93

Years after years, we have more and more evidence that too much access to screens (phones, computers) for kids is not good for them. This is even a societal problem, more and more raised by pediatrician and health authorities; we've read countless articles about this.

As an example, I've noticed with my 9 y.o. son that too much exposure can lead to "addiction-like" reactions (severe anger when he doesn't have access to a video game, etc.).

So the solution could be rather simple:

  • limit the exposure to screens to a few hours per week
  • explain to him that, for his good, we want him to explore other things (reading, music, playing without a screen (Lego, or whatever he wants), etc.), instead of being addicted to screens
  • I'm sure he will understand
  • we (parents) both agree about this

All of this would work, but there's something I'm not comfortable with:

I, as a child in the 90s, hugely benefitted from a nearly "full-access" to this "new thing" arrived at home: the computer.
My parents noticed I loved that, and I started programming before the age of 10, etc. (very few video game and mostly programming).
The fact I could do (nearly) as much computer as I wanted has been decisive in the rest of my life: my today's life, my job and my passions, is hugely the result of this early-access to computers, the freedom to spend hours on complex computer problems at the age of 10 or 11, the learning of perseverance / of going down the rabbit hole (at that time, the lack of internet access meant spending days solving technical problems to which a simple Google search today would give the answer).

All of this was possible because my parents trusted me and didn't stop me from programming for hours.


Based on this:

  • I'm uncomfortable with a rule like "Sorry son, you can only have a few hours per week"
  • But on the other hand, today is not the 90s anymore, and "screen access" quickly means internet access (even if I started putting parental control), "passive" phone usage (using pre-made games, which is different to programming or other creative activites), very addictive cellphone video-games with loot boxes, etc.

TL;DR: How to properly set time limits to access to computers and phones to my kid, whereas I benefitted from nearly unlimited access in the 90s, that shaped my life?

11 Answers 11

86

My own upbringing and later career has followed much the same trajectory as you describe, so this is something I too have pondered quite a bit. But as you've already noted, we are indeed no longer in the 90's. I'd argue the technological progress in the intervening decades have rendered that frame of reference obsolete.

  • Unlimited access to devices was by the nature of the technology of the time still more limited than it is today. I spent a lot of time in front of my computer screen. But I did not use it in the bathroom, at the dinner table, or when I was outside. Parents of the 90's didn't have to impose hard restrictions, because it was easy enough to create an environment where technology wasn't constantly available. When we had unlimited access to our devices growing up, that still left time for reading, building legos and playing with friends.

  • The applications of technology was also limited. Internet access was slow and so were graphics. The devices we had didn't give us a portable equivalent of a casino with all visual cues and rewards carefully tuned to be as addictive as possible, and appealing to children of a very young age. Content was also naturally limited since games were sold individually and at a high price, so any given child only had access to so many games. You weren't constantly downloading the next addictive app, so your use was also naturally limited because even Pizza Tycoon could only keep your interest for so long.

  • Internet access, as you've noted, in most families I knew of was limited, because it came with a per-hour fee, and it blocked the phone lines for everybody else. The same goes for passive use, which you also comment on: while many parents may have had a permissive attitude towards computers, they might still have concerns about too much TV time. It's probably more informative to compare unlimited screen time today with unlimited TV time in the 90's than with unlimited computer time in the 90's, if you consider typical use.

Technology used by very young children I think had no real equivalence in the early days of personal computers, so there I think WHO's "no time spent passively watching screens" is unproblematic in the context of this question. Your child is older, and I would move towards qualifying the use of technology over setting a broad limit, and pay more attention to what your child uses technology for than blindly counting hours. Your individual values may obviously vary from mine, but I think things that I would factor in are:

  • Prefer multi player over single player games
  • Prefer constructive use of technology such as dabbling with game development over game play
  • Prefer active participation over passive consumption
  • Prefer use of technology to pursue a non-technological interest over using techonlogy as an end in itself; eg. using the internet to find information about a topic of interest
  • Prefer joint use over solitary use; eg. watch a film together with the child rather than using the TV as a babysitter

Monitor your child's use and how it seems to affect their mood, sleep, and interaction with the outside world, and qualify the screen time based on criteria such as the above to try and make an informed decision about whether the child is exhibiting a healthy use of technology or not.

