Not All Screen Time is Created Equal

Last night I found myself saying something that made my ears feel funny as I said the words. “You wanna go play some Minecraft for a little while?” I said to my six-year-old daughter.

We have some history with Minecraft. (They call it Minecrack at our school.) It was about two-and-a-half years ago when Minecraft took our collective screen time realities to a new level. Let’s just say we have a son who had a compulsion to find any entry point he could anywhere in the house, day or night didn’t much matter.

At first, those clunky, eight-bit-inspired blocks seemed so simplistic, so harmless — and so puzzling that the kids loved to it play it so much. Aren’t they just building things? Isn’t that just like virtual Legos? Come to find out, early on, yes! They were building.

And building with others. The ease with which you could suddenly have an online social experience! And isn’t sociability part of what we encourage in our kids?

But then something happened. Minecraft developed another style, a seek-and-destroy, survivalist, zombie-kill style (only with no guns — until recently there is now a gun version). And just like that building was no longer as fun.

Oh, and I still haven’t landed on one of the biggest issues of all. When is “off” off? Let’s just say it was not as easy and obvious as you might think. Once upon a time you stopped a show or a game when your time was up. You could come back to it later. Now, though, with real-time games with dozens of players whacking each other, it wasn’t over until, well, until everyone was “eliminated.” Even after 10-minute or 5-minute warnings:

“Mom! Can you just wait a minute?”

“We have waited. It’s time. Give me the device.”

“I’m almost done!”

“How much longer?”

“I don’t know how long. Almost!”

“Son, you have now played two hours today. Your time is up.”

“I’m like one of the last guys. I’m about to win!”

And so on. You can imagine the myriad scenarios that played out in the dramatic triangle.

But you know what? Now my six-year-old daughter just likes building. Likes the puzzle part of it. She and her brothers can play it together and build their own houses, villages, cities, and worlds. And you know what else? I think it’s great. On other apps she’s learning how to spell, doing puzzles, dressing cat princesses, and all kinds of creative, analytical, developmental things. Adventure Time and The Regular Show and iCarly have their place, but your passive brain gets bored. Do you know the brain’s activity is nearly identical when it’s sleeping and when it’s in front of a TV? True story.

The truth is, there are ALL kinds of screen time. We are only in the early stages of understanding them. A recent Boston Globe Opinion piece provided a fascinating info-graphic, but it’s probably a lot more complex than even the three proposed categories of “creative,” “passive,” and “interactive.” And are they all mutually exclusive or is there overlap? Can a video game, for instance, be all the above? And of course, what about the content itself? Are we killing zombies or learning world geography?

Now, how do we manage it all again?

*This post was written by Chad Prevost for the Torch community of parents.