Somewhere, high above maths and bedtime on the list of things that are hard to let go of is the fear of ‘screen time’. Wherever you look in parenting circles, online or off, there are lively debates and countless experts offering advice on how to manage this thorny topic. Clickbait headlines about the effects of screens on our children help stoke the confusion and worry, and the one thing we can all agree on for sure is that the whole thing just seems to make everyone cross.
So, where does this all sit with unschooling? Parents often tell me that unschooling wouldn’t work for them because their children would just sit on the sofa all day on their Xbox/ Playstation /tablet. Their starting point is figuring out how they would be able to control the screen time. Since unschooling is based on trust and respect, arbitrary limits can’t work. So letting go of the notion of control and developing a deeper understanding is the only way to go. Over the course of a year or so I went from feeling a sense of rising panic whenever someone spent longer than an hour on a screen to not thinking about screens at all. At some point they became a non-issue. And from the other side, where there are no limits and no worries, I can safely say that life is much nicer over here. It’s a place where we’re enriched daily by technology in terms of knowledge, connections and fun, and where clickbait stories of addiction, violence or any even slightly negative effects have been proven unfounded.
Before we can let go of anything, it’s helpful to understand what our fears or worries actually are. To delve a little deeper here means first doing away with the term ‘screen time’. It covers such a multitude of activities and devices that it has no real meaning. If you see me on a screen, I am possibly reading the news. Equally possible is that I’m texting a friend, browsing Ebay, organising a trip somewhere, scrolling Facebook or replying to a work email. I’d find it patronising if someone referred to all of this as my ‘screen time’. And so it follows that it is patronising to our children for us to lump all their activities together under this one dismissive term. Particularly harsh is that it gives the impression that what our children are doing is meaningless to us (more on that later).
So, what are the fears? They may be around our children missing out on things: exercise, variety of activity, learning opportunities or social life. Or perhaps it’s some fear of the screen activity itself – a certain kind of game or video they’re watching. Perhaps it seems pointless or passive. Or maybe it triggers the feeling that we are not doing enough for our children. I’m thinking about it now, and I can’t honestly say what my fears were. It was a general sense of unease, though there was actually nothing wrong. My children were having a great time playing games like Minecraft, and watching some fairly innocuous Minecraft-playing YouTubers. I could see that what they were doing was interesting and fun, and in fact they learned to read with Minecraft. But I was still uneasy. It was on a screen so it needed a limit.
My shift began when I set conventional wisdom aside and started to get curious. In fact, observing how my children interact with technology has been an essential and fascinating part of this journey.
So here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way:
Limiting anything undermines the trust
Unschooling is all about trust. It’s about accompanying children as they grow and learn, and supporting them in their choices. We can’t do that if at the same time we are dismissing some of their choices because they don’t align with our own. Which means that limiting certain things can undermine everything.
Taking away limits doesn’t leave a void. They are replaced by conversation and discussions, and our interest and involvement. We are all free to bring up things that make us uncomfortable or that we want to understand more about. We’ve had long conversations about all aspects of technology from age ratings to staying safe and time spent online. We’ve been open to each other’s thoughts and needs.
Without school in the picture, the dynamics shift
When a child is free to manage their own time the dynamics naturally shift. Comparing a child who spends a large chunk of their days at school with relatively little autonomy to one who is doing whatever they choose to do is like comparing apples and pears. I remember when D and E arrived home after school. They would get straight onto Minecraft with a palpable sense of relief that now they could relax and do their own thing. That changed after leaving school. They still played Minecraft, but it tended to be either marathon sessions, or none at all for weeks. Not having a set time or limit gave them the power to use the game in the way that worked best for them. And it turns out, that that wasn’t at 5pm every day for an hour and a half…
Don’t assume that some activities are less worthy than others
This is a tough one to undo – it’s deeply ingrained in parents that there is a pecking order of activities and hobbies, and that a good parent encourages the good ones. On this scale, for most of us, reading, playing a musical instrument or having a bike ride sit near the top, whilst gaming or watching a favourite YouTuber are near the bottom. It’s key to our children’s autonomy and development that we let go of these judgements and simply understand that every choice is made for a reason that is valid to them.