| improve this answer | |
  • 22
    Excellent answer. I'm curious why you would say to prefer multi-player games over single player ones. If you are talking about local multiplayer (ie you and your child playing together in the same room) I can understand that statement. If you are talking about online multiplayer I don't quite understand the draw there. In my experience, many (though certainly not all) online multiplayer games can become havens for toxicity, foul language, aggressive behavior, etc. Could you elaborate more on that point or clarify in the comments? – Becuzz Jul 29 at 18:11
  • 12
    Team games are extremely toxic (like Dota, LoL etc.). This is mostly because they require a lot of coordination, and any team mate failing in the slightest ruins your game and then people rage. But multiplayer games don't have to be team based. I like playing StarCraft, which is essentially a game like chess. You get two players fighting each other on a map. When you fail, it's because of how you played, there is no one else to blame, so there is really no toxicity. – Davor Jul 29 at 19:16
  • 7
    @Davor Isn't StarCraft one of the games most famous for APM mattering a lot? I would hardly compare it to chess, unless you mean blitz chess. – user91988 Jul 29 at 20:20
  • 19
    As someone who strongly prefers singleplayer games over multiplayer ones, I feel that your claim that the parent should influence which of the two the child plays to be baseless. Both have elements that can promote addictive behavior. Both have social implications that are negative as well as positive. Basically, you shouldn't recommend apples over pears, because there are both good and bad apples. – Jasper Jul 30 at 9:03
  • 6
    Note that virtually all big budget multi-player games are now designed to be particularly addictive in order to facilitate microtransactions. – DKNguyen Jul 30 at 20:52
25

My situation is very similar to what you describe: we have multiple kids — one of whom is 9, one slightly older, and one slight younger — I grew up with mostly "unlimited" computer access (though for me it was the 80s, so no interwebs — I didn't even have a modem); and I, too, struggle with the disparity between what I was allowed to do (or should I say, "what I did") and what we allow our children to do (screen time, that is. I'm far more comfortable with how much chocolate I eat vs how much we let the kids have 😸 ). With that in mind, here are some thoughts:

  1. I really do like dxh's answer. Nothing really to fault there (i.e. +1), but I also had more to add than would fit into a comment.
  2. While it's been pointed out that the context of the situation (i.e. what "screen time" actually refers to) is different now than it was for us growing up, even if the context were more similar, we still need to accept that over time we (humans in general) learn more about the world and how to do things better, such as raising kids. Lots of things used to be ok, some even seen as positive, which are viewed much differently today (e.g. allowing teachers to hit kids, smoking, etc). Sure, those aren't perfect analogies since too much time on computers has more positives and less negatives, but there's pros and cons to most things, so I try to keep in mind that I'm looking back at that experience from only my perspective (I, too, see positive aspects given that I'm now a programmer, but not knowing of any potential negative aspects doesn't mean they don't exist).
  3. To me, what this all comes down to is classification: what types of activities are being done via the screen? How active vs passive? How creative or analytical? To us, there's a huge difference between sitting and watching a show (either on TV or tablet, etc) and doing something interactive (programming, art, problem-solving games, some arcade games, even reading). For us, passive screen time is quite limited, but active, engaged screen time is much more open-ended.
  4. And let's not forget: kids do need / benefit from structure, especially for the age(s) that we are talking about (as they get older they should be given more freedom).

Here's how we deal with all of this:

  1. The kids get 30 minutes (max) of open-ended screen time per day. This can be watching a show, playing a video game, whatever they want (that's age-appropriate). Their current obsession is worm / snake games (e.g. http://wormax.io/ ) which are really just Tron Light Cycles, or to go even farther back, Surround (for the Atari 2600), but much better. (and regarding the single vs multi-player discussion: these snake games are multi-player and you can "friend" people to form groups, but I don't think there's any communication between people; and our kids play at the same time so they're playing with each other as well as with people from all over).

