Gaming, screen time, Autism, self regulation – Our Story
Let’s talk about screen time and technology usage.
There’s no denying we live in a time where we are using technology more than ever before. There is an infinite amount of learning that can happen using technology. How it is we manage this tech usage with our children is a pretty divisive topic with parents taking a host of different approaches, from no technology at all, to allowing their children totally unrestricted access to technology at all times. I am not here to say what is right and what is wrong; Rather, I am going to share our journey and our experiences. Because this is our journey, I ask that you respect that and not go on tirades telling me that my approach is wrong because another approach worked for you, or someone else you know.
When Jaiden first asked to start playing Minecraft, I was hesitant. I knew the struggles we were going to face if I allowed it, but I also understood there was a lot he could learn from it. Jaiden has long had difficulties with emotional regulation, which has been something we’ve worked hard on over the past 7 years. Rather than removing him from things that cause him to become hyper-emotional and aggressive, I have worked with him to improve his ability to handle and process these emotions. So, even though I knew I was in for a hard road, I agreed and, he started playing Minecraft.
Very quickly, the problems started. Jaiden would become incredibly aggressive, have major meltdowns, smash keyboards, and become frustrated to the point he would be curled up in a ball, crying hysterically. Not only that, when it was time to stop and eat, he would be an absolute mess. His eyes glazed over, to the point where he almost seemed to be looking through me, not at me. He stopped playing with his cars, with his lego, he stopped wanting to spend time with his chickens, or even me. It was like he did not find any joy in doing anything, except for gaming. I really felt like I was losing my child. If I set a timer to a agreed time, he would have massive tantrums when it was time to hop off and would then spend hours just laying in his bed sobbing.
Heartbroken by what was happening to my son, I implemented major restrictions on Minecraft. Because there is so much one can learn online, I did not want to lump all screen time in the one basket. He was still free to google things, watch documentaries, do his Japanese lessons etc, but the gaming was restricted to 1 hour a day in the afternoon. I also stopped any form of technology first thing in the morning, as he was waking up and instantly walking to his laptop, sometimes at 4:30 in the morning when the birds started chirping. He was not overly happy with these restrictions, but I was dealing with the negative repercussions. It had a major affects on his emotional development, happiness, and my mental health.
As Jaiden matured, we began setting time limits together. He became more aware of the impacts it was having on him so he was more accepting of these boundaries. The tantrums stopped when it was time to hop off and he was getting better at walking away from it when he would become frustrated. Despite this progress, he was still hyper-emotional both when he was playing it and when he would stop. Not long after, I had some health issues that saw me unable to engage with him as I usually would. Suddenly Jaiden was spending 14 hours a day, every day, on his laptop, gaming. He stopped sleeping through the night, started having nightmares, he would not eat, drink or go to the toilet until the last minute, sometimes not even making it to the toilet. I felt that I was once again, losing my son.
As my health returned to normal, so did our relationship with gaming. Jaiden was far better at regulating his emotions, so I shifted the focus to letting him dictate his own screen time. The end goal was to teach him to self regulate. He would set himself a time limit, and it was up to him to hop off when that time was up. This didn’t work, and straight away he would extend for another hour, then another, then another. The result, Jaiden spent day after day after day spending 10-14 hours gaming, for weeks at a time. He would have to be reminded to stop and eat, drink, or to go to the toilet. There were days where he did not eat or drink a single thing until I made him stop for dinner at 6:30 pm. I am a firm believer in teaching children to be responsible for their actions. However, if I did not do this, he would not take care of himself. If I hand-delivered him food and drink whilst he gamed, I certainly was not teaching him to be responsible for his decisions. If he became very frustrated he would hop off for a short time, only to return minutes later which often resulted in major meltdowns at the end of the day due to his heightened emotional state.
When we hit the road to travel again, we said goodbye to unlimited internet. Gaming was not restricted for any other reason than a sheer lack of internet and sometimes power. Suddenly Jaiden became happier to play with his toys, he’d entertain himself for hours, he started riding his bike again, he started drawing, he wanted to play with me more, be it kicking a football, a board game or just building with Lego. He started to find joy in simple things like playing in the dirt, watching bugs, lighting campfires, whittling sticks etc. I felt like the happy son I once knew had returned, he developed new interests and his obsession with gaming diminished.
A few months later, we got our first house sit and returned to the world of unlimited internet. I decided we’d give the whole “no restrictions” thing a try again. We sat down and talked at length about how it used to affect him, his behaviour and his happiness. Jaiden made the decision to take control of his screen time once again, using a timer to remind himself when he wanted to get off. As had happened in the past, he would extend this time limit, over and over and over again. I’d ask him if he wanted to go for a bike ride, or fishing, or swimming or any of the other things he enjoyed and the response was always the same “No thanks”.