Here, the easy flow between activities that use technology would be ruined if I attempted to judge or encourage. If C is on her tablet for a while, she might play Roblox but she could just as easily choose to watch a documentary or learn Spanish on Duolinguo. One is not more meaningful than the other to her. I’m sure she doesn’t think, ‘Right, that’s enough fun. I’d better learn something now’. She just gets on with what appeals to her. E spends hours a day on his computer. His general knowledge is phenomenal, and he likes to research things, create maps, work on the family tree, plan future travels… I love to ask him what he’s up to as I know the answer will always surprise me. D has always been an avid gamer but right now, he isn’t gaming much. He’s on a screen quite a lot, but he’s teaching himself Chinese, Russian and German, and watching videos on economics and politics. He sometimes games, and occasionally he and E set up together on a game for a couple of hours.
The change between activities is quiet and entirely unpredictable. If I were to try to control the flow because I felt some things were ‘better’ than others, I would create tension and derail the process. Which leads me nicely to the next point:
There’s lots to be learned from gaming
Of course, when people talk about ‘screen time’, they’re not really talking about watching history documentaries, learning a new language, or chatting to grandparents on FaceTime. For many, ‘screen time’ is a euphemism for gaming. I didn’t have a clue about gaming until D developed a passion for it. Although in recent months he has gamed less as other interests have grown in importance, gaming has been an important part of his life. He tends to play strategy games that are aligned with his interests in economics and geopolitics, and these games have been the starting point for all sorts of interests and learning. They’re not separate in any way from the knowledge and skills he acquires through life – they are an intrinsic part of the whole.
What was extremely helpful to me in the early days was to sit with D while he was gaming and get him to explain the game to me. He was happy to be able to share his interests, and I would be amazed at the skill and concentration required. I would sometimes have a go, but generally find that the sheer quantity of information I was required to process at once was just overwhelming. It was also reassuring at that point to see how much reading, calculating and planning was needed. I remember one game that required scrolling through long texts. The reading was certainly more sophisticated than anything required of an 11 year old at school. So, why would this reading be ‘less’ than reading a book? It wasn’t. It was challenging and engaging, and success in the game relied on excellent comprehension. At times when D’s anxiety has held him back from other activities, his gaming has also helped him self-regulate and find a calm space.
Access to technology doesn’t limit other activities
It seems like there is a fear that technology dumbs children down. That once they have a taste for this easy entertainment, nothing will ever move them away from it. It seems to me like the opposite has happened. That information and ideas flow into our lives from the online world, often translating into offline activities. They’ve created board games, read books inspired by games, planned new website ideas, learned programming, begun developing a game, and thought up countless business ideas around new technology. I don’t really know how to unpick it all as I have no idea what started online and what started offline. From the stock exchange to running a country, to Ancient Rome, I just know that these are interests that take on many forms.
Having no limits on technology has had no particular influence on their lives beyond the house. Their personalities and interests determine what clubs they go to and who they make friends with. And if the option is between being going out to doing something they enjoy or staying at home, they pretty much always choose to go out.
There’s nothing wrong with relaxing with a screen
Sometimes, someone is tired or doesn’t know what to do, so they relax by watching TV or playing a game. My experience is that they spend a little while doing whatever they need to just relax, and then an idea comes to them and they get on with that. I might make a suggestion for something to do, but more than likely they just need to recharge a little. Who doesn’t?
Things come and go
Life is always moving on and changing. Though I see that everyone’s core interests are always alive in some way, the ways of exploring them come and go. For a while in lockdown, C would play Roblox with a friend in Spain. It was a way for her to be with her friend and have some fun. She particularly liked two games, both involving animals. As the lockdown eased she made friends with a girl who lives nearby and they started to play together with toy animals. Their games, which involve mindboggling amounts of horses, each with their own name and character, can last for hours. Playing online for now has lost its allure for C. A similar thing happened with a game on the tablet in which she would create clothes designs. She occasionally still plays it, but now spends a lot of time making clothes for her various soft toy friends. Things come and go.