  2. Reading time is mostly unlimited. While we do have lots of books, the kids have read them enough and want more. We used to go to the library weekly but that's much more difficult now due to COVID-19. We can still get books from the library, but not nearly as much or as often. So, tablets give them access to thousands of books and that really helps. (more on this in a moment)

  3. Programming/creative time: generally no more than 2 hours at a time. Might do more than 2 hours in a day, but needs to be broken up with going outside, reading, lunch/dinner, etc. The kids have really gotten into Scratch (Google and MIT project, I believe). It's really cool, and a great way to get kids into programming (there's also https://code.org/ and https://bitsbox.com/). With Scratch time we sometimes require an hour of programming / creative time before they can play games. But playing Scratch games isn't really treated as video games because they end up finding something they want to copy (either part of a game, a technique, or maybe an entire game to modify) and it leads to creative time in a natural way. That, and video games do help with hand-eye coordination (another reason to prefer them over passively watching TV).

  4. Outside time: weather permitting, the kids are required to run around outside for 30 - 60 minutes per day (play soccer, tag, catch, whatever).

  5. For the books, and partly for the video game time, we have Kindle Fire Kid's Edition tablets (from Amazon). Kid's Edition comes with a year of Freetime Unlimited which can be renewed for something like $75 - $80 per year after that. "Freetime Unlimited" has worked out well for us because not only does it provide access to thousands of books (and tons of games if they want to use the tablet for game time, but lately it's all about those snakes), but it also lets you limit the amount of time they can use the tablet, and for what types of activities. So we set them up to be 30 minutes max for games/apps, unlimited time for reading, and 0 minutes for movies, and no web/browser access (I do recall one kid coming home from school, 3rd grade, telling us that a classmate had watched DeadPool 2 on their tablet as the parents weren't home and the babysitter wasn't paying attention; good movie, though not as good as the first one, but certainly not for 8 year olds).

  6. As a consequence for fighting, being mean, and so many other "fun" things, we deduct minutes from the video game time (we deduct from the initial 30 minutes). The effectiveness of this varies per child, of course.

  7. As a reward for going above and beyond, we will add minutes to video game time (sadly, though not unexpectedly, this does not occur nearly as often as minutes getting deducted).

  8. We're able to control the device usage since all laptops and tablets stay in the living room (they'll just need to wait to see DeadPool, at least until highschool when they'll get more privacy ;-)

  9. None of this implies a lack of doing other things, such as Legos, arts + crafts, reading physical books, playing board games, yelling at each other about the most nonsensical stuff, etc

  10. Also keep in mind:

    1. "Screen time" isn't just when they are individually looking at a screen. We count watching TV / videos / YouTube / movies / etc as a group as screen time (mainly to make sure that we remember to factor it into a general sense of how much time in a day is spent sitting and watching). Educational videos (The Science Asylum is a favorite, and several others) and some computer games (e.g. Kings Quest I: Quest for the Crown and other similar games) have worked out quite well.
    2. For many / most of us, kids will be online for the first few weeks of school (possibly longer depending on how things go), and that is plenty of time sitting and working on a device, even if it is educational and sometimes interactive.
    3. There was some discussion on another answer regarding time spent playing with LEGOs being somewhat equivalent to time spent playing Minecraft, because they are both creative and similar type of building. While I think Minecraft is really cool and has many positives, I think there is a clear distinction between these two, and that equating them ignores some important stuff. Yes, both are creative and deal with spatial relationships and some hand-eye coordination. However, Minecraft is less movement: you are sitting in one spot and using a mouse (right? I haven't spent much time on it). With LEGOs, there's a HUGE variety of pieces, it's much better for fine-motor skills and dexterity, there is much more flexibility in what can be done considering what is built can interact with the real world, you can fit pieces together in non-ideal ways and/or integrate with non-Lego stuff, you get up and move around more, etc. Just sayin.

