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Let’s talk about screen time and technology in your homeschool. Obviously, Charlotte Mason didn’t say anything about the use of computers or other electronic screens in homeschooling. Yet screen time is a real concern for many homeschoolers. And we get questions about that topic regularly. So I asked my friend, and co-founder of Simply Charlotte Mason, to share his thoughts about it. Doug Smith is here with us today.
Sonya: Hi, Doug.
Doug: Hi, great to be here.
Sonya: Thanks for joining me.
Doug: It’s good to be on this side of the screen for a little while.
Sonya: Now, you oversee our technology and some of the business aspects of SCM. So you spend a lot of your time on the computer?
Doug: Yes. If we’re going to have an open, honest conversation about screen time, I need to make a confession: I spend most days, all day on the screen. That’s my job.
Sonya: Yes, it is. So you’re speaking from experience. What is your view on screen time?
Doug: I think a lot of times we confuse it with television. When we talk about screens, we have a variety of devices. We have our phones; we have computers; and we do have television; but they’re not all the same. And for me, it comes down to how we use those devices. Are we being creators or are we being consumers? Is it a tool or is it a toy?
Sonya: Those are good thoughts. Let’s un-layer those a little bit more. What are some ways that it could be used to a disadvantage in the home? And I think that’s where most homeschoolers are concerned about the issue.
Doug: It depends a little bit on the child’s age or even for ourselves. For younger children, it’s very important for children to have a lot of unstructured play time to be creative. They develop social skills that way; they develop their language that way. There was a time I remember when our kids were quite young, and we went camping. While we were at the campground, we camped next to another family that had a boy who was about the age of our children. So they naturally wanted to play together. Our kids went, and they played for a little while, but it was only a few minutes before our kids were back inside. We said, “Are you done playing already?” And they said, “He doesn’t know how to play.”
Sonya: Oh, how sad.
Doug: “Everything that he plays, every toy that he gets out, becomes Star Wars for him.” The only thing that this child could do was repeat the things from the movies; he could not play creatively. Our children had a lot of opportunity to read books and play creatively and use their imaginations; and they just weren’t interested in playing with this boy because of that. And he didn’t have that opportunity because of the screen. Now, that was TV. We can also have some things with our other devices—with computers or phones—that can take away our social interaction. It can put us into isolation. And we want to avoid that as well.
Sonya: You see that all the time. I see kids walking down the sidewalk on their phones, not even looking at God’s creation around them, not acknowledging people that they pass. Or sitting in restaurants and the whole family is just staring at their phones and nobody’s talking.
Doug: I saw a family one time walking through the airport, and one of the fairly young children had headphones on and was looking at the screen. And as the family in this busy airport was walking one direction, the child was off the other, and they were calling after him. He couldn’t hear them; he had no awareness of that.
Sonya: That reminds me. The other night when we were out to dinner, I saw at the table across, there was a little girl sitting there with the headphones and the iPad. Her mother was in the other room, getting the drinks to bring back to the table. And if you watched her, that child never blinked.
Sonya: She just was staring. And then she would get up to go find her mother with that iPad, the whole way just staring like she was a zombie. It was kind of a little startling. So that’s definitely what we don’t want.
Doug: While we’re on that topic of restaurants and such, one of the . . . I’m going to step on some toes here probably, a little bit.
Sonya: All right.
Doug: One of the things that happens, that I see commonly, is a child will fuss in a public place, and so to keep the child quiet, a parent will often hand them their phone to let them play some games or something.
Sonya: I see that too.
Doug: If you step back and think about what that’s doing, what you’re telling the child is, “If you threaten to throw a fit in a public place, I’m going to give you entertainment. I’m going to reward you for that behavior that I don’t want you to do.”
Sonya: Rather than doing the hard work of training that child and working with that child, interacting personally to help them.
Sonya: Wow. Any other disadvantages you want to talk about before we move on to the happy place?
Doug: No, let’s move on to some happy things.
Sonya: So what are some ways that we can use screens and computers and technology well in our home schools and in our homes?
Doug: Kids today are learning skills that, hopefully, they’re going to use in careers in life. And they’re going to be competing against other people who have grown up with computers: “digital natives,” if you will. So having foundational skills . . . Think about all the jobs that are out there. What doesn’t get touched by computers now?
Sonya: Not too many.
Doug: Almost nothing. Even if it’s just for some record keeping or collaboration with other people.
Sonya: Even car mechanics are having to do a lot of computer work and stuff. So even if you think about the trades, they still are having computers involved now.
Doug: So those basic skills, I believe, are very important: to be able to use a computer, to learn how to type, to be comfortable with some of the common apps that are used in business and in life. Those are very important.
Sonya: I use the computer a lot. For work, of course, but also in my personal life. I’m using it to do a lot of shopping. It saves me time. I order my groceries online.
Sonya: So I can see how it would save a homeschool mom, or any mom or dad, a lot of time to have those skills in place. And I assume it’s just going to grow exponentially in the future, all the things done online.
