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“Dr. Amy, do you let your kids play video games?”

Over the years, people in my practice have asked me many questions about what we do in our family on many different topics, ranging from food choices, medications, vaccinations, contact sports and more.  And while in some areas I have black-and-white, yes or no answers for them, in most areas we have set household ‘rules’ for how to handle these things.  I don’t aim to tell people what to do in any of these areas – but rather point them towards information and suggest that they come to their own conclusions: ones that fit right for their family and parenting approach.

The reasons WHY we make these rules stem from our personal values, beliefs and understanding of how our choices with technology use impact us – all of which we also explain to our kids.

Firstly, I believe whole-heartedly in letting kids be kids.  Letting them play in the mud, explore the natural world, create artwork of every kind, make music, dance unabashedly, love unconditionally – and ultimately be as fully expressed as possible.  All of this is with the intention to nurture the seeds of creativity and imagination that provide the foundation for their inquisitive minds.  In our approach to parenting, maximizing this is central to all of our decisions about how our kids spend their time.

On the particular issue of electronics, I have to admit to being somewhat of a nazi. (Is that politically incorrect to put it that way?  I don’t know…but I am rather uncompromising in these areas.)  After studying the human body and brain for so many years, with an emphasis on developing babies and kids – and with a focus on maximizing potential – I have pretty hard and fast feelings about electronics usage and kids.  It’s as hard for me to see my kids sit like lumps on a log playing computer games for long periods of time as it would be for me to watch them fill their bodies with junk food day in and day out.

Do I think technology – TV, movies, hand-held devices, and computers – are bad?  No, I don’t.  Quite honestly, I see these merely as tools and toys.  However, as with anything, technology can be misused, abused, and as such potentially problematic.  The research and understanding that exists on a child’s developing brain when overexposed to electronics clearly points towards it as being an interference to optimal brain function.    (Click here for article detailing many of the reasons why.) Whether this is due to artificially stimulating or overstimulating the brain, or the sedentary nature of the play – without a doubt, the overuse of electronics can interfere with the natural development of a child’s potential.  From this standpoint, we have set rules in our household with the intent of maximizing our childrens’ development without altogether avoiding technology.

With that said, our rules have changed over the years.  Up until age 2, electronics were virtually non-existent in our kids’ lives.  No TV, no movies, no video games or handheld devices.  I was incredibly strict with this – although it may have been easier to do since it was in the pre- iPad era.  If we were somewhere with a TV on, I would even position the kids so they were facing away from it.  One look at the trance-like state Ethan would go into if near a TV was enough to set off the warning bells in my mind.   Where was my son?  Where did that light in his eyes go?  Why didn’t he hear a word I said? 

I always held the notion that I wanted to nurture and protect that wonderful, natural curiosity and creativity from day one.  I like to think that with a vibrant imagination, our kids could entertain themselves in a yard with no toys, in an empty room, or in a cardboard box.  One of the ‘swear-words” in our household has always been to say “I’m bored.”  “Did you lose your imagination?” we’d quip.  After all, if they were used to playing with their toys, coming up with ideas or being immersed in imaginative play – the need for the entertainment provided by the outside-in stimulation of electronics was an occasional addition rather than a crutch we relied on to keep them busy.

“Why can’t we play on electronics for as long as we’d like?”, our kids may ask.  (By now, they know my answer)  “It will turn your brain to mush.” is my most common response.  “Go out and play.  Run around.  Build a fort.  Make music.  PLAY.”  (which they do fantastically well, I might add).

We want to be able to sit at a dinner table or go out to a restaurant while expecting our kids to sit and talk with us.  We want to be able to go for a drive and sing songs, play games like I-Spy, and pass the time together in conversation.  We want to cuddle up and read together, tell stories to each other, and use TV, movies and electronics to fill some of the gaps, not as the main attraction.

The truth is that with many years between those toddler years and now – with Ethan turning 11, and Audra turning 9 – it has become increasingly important that we set guidelines for how we use technology in our house.  For the record, we have 2 laptops (one of which is Ethan’s), 2 ipods, 2 iphones, a Wii and an iPad in our house.  (Like I said, we don’t see the technology itself as the problem – but rather the rampant, unsupervised use of it)

Suffice it to say that there are times or circumstances when our rules are more lax – just like there are times when our food choices are less optimal.  But in the day-to-day run of our lives, our ‘rules’ seem to work well.  And if we happen to occasionally fall off track, we simply put our rules back into place to get back on track.  In other words,  there are times that we let things slide – but that is the exception rather than the rule.

Our household rules on technology:

1 – We limit games, iPods, iPads, computers and games to 1 hour a day  – and ideally not every day. If we are not able to keep an eye on the time, the kids set a timer.  They can choose if they want to play for an hour straight or break it up into smaller spurts.

2 – There are no electronics before school – including TV.  EVER.  Any time I have conceded on this one, our mornings quickly spiralled downhill. Getting out the door in the mornings is busy enough without having to factor in an exponential increase in poor listening, poor organization, more fighting, yelling and frustration.

3 – We got rid of cable television years ago (like I wrote about in a previous blog.)  Yes, we still watch shows, movies and documentaries – but when we turn on the TV, it is to choose what we watch without mindless channel surfing.  (And maybe this sounds funny, but even now, our kids ask for permission to turn on the TV.)   We love our Apple TV that allows us to watch movies, Netflix, YouTube and more.

As we tell our kids – there is junk food, and there is junk thinking – and what you put into your mind is just as important as what you put into your body.  (As an aside, my personal measuring stick for what I watch is this:  Does this add to my life or take away from it?  Does this make me feel good or bad?) 

4 – We have designated Sundays as our Family Day when there are no electronics. Unless we collectively opt for a family movie, all electronics are off.  No computers, iPods, iPads or shows.  Sunday is a day for us to spend time together.

5 – Electronics are allowed in the car on longer drives, but in limited use for short ones.  After all, our kids got used to driving from Ontario to Nova Scotia when they were babies – and did so with crafts and games.  We feel that if they can’t drive an hour without an electronic to entertain them, we may very well have taken a step backwards.

6 – Nothing violent.  Ever.  I know as they grow older they will see things elsewhere that I may not approve of.  However, with all that I have studied on the brain and development, I simply cannot bring it into our household.

7 – Music is always allowed, even if it uses electronics. We are avid music lovers and as such, allow our kids to listen to music any time of day.

As I finished this blog, I showed it to Ethan – wondering if he’d have anything to add. He laughed a bit (‘Yeah, I’ve heard all this before’)  When asked if his friends had rules around technology in their homes, he nodded yes.  And better yet, when asked if he thinks our rules are fair, without pause he answered YES.

Audra, on the other hand clearly stated that she thinks our rules are fair but she doesn’t necessarily like them (like an hour a day and none on Sundays). And she clarified that she disapproves of our no violence rule because she really wants to watch The Hunger Games (and we said no).   She also pointed out “But Mommy, YOU”RE on a computer right now writing your blog, you know.” (She misses nothing, I might add!  I told her she should have slept in a little later…) And on that note… I’m posting this blog and then turning off the computer:  getting ready for a great day with my family.