It's not a perfect system, and it gets adjusted as needed, but it has been working for us for a while now. Just trying to find the right balance of educational/creative time, pure fun, exercise/movement, etc.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    I recommend taking a look at overdrive/libby for library books (overdrive.com). If your library is supported, you can take out digital books online through their website using your library card. It supports libraries worldwide (not just in the USA) although it's hit and miss which ones have support. I was surprised mine was there. It has been a lifesaver for free books (and audiobooks) for myself and my daughter during COVID. – stan Jul 30 at 7:44
  • Thanks a lot for your answer @SolomonRutzky! – g6kxjv1ozn Jul 30 at 7:45
  • 3
    +1 especially for differentiating between passively received entertainment and creative/analytic activities. – adam.baker Jul 30 at 11:26
  • One side note, the vast vast majority of those .io websites have no multiplayer component whatsoever, everyone you see "playing against you" are bots, for various interesting reasons. – Cireo Jul 30 at 22:34
  • Hi @stan . Thanks for that info. Yes, we do currently use OverDrive / Libby to supplement the physical books that we can check out. My wife uses Libby on her iPhone, but according to the OverDrive site, we should be able to download the books to Kindle readers (which are tablets are) but I haven't had time to get that working yet. Yes, OverDrive is definitely a good option, though Freetime Unlimited has still helped as it not only has a much larger selection, but a lot of the books we try to get on OverDrive are on a wait list and I think we get 2 weeks max with them before they disappear. – Solomon Rutzky Jul 31 at 13:58
22

In addition to all the other answers, I'd like to concentrate on the addictive behavior you described.

Gaming addiction is just as real as drug addiction and very dangerous because many games, especially "harmless" free of charge mobile apps, are specifically designed to be as addictive as possible. Teenagers (which is an age your son is approaching) are the group most at risk for addiction, because their brains are rapidly changing but their impulse control is not yet fully developed. That's exactly why we limit access to addictive substances like alcohol and tabacco to adults, but we fail to do the same thing for addictive video games.

Your son is at an age where you need to teach him about addiction and make him realize how these games affect him. Just take his current favorite game that lures him to spent time with the game regularily (by rewarding clicks every few minutes) as an example.

Ask him why he likes the game. Show honest interest and respect his own oppinion and feelings. Ask him what the game gives him back. What reward is there to gain? Is it an endless collection of points for a digital score that has no meaning in the real life? Is there a super rare something he feels he has to collect? Is there a super hard level he has to beat? Does it give him respect from his friends to achieve something in the game? Realizing that these points you gain have no meaning in real life can make them feel less rewarding, and thereby less addictive.

Then objectively talk about the negative sides of playing the game.

  • Does it distract him from important things like school? Of course playing games is more interesting than school, but has he ever felt like he really should pay attention to the teacher and was unable to do so because he felt like he must play the game right now?
  • Does he feel tired and unrested because he couldn't fall asleep, because he had to click on the game just one more time before falling asleep, and then one more time, and one more...
  • Talk about how not being able to play the game affects him. Why does it make him angry? Is he able to forget the game and participate in a different activity? How does he feel about a game controlling him like that? Shouldn't games be fun? How is it that this particular game makes him feel decidedly no fun and he still plays it all the time?

In the end, you need to offer him an alternative. You can browse the app store with him and look at different games, teach him how to recognize addictive features in games. If he's usually playing the casino type games, maybe play a completely different game together with him to show him that those can be fun as well. Teach him that the games that are at the very top of the list are the ones with the most addictive features (because other people also fall for it).

| improve this answer | |
  • Very insightful answer, talking about all these different aspects with him in detail is really a good idea, thanks! – g6kxjv1ozn Jul 30 at 7:56
  • 3
    I wonder what the outcome is if you replace "game" with "Stack Exchange" and have this honest talk with yourself. Maybe I should try to find time away from SE to do just that ;-) – Bart van Ingen Schenau Jul 30 at 9:19
  • 4
    @BartvanIngenSchenau That's exactly what I'm talking about. StackExchange gives you absolutely meaningless virtual points for your participation and lures you with an useless virtual gold badge if you login for 100 consecutive days. They aim to make you addicted to StackExchange. Gaming apps are even better at that. – Elmy Jul 30 at 9:35
  • Hogwash. Gaming isn't comparable to drug addiction, adjust your statements. Drug addiction kills you. – Stian Yttervik Jul 31 at 11:18
  • 4
    @StianYttervik The processes in your brain that make you addicted are the same, whether you're addicted to alcohol, games, meth or porn. Of course gaming addiction doesn't kill you, but it's just as hard to quit as it is to quit drinking or smoking after you've been addicted to it. No addiction can or should be taken lightly. I agree that some addictions are worse than others, but my statement was that "Gaming addiction is just as real as drug addiction" and I will not adjust that statement. – Elmy Jul 31 at 12:40
19

The screen is not the problem.

