Managing family screen time

Every parent I talk to about “screen time” is struggling with it. Managing appropriate use of screens is harder than ever and the generic advice we get isn’t catching up. For instance: how do you restrict screen time when schools expect homework to be done online? Or when kids get music through streaming? When our kids use screen time and what kind they use has a major effect on all our day-to-day routines.

In this post, rather than give the answers (which I don’t have anyway), I’ll give an unedited, disorganized view into what our family is dealing with and the strategies we’re considering. Please feel free to jump in on the comments with an “argh, me too!” or an “I found a good solution for that.”

With no further ado, we’re struggling with:

  • Getting to bed at a reasonable hour
  • Having enough “down time”
  • Making sure to take breaks even while gaming
  • Staying focused while doing homework

A big part of the solution is setting up family expectations and routines. We’re doing this, but with mixed results. It may come as a shock, but I am not a Perfect Mom. I set rules and fail to enforce them or even follow them myself. This is life.

I’m also finding myself stymied by the technology itself. Companies want my kids to be online at all hours, partly because kids’ online activity brings them advertiser revenue. So the technology is deeply manipulative. The kids end up in the middle of a tug-of-war between responsible parenting and capitalism.

I’m sure — or rather, I hope — that hardware and software tools exist that will simplify my parenting job instead of making it harder. So I’m on the hunt for them. The first part is getting specific about which problems need solving, the second part is imagining solutions that will help, and the third part is finding tools that meet my needs.

How technology is making it worse:

  • No stopping points
  • Manufacture of anxiety
  • Encouragement of addictive behavior (for financial benefit)

A side note on stopping points. . .

When I was a kid, television had advertisements–opportunities to get a snack, go to the bathroom. They were also a place a parent could step in and say, “Turn off the TV now!” Arcade video games also had stopping points. Run out of lives, and you have to put in another quarter to keep going.

It didn’t take long, though, for makers of arcade games to realize the “Put in another quarter to continue” trick. A stressed-out player who must win the Boss Battle is a great money-making opportunity.

As a parent, I have to say it’s much, much worse. Our first run-in with software that played tug-of-war with children’s attention was Webkinz. It was introduced through an after-school class offered at school. We’d say, “Time to get off!” and first there would be protests because the pet needed feeding or whatever, and then there were three minutes of mini-games you could only play upon logout.

So unfortunately, the old practice of setting a time and simply shutting off a device leads to power struggles specifically because the game player has something to lose if they don’t play for “one more minute.” And I’ll be honest, I suck at that. I know I should just set hard-core limits and let the kids figure out how to save their work from being lost, but it’s just not in my nature. So I need to automate it.

The worst offenders

For instance: Youtube autoplay. One video ends, another video chosen by youtube runs automatically.

Solutions we’re looking into:

  • Bedtime at the router level
  • Enjoyable online activities that encourage breaks
  • Software that enforces regular breaks from gaming altogether
  • For homework, a locked-down user account

Some things we need from a router:

  • Ability to schedule access for each device separately. A blanket “no screen use between these hours” won’t work for our family.
  • That access needs to be fine-grained, with different hours each day
  • That scheduled access actually has to shut off access to the Internet

Our current router has a setting to schedule access, but it is set for the same time each day. That’s not helpful. Worse, it doesn’t even shut off Internet access to the device. I think it just shuts off the ability of a computer to open new connections, but old connections work just fine.

So when I’m looking at feature lists for routers, they’ll talk about parental control and access scheduling, but it’s not easy to tell whether they’ll do what I want.

I’d also really love this:

  • Ability to shut off Internet to the house for a certain amount of time but maintain wireless connections

We currently do this by unplugging the router, which unfortunately also messes up our printer, which then has to be rebooted. (The printer is also the reason I can’t just pick a new wifi password every day, a strategy that’s often recommended. I don’t even know how to change the password on the printer!)

Online games that encourage breaks:

One of the worst offenders in our house is bonk.io. Games are quick and one morphs into another, leading to “just-a-minute-itis” and ultimately the unplugging of the modem, which, as I mentioned before, messes up our printer.

For Minecraft, some game modes are easy to break away from and others start family fights because quitting can lead to loss of hard-won inventory or worse, leave something they’ve painstakingly built open to griefing.

