We don’t impose screen time rules on our first-grade son, Apollo. He’s a hard worker, for one thing. He does his acceleration-program reading/writing homework every morning (even on weekends) and helps out around the house: sweeping the floors, cleaning up after himself, even mowing the lawn — with me right beside him, of course. Little Apollo deserves a little downtime, and now that he’s 7 (“and a half, Dad”), his downtime frequently involves screen time, usually in the form of Roblox or Minecraft.
“Daddy?” comes the call, typically from the couch in the family room. I will be doing anything except sitting down and relaxing. There are three of us, and we live in a house with a front yard, a backyard, and two hampers of laundry and a sink full of dishes that replenish themselves when no one’s looking. I haven’t sat down and relaxed during waking hours in, oh, about seven and a half years.
“Yes, Apollo?” I reply.
“Daddy, how do you spell ‘McDonald’s’?”
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I don’t even bother asking why anymore. I stop whatever it is I’m doing, and head directly for his sheet, a piece of paper with certain special words on it. I lay it across the coffee table and grab a handy marker.
“See?” I say, writing and sounding out “M-C-D-O-N-A-L-D-S,” shoehorning it in awkwardly between “Spider-Man” and “Walmart.”
“Thank you,” my son says, now alternating his attention between the sheet and his iPad.
“You’re welcome,” I say, but not before I catch a glimpse of the screen. With brown skin (like my son’s) and long blond hair (definitely not like my son’s), a blocky avatar wearing purple sunglasses and, on his back, twin katanas in an X-shape is greeting customers from behind a cash register. Right above this totally rad dude is my son’s screen name.
Before you accuse me of setting the bar too low — fast-food cashiers are a sturdier breed than I’ll ever be — just know that in this universe, pretty much anything in realities both real and fictional can become a role-playing game.
My son was playing Roblox, though he also dabbles in the similar Minecraft. Between the two games, they essentially rule the role-playing universe. Just type a noun or proper name into the search bar — “Hockey”? “Target”? “Big Mac”? “Air”? — and Roblox has a world for you and your changeable avatar. Though I wouldn’t know if it’s any fun, having never played either game, my son derives quite a few hours of pleasure per week from — what’s he doing now? — building houses out of lava blocks.
Normally, my wife and I let Apollo play Roblox or Minecraft on his own. Normally, we don’t worry. Normally, though, Apollo isn’t an independent reader and writer. Now that he is — and he’s a pretty decent hunt-and-peck typist, too — my wife and I are considering changing our social-gaming rules. Both Roblox and Minecraft allow players to talk to one another, which, I admit, is pretty scary. You wonder how many creeps are out there pretending to be kids to lure actual kids into, at worst, revealing their locations and, at best, discussing adult topics. There’s no way to tell who users are chatting with or what they’re chatting about unless you watch over their shoulders, and who has time for that when another 400 dirty dishes have just materialized in the sink?
My wife and I have taken the wait-and-see approach, but only because our son is trustworthy and honest and would tell us if something weird was happening. For other parents, whose children may have a sneaky side or whose kids seem to thrive on negative attention, the only answer is to drop in unexpectedly whenever he or she is playing and check. It may be rude, but it’s your child’s life you’re talking about. (In our house, Apollo can close the door to his room or the bathroom anytime he wants, but Mom and I can also waltz in any ol’ time we want, too.)
The only potential downside, for my son, that I can see is that he begins to equate screen time with reality — with actual playing. Again, we’re not worrying yet, because we know that he still loves to play stuffed animals with me and work on his arts and crafts. And also play outside and practice tae kwon do.
As for upsides, there are a couple: he becomes better at communicating and, as strange as this may seem, he becomes better at problem-solving, because in both Roblox and Minecraft he’s confronted with obstacles to overcome, whether they’re actual obstacles in a race or a large number of Big Macs to be cooked and served.
While there isn’t conclusive evidence that excessive screen time is bad for kids’ health, we don’t want to try it and find out. If it gets to that point, we’ll tell Apollo to put down the devices (after putting down our own phone for a minute) and encourage some old-timey fun, like doing puzzles or playing charades. Or playing Harry Potter with a stuffed beaver, giraffe, and Snoopy.
The other day, Apollo mentioned something about Facebook and getting a lot of “likes.” Where he heard this, my wife and I have no idea, but we suspect it’s at his after-school program, where he’s in the same room as several fifth graders. As wait-and-see about things as ever, I told my son that he can “wait” until he’s 25 before he will ever “see” a social media app.
Anthony Mariani lives in Fort Worth with his wife and son and is the author of the (tragically though not unexpectedly) unpublished parenthood memoir Little Man: A Semi-True Story. Don’t follow him on Twitter @Anthony_Mariani.