My wife and I both grew up in families where the television was perpetually powered on. Even if no one was watching, the tv was still on, blaring its inane background noise.
The prevalence of television seemed so normal to me as a kid, that when I became a new dad over ten years ago and formulated a “screen use philosopy” for our kids, it seemed most important to avoid the “mistake” of turning our kids into the weird brothers from the neighborhood where I grew up.
Two weird brothers – Mark and Ted – were friends my age who lived down the street from me. In a lot of ways, I envied Mark and Ted. Their family life seemed more stable than mine. Their dad built them things, like a treehouse in their backyard. They had a cool American Flyer train layout in their garage (I was particularly attracted to the big, old, Lionel transformers with their jewel lamps and bakelite housings). They even had a go-cart that their dad made from an old lawnmower.
I didn’t have any of the things that Mark and Ted had at their house, and I certainly did not have a father who built forts or made go-carts. I had a father who went to work, came home, drank, watched tv, and then listened to loud 1970’s British progressive rock into the wee hours of the night.
Envy notwithstanding, my deeply held belief concerning Mark and Ted was that they were weird. They didn’t watch tv at home. If either of them encountered a television, he would stop dead in his tracks and be completely transfixed by whatever the glowing tube was radiating into the room.
Plus, it didn’t help matters that Ted was always wetting the bed whenever he attended a sleepover in the neighborhood. After one sleepover at my house, a feud erupted between our families over our living room sofa.
They were weird.
As a parent, it’s natural and understandable to want your children not to be weird. I reasoned that since televisions and other electronic devices are omnipresent in our lives, it would be best not to do anything to give screens a further hypnotic effect by severely restricting them. My childhood anecdotal assumption was that by restricting screens, it would make them more attractive. But my reasoning was unsound.
Due to the availability of screens, there was nothing appealing to our two older boys about playing outside in our acre-plus yard. Reading books was on a steady decline, and we saw less and less imaginative play with Legos and their other toys. All they wanted was more content – emanating from a screen – flung across several devices which were already becoming too difficult to control.
And, this was all before any of our kids managed to discover any of the truly damaging, addictive, and destructive content that is so widespread in our media. Thankfully, our boys have never visited a pornographic website or watched one of the dozens of horror movies that come out each year that should never have been made in the first place.
Our boys haven’t sexted, or posted pictures of themselves or someone else anywhere on the Internet to catch the attention of a potential pervert. They are, thank goodness, still quite innocent. And my wife and I would very much like to keep it that way for as long as possible.
But what they haven’t seen yet does not excuse the amount of content our kids were consuming, or make it harmless. Rather – despite the fact that many Catholic bloggers have written favorably and recently about this – we were observing a pattern of addiction, which was most prevalent and compulsive for our oldest son, in connection with a game called Minecraft.
Minecraft is an “open source” (rudimentary) three-dimensional environment that the player can explore, and contains an endless variety of materials and resources that can be collected and harvested to make new items in the game. It also permits customization with add-on programs, so there’s potentially an element of software coding or computer skill involved.
The game is deceptively simple; there isn’t really even an objective to it. You can do whatever you want. You can gather some wood and iron to make a pickaxe. Then you can use the pickaxe to dig downwards to find stone, or gold, or jewels. You can turn materials into structures and items. You can conceivably build almost anything, provided you spend enough time gathering the materials and “crafting” the items you need.
Minecraft is immersive, creative, and customizable. It’s a digital playground, but it’s also very addictive, and it takes a lot of time to execute an idea.
Initially, I was fully in support of our sons playing Minecraft. I reasoned that it was a (relatively) good game – non-violent, no bad language, no sexual content, and fostering creativity and imagination. I even assigned a few homeschool assignments (like building models of famous structures) using Minecraft.