Being curious is the only way
Whilst the parent is going through their own ‘deschooling’ process, staying present and curious to what their children are doing is the only way forward. If I felt myself getting uptight about something technology-related, I would try to get curious before the trigger kicked in any stronger. So rather than making a comment on how long someone had been on their computer, I would take an interest in what they were doing. I was often surprised by the responses, always proving that what I see is not necessarily the experience that they are living.
Of course, every child is different, so our experiences here with technology will be entirely different from other families’ experiences. But, I think that in any family, getting away from the fears and really exploring and understanding is always going to be enriching. It’s likely to lead to a far healthier relationship with technology, and a lot less stress.
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Different standards for our children than we hold for ourselves just isn’t fair. When I realised this, I too went from worrying to not thinking about it. My children have unlimited screentime and it doesn’t worry me! They play all day, with or without screens.
Hi there, I’m finding reading your posts really interesting as I consider unschooling…may I ask what do you do around bedtimes, is that a limit as well which you don’t impose? I trialled my son having unlimited screen time (I know, I know!), and he gamed all day and into the night, keeping me up. And I suspect that is because he knew it was temporary, but with his mental health already fragile the screens, the sleep and the lack of any social interaction (his games are played on his own) are the things which worry me the most. Thanks, yours with curiosity, Judith
Hi Judith. It was quite easy to let go of bedtimes because my eldest son hated going to bed : ) So it was always a long and frustrating process for us all. Once we let that go, it all became much easier, and over time each person was able to grow in their understanding and managing of their own needs. Now, although in theory they could stay up all night, we generally go up at about the same time. I think that the most important thing has been to shift to a place of connection and of understanding of our own and each other’s needs, without judgement or criticism. There were times that my son did stay up to game until the early hours (and it definitely didn’t feel comfortable to me), but now, at 15, he prefers not to, and is concerned about having enough sleep and staying healthy. Interestingly, regarding mental health, my son (who also only games on his own) considers gaming as something that has always helped his mental health, and particularly anxiety. Now he has many interests, and games far less than he ever has, but it’s always there if he feels he needs it. I feel like, particularly for more fragile young people, it’s really important for them to have the space, support and autonomy to develop a deep understanding of themselves. That way they can learn how to regulate all their different processes and take care of their mental health. For the parent, there is definitely a leap of faith that needs to be taken, and that can be hard!
Thank you for this article, it was extremely helpful to read someone else’s experience. As a mother of three unschooling kids, I’m dealing with these fears quite often. I try to leave my worries behind and let them to manage things as they want, even when it means they sit literally all day watching YouTube and playing Minecraft 😄 not so easy sometimes, but working on myself is the only way.
Wow!! Thanks so much for this article. I have been homeschooling for several years but I was always drawn to unschooling. Of course my fear is that they will not “learn” enough being on screens for so long but I’m getting a giddy nervous and excited feeling about finally stepping out into this area. We’ve had several starts and stops to our schooling and it always amazes me how much they have learned in the “gaps”. I’m going to try this finally. We are doing a relaxed schooling right now but I’m going to go all out and try it for the rest of this year. Thanks so much for giving me the confidence to let go.
Hi Tricia. So glad this was helpful to you and has given you confidence. Screens have been such a valuable resource to us. As I write this response, one is working on a graphic design project, one is creating his own map of the world according to indigenous peoples (!), and my ‘gamer’ is out at his martial arts class, and rarely has time to game any more. It’s a interesting ride! Lots of luck with your new adventures x
Ester, I can’t thank you enough for your post. This is the 2nd year of unschooling my now 13 year old daughter who deals with major anxiety. I worry about her screen time and lack of sleep (some days), but she says she’s happy with her group of friends and feels safe from judgment unlike being in the world. I guess I need to trust this more and work through my own anxieties and dreams for her and let her live her own even if it’s different from everyone and everything else. Thank you again!
I see many articles, like this one, who talk about “screen time” as it relates to gaming or using a computer or phone. But my kids only watch tv shows and movies on their tablets. They go to them immediately when they are bored, upset, frustrated or tired. They spend hours watching shows. We unschool and I just feel like it’s a lot of hours of their childhood and their time watching shows which is the most passive of all “screen time”. I’m ready to give up.