to use every tool available to explore them — even the tools they find online.
A few days ago, a friend came to dinner while my son was gaming. “How many hours a day do you let him spend on the computer?” she asked, leaning forward to whisper.
“I don't really keep track,” I said.
She leaned back in her chair with a shocked look on her face. “Really? I let my kids go online an hour a day, tops,” she said. “I don't want them to be addicted.”
I smiled and offered her a cup of coffee. Sometimes, there's no point in arguing, but it's time for all parents to realize that technology isn't the enemy here. We must all think carefully about how our children navigate the Internet, while keeping an open mind. What some call an addiction might actually turn out to be an advantage.
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