Personally, I found some help from a little Mah-Jongg matching game. Its moneymaking scheme is to grant the user only one life every thirty minutes, with a maximum of five lives, and to make the levels progressively harder. The point is to get users to spend money so they can keep playing but for me, this thirty-minute stop makes the game ideal for mandatory breaks.

Software that enforces regular breaks:

This is new territory for me. It seems like we want something that will interrupt the user regularly with a reminder to take a break, to fill the whole screen, but to allow for a certain number of “Not just yet!” clicks.

But another option is to have a more optional reminder, combined with software that tracks success.

Locked-down user account:

Online homework is a problem. And the older kids get, the more of it they have to do. It’s like saying, “Here kid, have a nutritious dinner of soggy green beans and liver,” and putting it down next to a bowl of M&M. It’s no good blaming the kid for eating the candy–that’s not the origin of the problem. Adults set up kids to be distracted.

So I’m thinking  about making a user account that is in “kiosk mode” to prevent switching from homework to games.

The kicker here is that often, kids need to do research on google. And google is candy.

Finding solutions under capitalism

So I have some very specific things I want, but when I go online to find them, I have to wander through a mishmash of companies that want to sell me their products. It’s like going into a hardware store in search of a screwdriver, only nobody organized the shelves, and instead of one worker dedicated to helping find you what you want, you have fifty workers wandering around with supermarket circulars. You end up leaving with a hammer.

Tools I’m looking at

I didn’t write this post to sell tools, and in fact, I can’t vouch for any of these. I found them through a pretty ineffective method, google searching. It’s just that they made the cut for further investigation.

Desktop apps (Windows-compatible)

Big list of related apps at AlternativeTo website.

Stretchly

Stretchly is a free, open-source desktop app that gives periodic reminders to take breaks. You can customize the frequency and length of breaks but not from the user interface – you have to edit a configuration file. The developer’s page, with download instructions, is here.

It looks relaxing, but since it’s on the polite end of things, it would be easy to ignore. With configuration, it could probably with extended writing sessions both for homework and for me.

Cold Turkey

Cold Turkey looks like the opposite of Stretchly. It has customizable blocking of specific apps or the whole Internet, but once you’ve scheduled blocking them, it’s nearly impossible to get it back. I think our family is too chaotic for this.

ClearFocus

This app lets you configure work sessions and breaks. You can disable distracting apps or turn off wifi. You can also get statistics on your usage. There’s a free version (with a banner ad) and a paid version.

Down side: no Windows version. Bummer!

Tomighty

It looks like a simple Pomodoro timer that’s pretty customizable. Might be a good starter choice. It’s explained at Lifehacker and is available here.

Other stuff I haven’t looked at yet, but might be promising:

  • Focus Keeper
  • Focus booster
  • PomoDoneApp
  • StretchClock Break Reminder
  • Stand Up!
  • SelfControl
  • Freedom
  • HeyFocus

Not workable for various reasons:

  • Marinara is a web-based timer that has URLs you can share. I’m thinking about this for group writing sessions – imagine if we set up a google hangout or whatever, and every certain amount of time, we stopped for chitchat.
  • Forest is an app for phones that gameifies not using your phone. Grows a beautiful forest.
  • Pomodorium also gameifies productivity by letting you spend finished pomodoros (units of time worked) on enhancing a character. That could be something to try later.
  • Push by Zapier Chrome Extension – looks really cool as an integrated task management system. That’s too big for what I want.

Next Steps

I’ll keep looking into apps and modems, but the next thing I’m going to try is simply getting a user account on one laptop that works like a “kiosk.” Windows has a mode called “Assigned Access Mode,” which allows a particular account access to only one application–in this case, Firefox. The goal here is to stop homework sessions from turning into bonk.io games.

I’ll try to come back to this in a later post and let folks know how it went.

Update 2/6/2018 – Nope, you can’t use Firefox as the “Assigned Access Mode” application, at least, not without some extreme technical knowhow. So I went for the simpler solution of setting up a user account named “school” and deleting Chrome. Baby steps. 

– Kristin

(Image features a socket wrench poised to twist a nail and a hammer ready to pound a bolt.)

confused-muddled-illogical-disoriented.jpg

wrong tool for the job

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