I believe we're dealing with a XY problem here.


Surely screens are damaging our children irreparably.

Breathe. Relax. Grab a cup of tea and consult the wikipedia list of moral panics. We've been worrying about the effects of new evil stuff on our children since forever.

All of those had entirely reasonable causes for concern. All of those had limited evidence on the scope and effect of the problem either way. Most people will agree things generally turned out to be ok.

Do screens harm our children? The devil is in the details, really.


I'm pretty sure there's a problem if my kid is screaming because they can't play Fortnite?

Yes, there is. But the problem is not the screen. The problem is addiction. Or, more generally, the excessive focus on a non-constructive (or even destructive) activity.

Some children starve themselves. Older kids will abuse alcohol, tobacco and drugs. Some kids will happily watch youtube 8 hours a day. Others will destroy their rooms if they're separated from Facebook.

Some kids will use computers to learn programming. Or use their tablets to draw. Or form a community in a online game.

Is playing Minecraft fundamentally different from playing with LEGO? Is opening loot boxes fundamentally different from playing with slot machines?

When to intervene

If your child is displaying aggressive behaviour or seems unable to self-regulate their negative emotions or well-being, that's a pretty good sign that you should take a stance. Make it clear that your reaction is addressing their specific behaviour. Show them how the behaviour correlates to their activities - keep a journal if you must.

If there's a particular app or game that is causing problems, ban it temporarily. Make your reaction as specific as possible. Remember that a huge part of modern life (for kids and adults) is mediated through computers and phones. Don't amputate limbs when your kid has a scratch.

Nudging your kids towards constructive behaviour

I'm uncomfortable with a rule like "Sorry son, you can only have a few hours per week"

All of this was possible because my parents trusted me and didn't stop me from programming for hours.

Your sentence hints at the root of your discomfort - a rule like "only a few hours of screen per week" shows distrust. Distrust may be warranted in extreme cases (such as when you have evidence of deception), but is extremely unproductive in all others. Again, don't amputate limbs when your kid has a scratch.

What are the alternatives?

  • Offer consistent positive reinforcement for exploring new, productive or educational activities.
  • Install a few educational apps/games proactively - they'll use them when they're bored (or forbidden from using) the addictive ones
  • Periodically review with your child what they're spending time on. Ask them what they find interesting about it? What did they learn? Was it the same thing as always? "How boring!"
  • Promote shared local activities with parents or siblings
| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    "Do you think that playing minecraft is fundamentally different from playing with LEGO" - as a gamer, I would say the answer to whether some electronic games are fundamentally different from LEGO is a definitive "yes" (although this may or may not apply to Minecraft specifically to the same degree). Many electronic games are addictive in ways that non-electronic games just can't be (and they're often explicitly designed to be addictive). Your comparison to other addictive things would be more apt if you actively let your children do those things (which probably doesn't apply to drugs, etc.). – NotThatGuy Jul 30 at 9:24
  • 3
    I can't help but feel like your comparison to things people were previously concerned about is a logical fallacy, as you could use the same argument to minimise or dismiss basically anything. Such a comparison would only make sense if the evidence for both are/were similar. If there is strong evidence supporting video games being damaging, and similar evidence didn't exist for the other examples, then the comparison would be invalid. – NotThatGuy Jul 30 at 9:50
  • People being worried about something is (possibly weak) evidence that it's something to be worried about. People are worried about being hit by cars, and aren't worried about oragami being an infectious disease. If you truly are suggesting otherwise, and I'm not just misreading that part of your answer, you should read up about witch trials. – wizzwizz4 Jul 30 at 11:05
  • 6
    @NotThatGuy the question wasn't "are some electronic games different from Lego" though. Minecraft was obviously picked specifically because it is essentially electronic Lego. If you're fine with your kid playing with Lego all day because it's creative, then you should probably be fine with them playing Minecraft all day for the same reason. That doesn't mean you should be fine with them playing candy crush all day. The point is some uses of screens are fine, some are not, some games are fine, some are not, you need to be more discerning than that. – Kat Jul 30 at 17:22
  • @NotThatGuy The point is not to dismiss or minimize anything. As I wrote, all of these cases had very legitimate causes for concern - they shouldn't be dismissed at all. The point is to relax - it's more important to become informed about the real dangers (described in the rest of the answer) than it is to worry "what to do about screen time" without discriminating the activities that happen on the screen. – goncalopp Jul 31 at 13:01
12

As you say in your question, the beneficial part of your access to computers was your early exposure to programming and other productive computer skills, and the part that you are concerned about is over exposure to screens as a primary source of entertainment or distraction.

