There’s this fight that happens. You know the one:
“Whose turn is it to play?”
“But I only got 28 minutes! I still have 2 minutes to go!”
“Sweetie, I actually have to finish up work, and I’ll need the computer.”
It’s the electronics battle. Most families who share a computer or console are all too familiar with the concept, and the bigger your family, the harder it gets. It’s especially tough if you have only one computer.
When I was a kid, this was a constant argument. My mom used the computer for work, my dad used it for leisure, and my siblings and I used it for homework, social media, and gaming. Sharing one computer among a family of five was pretty tough, especially once we got to be teenagers. We were allowed half an hour each for computer time, unless Mom was using the computer. Dad would take over abruptly once we were done—right about as he got home—and monopolize the computer for the rest of the night. (Which made complete sense, of course—he was the one who’d bought and paid for it, after all.)
Of course, we didn’t see it that way—we saw it as a battle to squeeze in a couple of minutes of computer time every night, and the more the better. This meant that if Dad wasn’t home, I’d be on the computer, pretty much no matter what. It didn’t really matter if I wanted to be gaming. It was that this was my only chance, and I wasn’t going to give it up for anything. Who knew when I’d get another chance to sit down for a few hours and play World of Warcraft?
Sharing systems in families is complicated. It depends on what type of system you have, how many people are in your family, how old they are, how many devices you have, and what other uses your system is necessary for. Here are some things to consider when you plan ways to limit screentime and share devices.
Giving Family Members Their Own Devices
In a perfect world, I’d actually give kids their own devices. Different ages and maturity levels might demand different devices—a laptop vs. a handheld console, for instance. A handheld can be used pretty much only for gaming, and it tends to be easy to set time limits on it, since most handheld-friendly games have short levels. A laptop is obviously a much more versatile device, and kids with poor time management skills might not be ready for unlimited access.
The benefit of all family members having their own devices is that limits can be different for everyone, and you might avoid the scenario I fell into, where kids feel the need to take advantage of every moment they can for gaming, even if they’d rather do other things. It can also solve the issue of choosing between leisure and work, whether it’s paying bills or researching an essay.
Of course, depending on how large your family is, giving everybody their own devices can be prohibitively expensive. There are some ways around this, however—buying a used console or making your kids pay for their own devices with an allowance or an after-school job, for instance. Even so, it’s not feasible for everybody, and that’s okay too.
Regulating the Type of Activity, Not the Total Amount of Screentime
Whether you all have your own devices or you’re sharing, not every use of technology is equivalent. Kids—digital natives—don’t distinguish between digital and “real.” Hanging out with friends in a game or on social media isn’t any different from hanging out in real life (i.e., it’s all real). From the outside, screentime can look pretty monotonous, and it’s true that taking breaks is good. But it’s a fallacy to believe that doing homework on the internet is anything like playing an online game with buddies, and neither is necessarily more important or a better use of time than the other.
Following this logic, it’s important to figure out what your kids are using the devices for. When you set a time limit on all computer usage, kids are forced to choose between homework and friends. Allowing a specific amount of time for everything is generally going to backfire—what 14-year-old is going to choose homework over gaming or friends, when given the choice? Better to set limits on individual activities.
Giving Kids a Say
A while back Hanna Rosin shared a story in The Atlantic about managing her toddler’s screentime. Instead of limiting the time, she gave the kid complete access to the tablet. While before the toddler had cried and screamed when the tablet was taken away, now he no longer cared—he’d simply play with it till he was bored, then put it down in favor of something else. Giving kids the option of managing their own screentime isn’t always a practical solution, but stories like this do make you wonder. I know that the minute I had my own laptop I suddenly no longer felt the desire to game for hours on end, and I know others who had a similar experience.
Regardless of how you end up setting limits, it’s a good idea to sit down with your family and talk about the issue. It’s important to let your kids feel like they have some power over their time. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving them free rein, but giving them options—say, “would you rather do your hour of gaming before or after dinner?”—will help get them invested in the process and outcome. Another tip that I’ve learned from teaching is that when kids set their own consequences, they’re much more likely to follow the rules. What happens if they spend too much time on the Xbox on a week night? Don’t tell them, ask them! This is especially important when it comes to teens, who can be notoriously ornery when it comes to other people setting rules for them.
Making Sure Your Rules Are Consistent
Kids, especially teens, are sensitive to perceived injustices. They like hearing concrete reasons for rules. This means that, past a certain age, “because I’m Mom” or “because I’m Dad” isn’t going to cut it. (I mean, they won’t be able to do anything about it, but they won’t be happy about it.) Having your kids help set the rules is a great way to work this out, but it’s also important to make sure that adult family members are also following the rules. This goes for families with more than one child, as well. Know that, even if it’s entirely logical, younger kids aren’t going to be particularly happy about older kids getting more screentime than they are. Making charts of privileges might help—everyone gets an extra hour of gaming when they turn 12, for instance. That way everybody knows what to expect, and it seems fair.
In short? Sharing a gaming system is no easy task. But work with your family to make up a reasonable set of rules and boundaries, treat everybody fairly, and you’ll see the arguments diminish.