Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Plugging-in Our Children

For the past couple of years, while my husband was battling cancer, and the past 5 months as I have been learning how to be a single mom, my kids have used electronic gadgets.  They have used them a LOT.  I have agonized over it endlessly, but feel powerless to change the particular state that we are in.  While spending countless hours trying to manage my husband’s care, my three boys were plugged into their devices.  Last school year, as my husband changed protocols and gradually deteriorated, my children played Wii, iPod, iPhone and computer games all day long.  We didn’t even homeschool.  At all.  After my husband passed away I assumed that I would be able to reel in a bit of this gratuitous electronic media usage and try to help my kids reclaim their childhoods.  But, alas, it just hasn’t happened that way.  We began homeschooling with a vengeance in August, and cranked out an entire year of curriculum in 16 calendar weeks.  My boys punished 1st and 3rd grades.  We settled into a routine where my youngest would go to preschool for half a day and my older two would pound the books every morning.  Then when they were done, they could do whatever they wanted.  And their choice was always something electrical.   One would load up the Wii, another would fire up the laptop for Minecraft, and the third would go find the iPhone or iPad to play games.  They often play separately on different devices, and I’m telling you, that’s not a bad thing.  When they try to play a Wii game together, it always ends in screaming, hitting, kicking and sometimes biting.  I felt so guilty and WRONG for letting them have so many hours of electronic gaming everyday, but to be brutally honest, it worked so well for us.  They still went to their art classes, playgroups, music lessons and sports practices.  But, when we were home, they were staring at screens.  And I was off the hook.  No pretending to be happy or excited about life.  Because I wasn’t.  No having to come up with activities, forcing “family game nights” that my kids would hate or other excuses for quality time that I really didn’t have the energy or inclination for.  No trying to keep my boys from killing each other because they were “playing” and hence arguing about absolutely everything.

Now that we are coming to the end of the calendar year, I’m starting to wonder if we really need to change anything.  We are going to continue our break-neck speed of homeschooling and attempt to complete 2nd and 4th grades by the summer.  I need to go back to work, and I’m actively looking for a telecommuting job that I could do from home and continue to be here for my children.  Since I very may well be stretching myself to the absolute limit trying to juggle homeschooling with work, I don’t anticipate me suddenly having the spare time and focus to engage with my kids any more than I am able to do now.  It’s just my reality.  Still, I wanted to explore what the experts say about children and electronic gadgets, to get a clearer picture of just how much I’m screwing my children up.  According to a well-known Kaiser Foundation Family study, children are now averaging 7 ½ hours every day on electronic devices.  This is up slightly from 5 years ago, when the average was determined to be 6 hours per day.  Four hours of that 7 ½ hours tends to be spent in front of the television.  Basically, electronic exposure is a full-time job for our children.  Astonishingly enough, however, 88% of parents claim to set boundaries on their childrens’ access to electronic gadgets.  I don’t even try to pretend that I place any limits for my kids.  The concerns that have been listed time and time again regarding overuse of electronics are trouble sleeping, tendency towards obesity, less time spent on homework and reading, less social interaction with family and difficulty with decision-making due to information overload.  An article on the Mayo Clinic website cautions against children having more than 2 hours of electronic media exposure per day as it can contribute to emotional, social and attention problems.  And the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests that exposure to violence on television, movies and games may lead to imitation of violence.  There haven’t been enough definitive studies that prove excessive electronic exposure actually does cause violent activity in children, but suggests that there may be a connection.

One problem that really caught my eye, is a condition coined “Gameboy Back” by two surgeons in The Netherlands.  Orthopedists are seeing more and more children with abnormal curvature in their back, and the corresponding problems that result, due to them hunching over their electronic devices.  It used to be that children would develop similar problems as a result of working in factories for so many hours per day.  There isn’t much difference in posture whether you are hunching over an assembly line or an iPad.  At least in the olden days, kids helped their parents put food on the table, and I’ll admit when my oldest’s entitlement issues surface I want nothing more than to sling him in a cotton factory for a 12-hour shift.  But, in all seriousness, this is one thing I do want to keep an eye on, because I don’t want my kids developing serious spinal issues as a result of our lifestyle choice.

I understand some of the concerns out there regarding children and limitless electronic usage, but none of my children actually seem to be waving any of those red flags.  They don’t get outside as much as I did as a child, when my Mom would drop-kick us out the door after breakfast and didn’t want to see us until dinner, but they do play sports.  It may only be a few hours a week that they are actively exercising, but all my boys are really wiry.  They also do very well with their schoolwork, and interact with people during playgroup, music lessons, and at the art school they attend weekly.  My oldest son reads for at least 2 hours every single night before bed.  He cranks through so many books, I can’t keep up with him.  And my middle son, who is not a reader, draws incessantly.  He will make several drawings every day.  I do agree completely with the concern that their gaming is interfering with quality time with family, but we don’t have much of a family these days to speak of.  I am trying to just hold it all together, and the three boys just do not enjoy being together.  It always turns into an Ultimate Fighting championship within minutes.  They’ve just always been that way.  I am hopeful that someday our family will be different, and I’ll be better able to focus on making memories, creating traditions and knitting a strong family identity in my children.  But, frankly, this coming year ain’t gonna be it.  And after taking a long hard look at my kids, their gaming habits, and each boys’ emotional and social health, I gotta tell you… they seem to be doing just fine.  So I’ve decided I’m not going to worry about it anymore, and I’m not going to try to fix something that isn’t broken.  For right now, in this family, free access to electronic media is working, so I’m just going to go with it. 

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