On about week 2, Jaiden had some computer problems which meant I needed to order some parts for it. This meant his gaming was going to be on hold for 5 days whilst parts were shipped. He spent the first day refusing to do anything and just spent the majority of the day sitting around and staring into space feeling sorry for himself. Day 2 I decided to take charge and told him we were going for a bike ride. We found a park and had a lovely play, walked along the jetty and watched the fish before coming home and building some lego creations. It was like someone had flicked a switch, my happy son was back. We sat down and talked how much happier he’d been and what we should do laptop was repaired. He asked me if I could run the timer and remind him it was time to hop off. When I asked him what he’d like me to do when he asks for more time, he said “Tell me no so we can go do other stuff not on the computer” Whilst he was unable to self regulate, he was aware of it, which was a huge step in the right direction.
Jaiden now comes to me and asks me if he can game for X number of hours, at the end of it when I remind him to hop off, he still has that period of time where he is glazed over and walks around aimlessly. Whilst he usually snaps out of it after a short period of time, I always try and engage with him in some way, I have found that it is easier for him to be directed to something else with my support than it is for him to do it unassisted. I am sure this will change over time, but we’re taking baby steps with our focus on the long term goal, not the short term. If I forget to remind Jaiden to hop off at the set time, he gets angry at me because he was on for too long. I use those opportunities to explain that we are not all perfect and sometimes I lose track of time too, but also to remind him that he’s the one who does not want to spend all day gaming, so he also develops the ability to hop off when he thinks he’s had enough.
For both of us, it’s been a huge learning process. I have spent countless hours reading about the effects of intensive gaming on the young brain, both the positive and the negative, but I am not going to go into that here. I have read stories from parents whose children have learned to self regulate without any negative repercussions and conversely parents who have similar struggles to us. Many people will argue that it is just environmental factors that cause this inability to self regulate, but I do not agree. I have three friends who are all two-child families. All three families have one child who has absolutely no problems self-regulating their own screen time and had no problems with aggression, whereas the other child was the exact opposite. Listening to these friends pour their hearts out because their teens find no joy in anything other than gaming, they have no real close friends, no drive, no passions, is utterly heartbreaking for their parents and me. These parents were following the lead of other families who have not needed to implement restrictions around gaming. However, this did not work for their children and they are left trying to pick up the pieces. By implementing boundaries around gaming, Jaiden has made significant progress socially, he has developed several new interests and is working on some projects to try and create himself some income. He now understands that while gaming is fun, he can have more fun by working on skills and projects, which equate to real life rewards.
Instead of just removing all technology, dictating screen usage with blanket restrictions or letting them go and play endlessly, we need to be educating our children, guiding them, giving them the tools and knowledge to make the right decisions about its usage and how it is affecting them. We also need to be aware of the potential for negative repercussions and not let our children suffer mentally, physically, socially or emotionally. We need to teach our children about the importance of being in nature, connecting with friends and being physically active. This is the first generation that has ever been raised with technology available at a young age. Nobody knows the long term repercussions, so all we can do is prepare our children for a life surrounded by it. Technology is a tool, and like any tool, some people learn to use it responsibly quicker than others. There’s also a lot to be said for modelling responsible technology usage to our children, as what they see us do becomes their idea of “normal.” If we, as parents, cannot be present in the moment and model responsible technology usage, we cannot expect our kids to either. I recently started playing Minecraft with Jaiden. Not because I am particularly interested in it, but because I want to be able to share in his interests and explore them together. Just as we sit and watch documentaries and learn together, I want us also to be able to enjoy technology for entertainment together.
If there’s one thing to take away from all this, it’s that no two children are the same. There is no one size fits all approach. Lumping all screen time in the one basket is also not the solution. The internet is an incredibly powerful tool which gives us the ability to learn absolutely anything we want to, at any time of the day, anywhere in the world. So there’s no reason to see technology as the enemy, rather we need to use it to our advantage, be it for learning or entertainment.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, nor the perfect approach. Rather I continue to discuss it with Jaiden so we can continually reassess the way we integrate technology into our lives with minimal negative effects whilst maximizing its learning potential.
I’d love for some of you to share your experiences and approaches in the comments section. Regardless of whether you are tech free, have restrictions, or have no restrictions. Please be respectful of each other. The idea is to share ideas and approaches, not to belittle or pass judgment.