Doug: Yes, and then there are specific skills. There are things that our children can develop. And it’s great for a Charlotte Mason-style afternoons free, where they can dive into something that they have a lot of interest in. So web design, or just graphics design, is something that’s very much done on the screen. We have a child who’s interested in 3D modeling. One of our sons is a computer programmer by trade; that’s his career.
Sonya: I know one of your sons was very interested in making videos and editing videos as he was growing up.
Doug: Both my sons and all of our children, and your children as well.
Sonya: They’d do it together, yes.
Doug: Did projects together, and they’d learn the basic skills. We got them some equipment, we got them some software, some books, and then got out of the way and let them create.
Sonya: And may I thank you for that, because now he’s my son-in-law and he edits these videos.
Doug: Exactly. He’s going to be editing this. And if you look at some of our products, their fingers are all over those products. Handicrafts Made Simple, for example, was a project that our children from both families came up with on their own.
Sonya: Yes, collaborative and based on those skills that they had.
Doug: That’s true.
Sonya: So when you say that you “give them the tools and get out of the way,” I assume you had some guidelines in place to make sure it didn’t go off in one direction. I think keeping the balance is a key. So do you have any practical tips that can help the parent navigate that, and give them the tools but still guide the child to form good habits?
Doug: When children are younger, their time should be limited. They should have supervised time when they’re using technology, and not just free reign of that, but with plenty of room to get out and do other things: be outdoors and to have creative play.
Sonya: And to work with their hands in other ways.
Doug: And to work with their hands. Now there are things on the computer where working with their hands develops motor skills as well: when they’re typing on the keyboard, when they’re using the mouse. Even some games are beneficial in developing some of the motor skills and thinking skills, if they are creative puzzle games and things like that. They can be useful, but we don’t want too much of it. And so, as the child grows and matures, we would want to give more time, based on how able they are to handle the technology. They need to prove, in little steps along the way, that the technology is their servant and not their master.
Sonya: So let me throw this at you: What about social media? There are ways to be creative with our laptops and with software, and I can see that; but are there any ways to be creative with social media? It seems like that’s a big land mine for many kids.
Doug: Sure, and it can be a time sink and all sorts of things. But on the positive side, sometimes it can help us connect and have those real relationships with each other. A few years ago, there was a writer who wrote for the online magazine, The Verge. I can’t remember the author’s name, but he did an experiment with them where he completely disconnected for an entire year, and then wrote about his experience. What it came down to is, he found that he had fewer real relationships with people that he cared about, because he was unplugged. And a lot of the organization of “how we’re going to get together” was happening online, and he was missing out on that.
Sonya: So it wasn’t so much that he couldn’t connect with people through letters and phone calls. It was that they were all on the social media and he was not.
Sonya: So they kept missing each other.
Doug: And he went into this thinking that “If I don’t have that, I’m going to eliminate some of these bad habits.” And what he found was he developed new bad habits that weren’t online.
Sonya: Oh, that makes total sense, now that you say it. Of course!
Sonya: So what are some other guidelines, we can use to help our kids for social media—some of the older kids; what else can we do to help them?
Doug: Well, of course, we can talk about being safe online and guide them into who they gave information to. I think one of the things is just to train them to come to us if they have any questions, and to help them. For older children, teens especially, I like to have a contract with them. That’s an example that says “This is your conduct when you use these devices.” For example, “If I, as a parent, ever ask you to give me your password to log into your account, so that we can look at that together, you need to do that or you are going to lose your device.” And those guidelines could be whatever you need to make it for your family, but that’s just one example.
Sonya: I have a friend who, one of their guidelines is that the computer for the kids is always kept in a public place where it’s well trafficked by the rest of the family. So they’re not working or looking at things in private that no one else can see. I think that’s wise too.
Doug: That is very wise. Another thing that you can do in a home is talk about the importance of those personal relationships with each other and demonstrate those. Now, that’s going to be hard for us, as parents, sometimes, because we’re tied to our devices as well.
Sonya: Sometimes we don’t realize how much.
Doug: Right. So maybe, . . . I know some families who, after a certain time of night, they put their phones away and they don’t go back and get them. I know some others who, at meal time, they will have a phone basket or do a phone stack. A phone stack is kind of a game where everybody takes their phones and they put them in a stack. And if anybody has to get their phone, the first one to do it gets the penalty. So maybe we agree that that’s the person who clears the table and does the dishes. A phone basket is just everybody puts them in the basket for the meal time, so that we can have that importance of being face to face with the people that we care about.
Sonya: I think those are very helpful tips for keeping a balance between online relationships and in-person relationships that are so important, and doing things “manually,” if you will, being present where you are. That is so important as well. What do you think, then, is the goal for teaching our children to use technology well or teaching them to use technology at all? What’s the goal in this?
Doug: We’ve already said it several times. It comes back to Be a creator, not a consumer. Be someone who contributes to society, who values the people around you and the people that are important to you.
Sonya: Good word. Thanks for joining us, Doug.
Doug: Thank you.