I think that already contains your answer, you should allow as much access as they want to a productive only computer environment, and limited access to an entertainment computer environment.

One way to do this would be to create two separate user accounts where one has no password restriction, but restricts their ability to install any games or even potentially restrict it from accessing any websites other than a white list that you can set up (for example sites that give help with programming like Stack Overflow), and another account that has their games that is password locked so that you have to give them access and then log them out after the agreed upon time.

| improve this answer | |
  • Thanks! Yes I'll think about this multi-account solution, could be interesting! – g6kxjv1ozn Jul 30 at 7:52
4

Like others in this thread I had a similar upbringing to you. When I was younger (say early primary school), I had unrestricted use on the (only) computer in the house. There was a slow and problematic internet connection, but most of my time was spent playing 'hand-me-down' games from floppy disks.

The thing is, the games I played then are appallingly basic compared to now. But I have very fond memories of playing these games, despite them being very basic. So, I don't think you would 'handicap' your kids by allowing them to play only a subset of games.

I've still got a few years before I have to worry about your particular issue, but here is a suggestion:

Instead of allowing them unrestricted use of a mobile phone/PC + unlimited broadband, why not set up a Linux machine in a central region of your house? That way, there is a natural limit to the kind of games that can be played. Triple-A titles tend to not be released for linux (though there is a growing number of titles - and many of these are fairly thoughtful games). The second benefit of this is that Linux forces your to learn the machine a bit better. Writing shell scripts, editing the bashrc, fighting with VIM - all of these are the kind of things commonly done by programmers, scientists and software developers. Having the computer in a central region - say in the lounge/dining room - will naturally limit the kinds of shenanigans we all got up. It might even promote more socially aware computer use, for example, not playing the sound really loud, including siblings in play, not playing at certain times of the day (e.g. late night, during family time).

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    Thanks for your answer! "Instead of allowing them unrestricted use of a mobile phone/PC + unlimited broadband, why not set up a Linux machine in a central region of your house?": yes it's exactly what we did: a Ubuntu computer in the living room (so I can control what happens), with no internet by default. If he wants internet for a specific thing, he has to open a terminal, enter a shell command and wait for me to enter the password :). PS: Even with this setup, the tricky thing is how to set time limits; all the great answers here are helpful, thanks again! – g6kxjv1ozn Jul 30 at 7:48
  • @g6kxjv1ozn consider a router with parental controls - you can set limits for devices (based on MAC address) for certain times of the day/weekdays/weekends. The great thing about this setup is you can't possibly forget to turn it off and find a 9 year old under their covers watching YouTube at 10pm at night! – Charleh Jul 31 at 16:53
3

The benefit you got from screens was from using hackable systems; most screens I got most of the same benefit without 'net access, and with only 30 minutes access a week (later, a day), because I just had access to an old Windows 98 SE notebook (and, later, an old Windows XP laptop), a DVD full of mostly-compatible arcade games, and a folder of flash games.

Yeah, the games were fun, but most of the interest came from figuring out how the computer ran them (that some of them would only run in MS-DOS mode, and some of them wouldn't run at all), what .EXE files actually were (including my first “Hello world” program: corrupting an executable with Notepad, then changing the resulting “this program can not be run in MS-DOS mode” message)…

Here are some recommendations that I think might replicate this sort of environment:

