Learner Dad: My kids have an incredible appetite for screen time

"It’s one obsession at a time - I can remember the level of commitment I brought to collecting soccer cards at that age."
Learner Dad: My kids have an incredible appetite for screen time

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I think the internet is great for kids. Yes, you have to watch out for bullying and stranger danger, but our parents had to do that too, 20 years before anyone even had a PC. And as for too much screen time, I remember begging my mother to let me watch telly when I came home from school, even when the only thing on our single-channel TV was a Soviet-era cartoon from Poland called Lolek and Bolek.  I didn’t care, it still beat doing my homework or helping my mother peel the carrots. Anyway, this telly addiction didn’t do me any harm - I still love a good or even mediocre show these days, it’s one of life's great pleasures.

If my kids grow up with a mild addiction to YouTube and Netflix, good for them. This doesn’t chime with the attitude towards the internet that a parent is supposed to have, which is somewhere between mild panic and the ‘won’t someone please think of the children’ sentiment expressed by Helen Lovejoy in The Simpsons.

This officially approved attitude was on view recently with headlines such as ‘Children say using internet better than playing with friends’.

It comes from the latest Growing Up In Ireland study from the ESRI. The study asked more than 8,000 nine year olds to name their favourite activity, and 27% said it was using the internet, which was the joint favourite activity along with football. Some  23% said it was playing with their friends.

The subtext in all the headlines I saw was ‘something has to be done'. We’re supposed to be disappointed that kids like the internet almost as much as we do. Ask 8,000 parents what’s their favourite activity, and 50% of us would say ‘looking at our phone’, if we were being honest.

My guess is the nine-year-olds weren’t being totally honest because 27% giving their thumbs up to the internet seems a bit low. My kids have an incredible appetite for screen time.  

For my son, it’s mainly about playing a game on the Nintendo or else watching some 20-year-old millionaire on YouTube, telling him how to play that game on the Nintendo. If we left him have an electronic device all day, he would never stop. That’s seven-year-old boys for you. It’s one obsession at a time - I can remember the level of commitment I brought to collecting soccer cards at that age.

It’s not causing him any problems. Once we manage to prise the screen from his small hands, he’s off reading a book or playing some elaborate game of chase with this sister.

My daughter doesn’t bring the same level of obsession to screen time as her brother does. Her main thing at the moment is playing really sweet video games on the Roblox platform, or else watching these really sweet teenagers on YouTube baking cakes. 

I think her YouTube interests go broader than that though, judging by the number of science facts that she fires at us over breakfast. (She’s particularly good on blood.) She’s proof that there’s more to the internet than cat videos and viral dance crazes. It’s full of educational stuff too, packaged up for easy comprehension.

Here is what I would say to people who say she’s better off reading a book – loads of books are rubbish. And a load of things on YouTube are inspired. Just because it’s on a screen doesn’t make it bad.

So spare me the ‘too much screen time' stuff. YouTube and Netflix and Nintendo are what helped to get everyone in our house through the last year of lockdown. My kids spend a lot of their time talking to their friends about something they saw or played on a screen – just as I couldn’t wait to get into school to talk about the previous night’s episode of The Incredible Hulk. Less of the panic – the kids will be alright.

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