Like most parents, we struggle with the right level of access to all things digital. At our house, all the computers and cell phones have passwords, but we have to change them fortnightly. Nine-year-old Nathaniel is both observant and stealthy, a deadly combination for household password security.
Mostly he just wants to watch hours and hours of other people playing Minecraft. I’m told this is no different than spending hours watching other people play football or golf, but it feels different to me. First of all, these videos involve both the annoying game soundtrack AND a guy screaming “Whooooaaaa! Siiiick!” over and over again until you want to cry. Second, at least when watching sports, someone breaks a sweat at some point in the process. Not so with the screen within a screen.
Why we don’t just set reasonable limits–a half hour of access a day, or something like that? We have learned the hard way that Nathaniel is an all or nothing kid. For Christmas 2015, I made the shockingly stupid decision to buy him a Kindle Fire, lulled into complacency by reviews that talked about the fantastic parental controls. It “got lost” after about a month because I could not tolerate the constant bidding and begging about getting more game time. A half hour is merely a toehold from which he will try to wrest an hour or two or three. A half hour is the launching pad for a million negotiations.
The latest wrinkle is with the old-fashioned cable TV. Our older kids mostly used it to watch Phineas and Ferb on demand. Well, Nathaniel figured out that if you tune the cable box to a certain channel, the whole YouTube interface pops up and the internet has entered your living room. It also turns out that there is no way for Verizon to turn off that station, and also no way to use parental controls to block that channel. I verified that after 3 long calls with customer support and a charged Twitter exchange. So now there’s a password on the TV itself–you can’t even turn the cable on without a code.
But even with all this blocking and guarding, we’d gotten slack–letting him play on the phone on the way home from dive practice, letting him watch a little tv after breakfast while everyone else got ready for school. He started setting an alarm to get up early in the morning to get more TV time. Every time we’d take the phone back or turn off the set, he’d get frantic and crabby. So last week, we laid down the law (again) and did a hard reset on all forms of screens. No TV, phones, computers during the week. At all.
The first night, he argued for a little while, then sulked in his room. Twenty minutes later, he emerged, sighing and sniffling.
“What’s wrong, baby??”
“It’s just…..” Sniffle. “It’s just….I don’t think you would understand.” Instead of walking away, he plops onto the bed next to me, facing away toward the wall.
My BS meter is going off already, so I play dumb.”Oh. Ok! I’m just reading my book then.”
Ten seconds pass before the saddest little sniffles resume, and within 30 seconds, he’s sort of peeking at me and shaking a little, in his best approximation of silent sobs. I try again: “What’s the matter?”
“I can’t….I can’t find the words.”
“Hmm. That’s too bad. Well, I’m here if you want to talk.” And back to the book. The shaking stops. He is reevaluating this tactic. But at this moment, my husband David walks in, and thus Nathaniel begins again. There is sniffling and shaking. Reluctance to speak.
David takes him back to his own room, where Nathaniel must decide he’s got a more sympathetic audience, because all of a sudden, I’m hearing full-blown hysterics. Tears and snot.
“IT’S JUST THAT TOOTIE* IS FROM CANADA AND HE HAS A LIVESTREAM AND I WILL MIIIIIIIISSSS IIIIITT!!!”
He is so right. We don’t understand. We say goodnight lovingly but firmly, and go back to our room to laugh and laugh.
(*Tootie, I’m told, is “Tewtiy” and he’s not from Canada. That’s another Youtuber. I feel that this correction only bolsters my argument. Tewtiy?)
That night, we got a half inch of snow. Because this is Virginia, the schools were delayed by 2 hours. I let the kids sleep in. My mom was home, so I headed out to work from a very quiet house. I was complacent. I was naive. So I was surprised when my phone rang as I sat at my desk.
A high-pitched voice squeaks out: “Mom? It’s just that…I’m so bored. I just woke up and I have nothing to do.”
He is working a long game, but this is an easy one. I instruct him to read a book, draw a picture, play a board game. Figure it out. He huffs, “Fine,” and hangs up abruptly.
Three minutes later, the phone rings again.
“It’s just…my stomach and my mind aren’t feeling so good.”
And that’s how I learned that going cold turkey on your video game addiction feels about the same as being a moderate Democrat feminist Christian during the first two weeks of the Trump presidency.