I have twins; a boy and a girl who are almost 5. Like most gamer parents I wanted them to level up appropriately as they go through life. No one wants a gimped 20-year old. So I read a lot about the dangers of too much screen time at a young age. But there were also obvious benefits. Freedom to make choices (they flittered around youtube mostly at first), hand-eye coordination, learning to share (and enjoy unlikely content) because there were two of them on one device.
When observing them there seemed to be a pretty definite point between benefit and harm. After 30 minutes or so their engagement level dropped considerably. They’d slouch in their seats, click with less enthusiasm, watch things they aren’t interested in. Any further benefits or education was dulled by growing zombification signalling an imminent end to tablet time.
There were other things I did not like about tablets. I didn’t like how they became attachments; portable things that kids use to be entertained and distracted while doing other activities. So instead of a traditional tablet I bought them a giant HP android touchscreen. Essentially a multi-touch 24″ monitor with Android insides. Big enough for them to sit side by side and play together or take turns. It’s on a desk, tethered to the power, and when they want to play it’s an isolated activity.
It’s fascinating to watch them navigate without reading and their reaction to commercialism. They are nearly immune to ads for example. From their first exposure they viewed them as intrusions that delay the video they actually picked. If their videos didn’t play right away their fingers hovered over the timer (as we all do) until they could skip. In years of viewing only a single ad survived to its full playing length. Not an ad for other games or toys or snacks or theme parks. Nope, the only ad that captivated my children and did its job was for the Huffington Post about kids tasting coffee.
Over time Youtube gave way more and more to games from the playstore. They learned what was free (and therefore accessible) and how to avoid in-game purchases. Their manual control was still poor and on-screen controls are terrible for even the most dexterous so they mostly played simple clicking games. They dressed up and bedazzled an endless parade of their favorite characters. They brewed potions and applied makeup and built tiny pony villages.
As they got more coordinated they started playing more action oriented games. My daughter proficient at any sort of pattern or tile matching, memory or quick comprehension. My son more manually gifted and interested in games of destruction and cartooon violence (the only place where they split along neat traditional gender lines). Most of these latter types of games are basic and hard to control. Your character careens across a screen and you swipe up to jump and down to duck. The themes change but the core game is the same.
Initially my son did not react to these games any differently than he did for other enjoyable activities. He didn’t always want it to end or to relinquish control to his sister but no more so than when he had to put down a favorite toy. But then he got good at them. When he died it was no longer just a random thing that happened, it was him failing at something he knew he could do. A particular sequence in a pony game, where the track had a low then a high barrier in rapid succession, frustrated him for 10 minutes. He understood the sequence of motions he had to do but couldn’t perform them fast enough.
When he finally got it he literally stood up, both fists high, and cheered like a QB scoring the winning TD in the superbowl. From that moment on games took on a more urgent intensity. He started trying to first trick and then bargain with his sister to give up her turn so he could have another, threw minor tantrums when it was time to quit and started asking if he could play while we were still in the car far from home. And today when he tuned me out and I touched his shoulder he turned and I recognized ‘crazy gamer eyes’. The look of a person so focused and intent on the happenings in the screen in front of them that an unwelcome intrusion is met with unthinking anger.
I’m not sure how I feel about it or how I’ll react in my parental duties. I’ve had crazy gamer eyes. My middle brother (but not oldest) has too. It’s fairly mild compared to ‘controller through the tv hands’ which most of my friends had. But still, there is unquestionably something more powerful about games than anything else he’s encountered so far and he’s a very enthusiastic kid. He loves many things and is excited by all. But this got a hook into him in a way that bouncy castles, ice cream or movies did not.
At first I think I’ll treat it like any other pleasant thing that can turn derogatory. His excitement is not license to be rude or mean or disrespectful. I ended turn-bargaining immediately, not seeing any value in the sort of negotiations they immediately engaged in. Likewise repeated requests to use the tablet are immediate cause for a tablet-less evening. My kids have a lot of freedom to question and push, but they meet a harsh, impenetrable wall when being annoying or pestering. I’m just helping them keep me un-annoyed and reasonable which is more fun for everyone.
It’s important to note that despite video games now undoubtedly being his favorite thing, it did not come at a cost of enthusiasm for anything else. Enjoyment is not a finite resource. When the tablet is off he is as engaged and joyful doing whatever as he always was. He spends no time forlornly gazing at a dark screen. It’s also become a powerful hammer to bring out for unrelated disputes. Threats of future tablet-less time carry a weight equal to his love for the new hobby.
Finally, like most parents who are generally happy with their own upbringing I do what my own mom my did. She let me do what I wanted, until I got ridiculous about something and then she corrected the behavior swiftly and harshly. That line between reasonable and ridiculous was not fixed. It depended on the environment, her mood, what she had already done for me that day and what was still to come. Much like life, it was a nuanced thing that required EQ and provided unspoken lessons in how not to be an irritating human. It was neither unreasonable nor random, but it hurt when I got it wrong.
That feels right to me. I guess it would since that’s how I was raised, but like good video game design, I think it was fair. I knew when I screwed up and how to not repeat it. There were environmental clues (raised eyebrows, a certain cluck of the tongue) and immediate good or bad feedback. The loss state was harsh but not lasting and experience carried over into the next playthrough. So I don’t mind if my son gains a few more levels of video game playing than my daughter. She’s already mid-level in a number of skills that point to a future of super-villany.
They’ll both have to overindulge their passions on their own time. They doen’t get to override all the other skills I have in store for them. The youngest MMA training I could find starts at age 5 – two more months and my daughter will start learning how to choke boys with her thumb knuckle.