But our 11-year-old son became totally obsessed with Minecraft in a very short time. Within a year, he was at the point where he would play from dawn to dusk if left undisturbed. And, while he could only play the game at the computer in our dining room, his presence (and our ability to observe him) was eclipsed by his anti-social attitude and sedentary habit.
Digital playgrounds are still digital, and digital exercise does not burn anything but digital calories and electronic fat. My wife and I became aware that the impulse to play (and devote nearly all waking time and attention to some element of) Minecraft had already become irresistible to our son. All the other screens were just the tip of the Minecraft iceberg in our house.
So, on a Sunday night a few weeks ago, after my wife and I talked it over, I shut off the router supplying Internet throughout the house, and all of the screens went totally dark for the first time. When we came downstairs Monday morning to announce the decision, well………….. Maybe we should do it this way. Have you ever seen this video?
It wasn’t the same, but it also wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that a version of such an outburst did happen here that Monday morning. All three boys (the baby girl was ambivalent) were upset, but the 11-year-old got mad, crazy mad. And it was our fault that this happened, because we had allowed it to reach this point, which signified the failure on our part to teach him temperance.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion: ‘Do not follow your inclination and strength, walking according to the desires of your heart.’” (CCC 1809).
In the midst of all this anger and outrage over the screens, I felt tremendously guilty but also tremendously grateful that God providentially provided us with fortitude to deal with this problem now. It wasn’t going to go away, and as our sons became more entrenched in screen use into their adolescence, it was not going to be easier (or might even become impossible) to turn off screens sometime in the future.
Why did we decide to completely turn off the screens? A lot of families we know address the issue by imposing a restriction on time and content. We were pretty good about content, and we had a rule about screen use before 4pm on weekdays, but we didn’t do much more than that to restrict time spent on devices.
Each kid was using a screen for several hours each day, sometimes more. We felt certain that even if we limited screen time for the kids rather than eliminating it altogether, then the screens would still be the prime attraction for their entertainment, and there’d be a continuing fight to get as much time on screens as possible, regardless of the rule.
In other words, the screens would remain a focus in their lives when what we wanted for them was complete detachment from them. Part of temperance requires us to understand that “To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance).” (CCC 1809, quoting St. Augustine, De moribus eccl. 1, 25, 46).
We decided that in making a clean break from screens, we’d not legitimize them as good recreation or a reward, particularly when used individually and not together as a family.
God blessed the decision, because within the first 48 hours, a lot had changed already. Despite all the threats and protests that they would “never have anything to do”, and “be bored forever” and “never stop talking about screens”, they actually did something we hadn’t seen in a while: they voluntarily went outside.
They played board and card games together. They turned on the hose and played in the water. They built forts. They pitched our tent and had a campout in the backyard. They rode their bikes. They built a bunch of new stuff with Legos. They started reading more. And, they were actually nicer to each other.
Considering how much happier and joyful our kids all became after just a few days, what we realized is that while we were giving them a gift, there was an unanticipated effect for my wife and me: all the extra noise. Three boys and a baby girl — without screens — are ten times more loud and rowdy than with screens. And there’s more to clean up now too.
I am even crazier now, praying (only half seriously) for deafness just like my godmother who prayed for deafness (and got it!) for the same noisy reasons. But this change made me feel guilty when I realized how selfish it was to be a parent and permit screen use because I was benefitting from the convenience, but unable to articulate a benefit for them. I was abetting something that thwarted our kids’ natural instinct to play and explore in the world!
After spending the first 11 years of parenthood trying to avoid making our kids like the weird brothers Mark and Ted who I knew when I was a boy, we’ve embraced the weirdness that is our exceedingly loud, homeschooling, orthodox Catholic family. Because of this change, our kids will be found outside playing in the yard, or upstairs wrestling in their room, or at the kitchen table playing card games like Bicycle or Garbage.
While you might occasionally find us eating pizza together for “Family Date Night” and watching a family movie, personal screen use is gone and never coming back. Days come and go without them even asking, which tells me something about the status of their detachment.