  • No WLAN / Internet bridge. Internet comes from the Ethernet cable, and it's somewhere awkward. They can do basic research, access Flash games (RIP Shockwave Flash, 1996–2020), and download pages for later reading, but are mostly free from the major harms of the modern web. If they figure out how to get the computer to act as a bridge – which can definitely be accomplished in Windows 8.1 just by exploring the UI (with admin access) – then they've probably earned less awkward internet access.
    • Downloading webpages will make it easier to realise they're just fancy text files.
  • No, or only niche, social media. Definitely nothing with the concept of an “influencer”. Text-based enthusiast forums and IRC-like chat are the most public things 9 year olds should be getting involved in. (Even Stack Exchange is probably a stretch.) Scratch is a safe introduction to these things (though make sure you're blocking Google Analytics).
  • Hackable operating systems. Modern Android and iOS (and Windows, if you're using Metro apps) are not hackable. Things like Debian are.
  • Limited screen time. If you have to plan what you're going to spend your computer time on, you're going to go in knowing what you want to do, and spend it doing fun stuff. Addictive, manipulative interfaces don't work as well when you're not looking at them.
    • If you notice your child is interested in something good, like programming, consider having that not count towards screen time.
  • There are at least three IDEs present. I recommend:
    • Python 3 IDLE,
    • a Squeak-based version of Scratch (or a variant; Build Your Own Blocks is particularly good) and
    • a lightweight text editor with syntax highlighting (e.g. Geany, Notepad++).

These rules follow some themes:

  • Protection from the exploitative aspects of the modern internet.
    • No addictive-design social media.
    • No adware.
    • Internet access has a small associated cost.
      • This can also be accomplished by an “ask first” policy.
  • The computer is not a black box.
    • This does not guarantee that your child will be interested in how it works, but it means that if they are, they're able to find out.
  • Things that the computer can do are not negative. Fun “wastes of time”, fun and educational, boring but educational, or interestingness-neutral tools (e.g. Paint, LibreOffice)… but never harmful.

Of course, not all of these are particularly applicable, here. Your son is 9, and I assume he's had pretty unrestricted access to consumption- (or social-)oriented computer systems for some time. Just taking these away is not likely to go down well.

So what I recommend instead:

  • Explain what's happening, and why. (You don't need to go into deep details about psychology or malicious actors, but make sure the basic understanding is there, or he'll just work around / ignore your restrictions.)
  • Set time limits for “dangerous” things, but not for “safe” things.
  • Don't allow new software to be installed from “dangerous” sources (e.g. the internet, the Play Store) without asking you first, but do allow it from “safe” sources (e.g. the F-Droid store; the worst things there are Fedi clients that require external sign-up).
  • Don't allow registering new online accounts without asking first.
    • Instead of just saying “yes” or “no”, talk it through, aiming to teach the decision-making process.
  • Consider buying a hackable laptop for him; perhaps the Pinebook Pro. (Ask first! He might not want it; for some weird reason, not everyone is interested in these sorts of things.) So long as it has regular scheduled backups (so an accidental rm * only does a day's damage), it's a nice environment to mess around in – plus, having your own computer is a big thing that might help compensate for new restrictions.
| improve this answer | |
2

How to properly set time limits to access to computers and phones to my kid,

My way to do it is to make it a technological problem, mostly without any human intervention. That is, the technology itself gets restricted, thus avoiding constant fighting; especially so that I never have to go and turn their device off (and thus incur the wrath of a little angels...).

How to do this (examples):

  • Internet access can be limited automatically through your router. I use a Fritzbox, and it has plenty of possibilities. I like to keep it simple; the children have a setting which limits the time per day (i.e., not too early, not too late) where they can access the net. Before that, I used a Raspberry Pi as a Linux router, and had some cron jobs enabling/disabling their access a need be.
  • Our Nintendo Switch, and their Android smartphones use the respective tools parental controls. This means I set times where they can use the device, and also a daily budget.
  • They have access to one shared PC; and there as well their daily time is limited and they are logged out automatically through a script I've written myself - but there is also software for that, or OS based parental controls.
  • Also, for the younger ones, I use whitelisting for websites through a Squid server; i.e. they have to talk to me before they can access new sites. They do get to watch YouTube, but they get no accounts anywhere (i.e., no social media).
  • For some activities I want them to do (e.g., stuff related to education or hobbies), I whitelist the respective web sites or applications 24 hours a day. This would include sites like scratch.mit.edu and such (over-using any of these was never an issue); one of my children likes to Photoshop, and the scripting allows her to do that all day if she wants.
  • I also spend as much time as possible together with them (gaming mostly, but sometimes also graphics design or programming), and we do that on my account(s) in the old-fashioned way; i.e. when I feel that it's "ok" on that day there may be more time, or if I feel that they (or me) are fed up, it's not so much.

