Internet, outernet

Outside it is cold, wet and windy, but at least we have not suffered the snowstorms that are blanketing much of the rest of the country. With my children off school for the Easter break we can huddle at home in the warmth and indulge in some rest and relaxation. These days this means a lot of computer time for all of us.

When my children were born I read everything I could find on the best way to bring them up to be healthy, happy, independent and responsible citizens. One of the pieces of advice that stuck in my head was the damage that could be done if they were allowed too much screen time. This supposed damage was wide ranging but included: ill health due to lack of fresh air and exercise; inability to amuse oneself due to the expectation of immediate gratification and entertainment; inability to concentrate, socialise or converse; unrealistic expectations that  the real world would match that portrayed on TV shows or computer games. It appeared that screen time was bad for children.

With this in mind I embarked on child rearing determined that my three would not be given computer games and would only watch television as a last resort. It was exhausting not allowing the electronic babysitter to distract them from their questions and squabbles and demands, but I stuck with it. When they started going on play dates at friend’s houses they were exposed to what was readily available for most and would ask for the games machine or film that was being offered so freely elsewhere. It frustrated me that my attempts at providing them with the important experience of social interaction often ended up with both kids sitting on the sofa staring at a box, but felt I could do little about it. In many ways this experience was more typical than the life they lived at home and I reasoned that they needed to learn that too.

When my children grew too old to sleep in the car on a long journey we had to find a way to entertain them. Reading books, drawing pictures or playing games worked for short journeys but after a particularly tense, five hour drive home from what had been a lovely holiday in Cornwall I decided that this type of potentially stressful situation required an off switch for the kids. We bought an in car DVD player and allowed them hand held games consoles. Long car journeys were transformed into what the children regarded as treats.

My children had little interest in food and found it difficult to sit still and quiet for any length of time so taking them to a restaurant to eat was a major trial that I would avoid when at all possible. Sometimes, however, other family members would expect us to join them and it would be difficult to decline without risking causing offence. I used the hand held games consoles to make these situations bearable and was roundly criticised for doing so. How were they to learn how to behave if I did not ‘make them’ do what was expected in these situations? We each do the best we can with the kids we have.

Having been so strict about screen time throughout their primary school years, the move to secondary school demanded that I allow some changes. The children now needed a computer to complete homework, peers were exerting an increasingly strong influence and each child was developing their own tastes in music and entertainment. As they asserted their independence I recognised that I had done my bit in moulding and raising and had to trust them to complete the process themselves. We still have rules but they are much more laxly applied. If an argument is sensible and valid then I will concede.

Thus we find ourselves in a situation where computers provide individual entertainment and are constantly available. The only limitation is the amount of broadband that we pay for each month. Living in a rural area we do not have the option of cable. We now have a Wii as well as the old hand held games consoles and we watch a lot more television. It is, however, the amount of time that we each spend on our computers that has changed so markedly.

If this is a bad thing then I am at least as guilty as my children. I gain a great deal of pleasure from using the various social media sites; I will regularly check my Facebook and Twitter accounts and also make use of Pinterest and Tumblr. I keep up with the news on the on line, mainstream media outlets as well as making great use of the blogosphere. In many ways my internet life can feel more real than my outernet life. There is some overlap but this decreases as I immerse myself further into the on line discussions and debates that interest me so much.

Is this transformation what I feared would happen if I allowed my children unfettered access to screen based entertainment when they were younger? I certainly don’t regret how I raised them as they know how to think for themselves and do not appear to feel the need to conform to any stereotype. They are still active outside the house and appear to cope fine with most social situations. It is impossible to know how much, if at all, the strict limitations on screen time has affected them. Really though, it is my enjoyment of my on line life that I am questioning.

I cannot say that I am concerned about the way I live my life. I am being exposed on line to well thought through views that I had not considered and am taking part in discussions on current affairs of interest that are mentioned only superficially in the main stream media and not at all amongst many of my other friends. I would like to be able to meet up in person more frequently than I do but most of my lady friends have jobs to go to and are not inclined to venture out on walks in our inclement weather. As I find the big social gatherings less appealing now than I once did there are simply fewer opportunities for face to face catch ups.

It amuses me when my children comment about the amount of time I spend on my little computer. The tables have certainly turned in our house. They will now largely choose the television shows that we watch as they hear of the good ones from friends. Many of my friends do not seem to share our taste in entertainment although when I mention a programme we have enjoyed there are normally a few who will share my enthusiasm. I still dislike the computer games but even these seem to have a social aspect. The complexities of Minecraft can bring even my two sons together in amicable discussion.

My guess is that none of these things are harmful so long as they are used mindfully and without obsession. While I still enjoy conversations at the gym I visit regularly and take pleasure in long walks through our beautiful local countryside I can keep the different aspects of my life in perspective. I am happier interacting with friends that I only know on line than spending my day alone. I like that I can choose to go on line when it suits me without appointment; that there are no expectations or demands. When the warmer weather eventually arrives I will also make the effort to catch up with my more local friends. All of these people are real to me and all are valued. My life is enriched by their company and I see that as worthwhile.

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