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“One… two… thrrr…” — He slams his tablet cover closed before I finish saying “three” and throws himself onto the floor, screaming. I sigh with exhaustion. We’re in the midst of another battle over screen time. This scenario repeats itself daily for many months: My 6-year-old son Martin reaches the end of his allotted screen time for the day but has trouble switching his tablet off, and after several attempts to get him off the device in a nicer way, I resort to angry counting.

Like most parents these days, for a long time I felt it was my responsibility to limit my son’s use of screens (a tablet, in our case), and to make sure he adheres to age-appropriate time limits. I tried numerous systems to help me carry out this duty — three screen days a week, two hours a day, the automatic timer turn-off system, the earn-your-screen-time system.

They all seemed to work for a while, and then none did. It was simply exhausting. Enforcing the rules took an incredible amount of energy on my part, and not enforcing them (i.e. pretending that I don’t know how much time has passed) caused an equal amount of guilt. But the worst part is that with every new approach, the general picture deteriorated. The more I restricted, the more obsessive he became about his screen time.

What I didn’t realize at the time, but am convinced of now, is that my screen-time anxiety was much more of a problem than the actual screen time.

Consider this. If you’re disapproving of your child’s screen activities, or you consider them less valuable than other activities, you’re teaching them to be ashamed of their interests, for reasons that they don’t even understand (because, let’s face it, we don’t completely understand why we’re so scared of screens). Whether you want it or not, the message that your child receives is that you don’t like some part of them (or worse, pretend that that part does not exist), and depending on how invested they are in a game, that could be a pretty big part. If you undervalue your child’s screen experiences, you miss an opportunity to learn about their interests and strengths. Worst of all, your screen-time anxiety will exacerbate the problem that it is trying to solve: It will make your kids hold on to their devices for dear life, because they know that these restricted items might be taken away from them any minute. 

So I decided to do something radical by today’s standards: let go of time limits and do my best to let go of my screen-time anxiety. Just completely let go. No screen-related rules whatsoever, at least until I understand what is going on, and until I convince Martin that it’s not a me-against-the-screen thing; I’m on his side. Not just that. I decided to trust my kid and actively cultivate screen-time curiosity.

So one day I plopped my exhausted self on the couch beside Martin and asked, “What are you playing?” Don’t get me wrong, I was not completely uninvolved in his screen life before. I always knew exactly what he was playing, and even did my best to praise his in-game achievements. But that was always done through a layer of low-grade anxiety and guilt (because surely, if I were a better parent, he would be reading books, right?). This time I decided to keep my anxiety at bay, and tried to treat my son’s digital interests and achievements no differently than his off-screen interests. No different and no less valuable than books, Lego projects, drawings and so on.

The famous child psychologist Haim Ginott said: “Treat your child as though he already is the person he’s capable of becoming.” What if we try and extend this thinking to our children’s digital interests? I decided to keep it in mind as I was sitting there beside Martin, who, suddenly invigorated by my interest in his screen activities, was excitedly telling me about this new game he has been immersed in for the past few weeks. What is it about this game that makes it so appealing to him? I forced myself to get past the annoyance at what seemed to me ugly graphics and a lack of “educational” value, and treat it as an opportunity to learn something about him. 

And I learned a lot. In this particular game, you breed various monsters, raise them and have them fight other players’ monsters. I was amazed to find out that Martin knows almost everything about every single one of the game’s several hundred monsters (how to breed each one, their preferred habitats and foods, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to use them in fights).

Frankly, I don’t see much of a difference between wanting to learn everything about, say, dinosaurs (which Martin also did a year earlier) and imaginary monsters (except, of course, that the former gives the parent plenty of opportunity for showing off). Both sets of knowledge are equally likely to render themselves completely useless in his future life, but what’s important is the thirst for knowledge, the desire to become an expert in something, and the persistence and thoroughness to be able to master it. 

What’s more is my involvement in the game led to conversations about mythological creatures and eventually sparked Martin’s interest in Greek mythology. That is not to say that the ultimate goal of our involvement in our kids’ game world should be to make a connection between their game interests and the real world. But the point is that if you take them seriously, and get sincerely interested in their game world, they are more likely to listen to your offer to take out of the library an encyclopedia of mythological creatures.

So how do we handle screen time these days? The short answer is that we focus less on restriction and more on connection. The only rule at this point is no games during family meals and after dinner, but even these are somewhat flexible. Although that might change in the future, at this point I don’t see any reason to limit his screen use any further. His play time is his own, and he decides what to do with it. 

The common fear — that if kids are allowed limitless screen time they will become addicted to it and will not know how to entertain themselves off screen — has not come true for us. Quite the opposite. Even though Martin still spends most of his play time on the screen, once he realized it’s not a forbidden item anymore, he became a lot more easygoing about it. If, one day, I decide that for whatever reason, today is a no-tablet day (because it’s a sunny day and we’re going to spend it splashing around in the paddling pool in the back yard), the implementation of this restriction is usually easy and uneventful.

We’re still experimenting, of course, like all parents of our generation, with how to raise kids in the age of technology. But I’m convinced that getting our screen-time anxiety completely out of the way is the necessary first step before any further screen-related decisions and restrictions can be made.

Tanya Slavin is a freelance writer and mother of two. Her essays have been published in Brain, Child and Manifest-Station. She tweets @tanya_slavin.

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