Mostly, all of this works great. I abhor micro-controlling my children (or anyone else, for that matter), and this way I do not need to do that. I'm not constantly walking in on them and ending whatever fun they're currently having. Sometimes they throw fits because "all of their friends have 24/7 unlimited access to everything", but that's just normale parenting stuff, you'll get past it. In theory they get to learn to budget their time, though that did not happen so far - which shows me that the addiction is still much too high to let them reign freely.

And I'm also a little proud of the smaller one - she figured out how to get past my Smartphone lockscreen and how to disable her controls... we can do little cat&mouse games this way; so she learns a bit about security as well. ;)

whereas I benefitted from nearly unlimited access in the 90s, that shaped my life?

BTDT. That has nothing to do with it... the situations are not comparable at all. As many others, I was in the same shoes and you, and spent basically 100% of my free time in front of computers since the age of 13 (in the 80's). I benefited greatly from that.

The problem I see these days is a) passive consumption of nonsense videos and b) social media. Both business models revolve around creating an immense psychological/addictive pull on the user, with often quite subtle advertising and opinion forming. In my experience, children are not equipped to handle that in any shape, form or fashion - much like many adults, but worse. All of this simply did not exist when we were small.

| improve this answer | |
2

I was also a kid in the 90s, a professional programmer now. I'm trying to follow with my own kids what worked well for my mother back then. Don't focus on forbidding or limiting access to the computer --focus on insisting that your children have a well-rounded range of activities. When my mother thought I was spending too much time on the computer, she encouraged me to join a local youth theater group, which I loved, and where I made lasting friends. This is harder in quarantine, but we make sure that our kids balance their screen time with chores, outside play, creative activities, and so forth. I also guide them towards being active, not passive on the screens --being content creators instead of just consumers.

One thing I do insist on --a once-a-week "tech sabbath," when none of us in the family are on our devices, computers or television. That's as much for me and my wife as it is for the kids! It has rapidly become my favorite day of the week --we play board games and go on hikes. The kids have adjusted, and make up their own games and activities.

With all that said, I do feel there are things readily available on today's internet that would have gotten me in big trouble if they had been around during the 90s. So our kids don't do screen time in private areas of the house. No computers in any of our bedrooms, and the kids use their devices in the family room.

| improve this answer | |
2

As others have pointed out, there's a difference between video game addictions and using computers productively. You should absolutely set limits for screen use, no matter how productive the screentime is (sitting in front of the computer all day is not healthy).

Video games and social media offer two desirable things for children: socializing and an outlet for their energy. As a child, I spent ALL of my free time on the internet(both productively and mindlessly surfing) as well as playing video games. I did this because there was nothing else for me to do and I wasn't very good at socializing. Once I joined a sports team, however, video games seem less attractive. Sports calmed me down a little bit, allowed me to socialize (less craving for social media), and took away time for video games.

This made it easier to sit down and do schoolwork and read since I wasn't so jittery anymore.

Offer something for the kids that can compete with technology.

| improve this answer | |
2

The conflict that you've highlighted here isn't resolved by limiting screen time for your child. Since you saw benefit in your own childhood having unlimited screen time, it's obvious that you're actually more concerned with the content that your child is interacting with while using the screen than the screen itself.

Resolving this (in a very naïve way; I don't pretend to have all the answers) could be as simple as just getting your child their very own computer that isn't connected to a network of any kind. That's what you had when you were young and it forced you to figure out solutions to problems without resorting to Almighty Google. By introducing the equipment as a standalone piece of equipment, you're offering a learning opportunity that you had as a child and one that isn't as easily sidetracked into the Pit of Memes.

If you really wanted to, you could even provide exactly the hardware and software that you worked with as a child, but I'd probably advise against that since there are far better tools nowadays.

| improve this answer | |

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.