Tuesday 23 February 2016

Screen time vs Outdoor time

As a mum to one hormonal ‘I hate the world’ teenager and two pre- teens that can find their way around PowerPoint far better than I ever can, over the years I would often find myself pondering on the whole debate of how much screen time is acceptable for our kids these days? Or was the new IPAD he got for Christmas ruining my sons social skills. And more to the point I would wonder what on earth Snap-chat actually was. Because I just don’t get it at all, I mean the picture disappears-what’s that all about then?!

But seriously these days all you have to do is log onto any social media account (some irony there) to be told our kids are spending too much time on phones and laptops. It was yet another worry to add to the list that was special needs parenthood.

But then as quick as my mind had drifted to ‘I am such a bad parent’ mode it soon snapped back to reality as my kids would scream from the top of the stairs that the Wi-Fi wasn’t working again. And I would find myself cursing the stupid glitchy fibre optic ‘thingy -me –jig’ under my breath as I was fiddling with plugs and wires at the back of the box having no clue what on earth I was doing. Until eventually someone shouted “it’s on again” and I would breathe a sigh of relief!

All three of my kids I am embarrassed to admit are far more tech savvy than me. And my son, who is my middle child, is like any typical pre-teen in many ways I suppose. He loves his PlayStation, his IPAD and watching Netflix. But where the difference lies is that my son tends to dive head first into the world of technology- completely immersing himself in all things online, and if we let him he wouldn’t surface for days at a time. Whereas my daughters are a bit more balanced in their approach to all things ‘dotcom.’

My son has Autism so for him the world of Minecraft and YouTube offers a safe and predictable world in which he doesn’t need to worry about complex social interactions and awkward conversations which he finds so challenging. So it’s easy to see why he loves gaming so much.

And this used to create a world of worry for me.

Because like I said, if we let him he would never leave the sanctuary of his gaming chair. So this posed a problem to us - we had to find a way of balancing his need for feeling safe in his world of gaming, whilst still being exposed to experiences of the real world around him.

Despite all my worries we could see how gaming was helping my son. It kind of reset him when he was anxious or overwhelmed. He would visibly calm instantly once in his room on his favourite game. And we could see that it was also helping him make friendships. Obviously that’s something we have to closely monitor, but I couldn’t believe it was the same boy sometimes when I would stand listening to him with my ear pressed against his door, chatting with his friend from school.

It actually made me cry with happiness one day to hear him giggling away so free and easy with a classmate. Laughing about what had happened that day at school, whilst building an online Minecraft world together. All this despite being in separate places. It made me cry as it had connected him to his friend in a really meaningful and positive way, and it was lovely to hear him so happy and relaxed.

If I’m honest I think it’s also taught him about losing, perseverance, game play, strategy, and problem solving too. And even how to keep calm when the Wi-Fi goes as it often seems to go at the most crucial part of his game (well at least try to keep calm anyway, it’s a work in progress that one!)

You see Gaming is my son’s ‘thing,’ his special interest or obsession whatever you want to call it. He is good at it and really enjoys it. So to stop him from doing it would have been be unfair of me. Heck I mean if someone told me I had to stop drinking coffee, or could never sneakily binge watch Netflix while the kids were at school all day again, well I think I would cry as it’s what gets me through the day sometimes.

So we had to learn and adapt to his passion and use it to our advantage. After years of fumbling our way around, and forcing him to comply with our view of the world, stressing out about it all -which believe me was no fun for any of us, we needed to change our approach.  And so we adjusted our view and learned to see things through his eyes. We compromised with him and began to treat his special interest with the respect it deserved because it’s what makes him who he is.

Now we timetable the parts of his day that need him to be sociable, he attends full time school and enjoys walking the dogs with me. He enjoys days out and family holidays, and he loves exploring the woods (he is an excellent tree climber) but then we always allow him to recoup afterwards in the comfort and sanctuary of his room. All experiences are vital for my son so we work hard to keep the balance right. Don’t get me wrong sometimes it’s hard to maintain the balance as kids will be kids- whether they are Autistic or not, and will always try to push boundaries. And we have days where he is reluctant to leave the house- but we usually always manage to find a hook to grab his interest in the activity and he copes better that way, otherwise he just doesn’t see the point.

In the school holidays we have found that a day in, and then a day out tends to work best for us. It gives him chance to spend quality time with us all, and experience new places and people. But all that takes its toll on his fragile nervous system, so a day in the house with reduced demands on his computer the following day helps him to process all the sights, sounds and smells he experienced, whilst also giving him (and us) time to prepare for the next day’s activities.

I think we have found our way of managing the world of tech and gaming that works for our family, regardless of all the conflicting advice out there. I have learned to not overthink things too much. And I am happier for it.  As long as he is safe online and it doesn’t stop him accessing the world around him, I am happy to encourage and respect his special interests.

I have had to learn not to care what people may think about our choices. Because each family is different. Each situation is unique, and nobody has the right to tell me that my choices are wrong. Some people may not agree with my parenting approach and that’s fine- they don’t have to because they are not living my life. It works for us and I have a much happier and engaged son because if it. And who knows where it will lead him in the future as a career option. Maybe the next Bill Gates could live right here in my house.

So for now I am happy that he has found something he can excel at. Something that I can use to motivate him, something that I can use as leverage, and something that teaches him so much. For us it’s all about balance and acceptance, and working with him not against him!


So just before I leave you, get this - last month I treated myself to a broadband upgrade and booster pack. I know- how exciting! So no more glitchy Netflix for me, and no more screaming kids at the top of the stairs...Happy days!

(Well us parents deserve a treat every now and again don’t we? Who said we need hair do’s and fancy nights out in posh restaurants- A take away pizza, my comfy slippers, Wi-Fi that works and three happy kids is all the treat I’ll ever need.)
This was written as a Guest Post for Family Fund click here for the link-  https://www.familyfund.org.uk/blog/screen-time-vs-outdoor-time

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