Children, Happiness, and Screen-Time

     As a parent, what is it exactly you are trying to do?  Maybe you are trying to raise your child to be really good at school.  Perhaps you are trying to raise your child to be responsible with money, or great at sports, or fabulous on an instrument.  Perhaps you are trying to raise your child to be charitable, or community-minded.  Whatever goals you may have for your child, surely most of us as parents have the same end goal in mind:  we want to raise our children to be happy.

     Funnily enough, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle says the same thing about how human beings in general try to live life.  In his Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that everything we do in life aims at some purpose, which for him is synonymous with some ‘good’ or ‘end’.  Some of our actions are meant to accomplish smaller or lower ends; for instance, I do the laundry because I want my children to wear clean clothes.  However, all of the lower ends we aim to accomplish are done for the sake of something higher, until we come to the highest end in life, the ‘chief good’, which is the thing that we aim at above everything else – the thing that we want ‘for its own sake.’  And that chief good for man, according to Aristotle, is happiness.   

     However, even though we all aim for happiness, Aristotle thinks that many of us will fall short of that goal.  That’s because we misunderstand the nature of happiness.  For Aristotle, not just any old way of life will make us happy.  No, Aristotle believes that you have to live a certain kind of life – indeed, even become a certain kind of person, in order to be happy.

Restrictive Parenting and the Unhappiness of Children

     So often my children seem unhappy.  Let me talk about the issue that seems to cause a great amount of unhappiness in our household:  restricting ‘screen-time’.

     Perhaps like many other parents, have a pressing concern about ‘screen-time’.  I do not wish to stop the march of technology – knowing this to be only a futile exercise – but at the same time, an ipod, iphone,  ipad, smartphone or whatever in the hands of a child or teenager can be a very destructive thing. 

     First, there is the addiction issue.  I have teenagers who live to socialize.  If they lived 30 years ago, there would have been natural limits to the socializing during their waking hours.  But now, from the minute they awaken to the minute they (don’t) go to sleep, they have instant access to hundreds of ‘friends’.  Since socializing is the end of their existence, they see no reason whatsoever to detach themselves, at any point in the day, from the many forms of social media.  There is no other activity they particularly want to pursue, such as homework, family time, reading a book, learning a skill, or practicing their music.  And I don’t think they are the only ones.  If an addiction is defined as something which takes over your life, then most teenagers I know seem to be well and truly addicted to their screens.

     Second, there is the privacy issue, which spills over into what I will call the ‘appropriate’ issue.  With FaceTime, my children can speak face to face, for free, with anyone, at any time, and more to the point, in any location.  So I worry when teenage boys call up on FaceTime, from their bedrooms, scantily clad, wanting to have a very long conversation.  With Snapchat, anyone can take a picture of themselves, clothed or otherwise, in whatever pose they choose, send it to their friends, and then a few seconds later the image is deleted, leaving no way for parents to check up on what their children are doing.  The ‘screen’ has introduced us into a bizarre world in which what is private becomes public, and at times my children need some convincing that there is a difference between the two.

     There are many other concerns I have with screens which I won’t discuss here – for instance, the addictive nature of computer games, especially for boys, and the ever-present danger of pornography – but even these most basic ones are enough for me to be setting restrictions for when the children can have their screens and when they can’t.  No screen during homework.  No screen during music practice.  No screen during family mealtimes.  No screen in the bedroom after 9pm (it comes into Mom and Dad’s room for the night), and so forth.

     The rules, however, are perceived by the teenagers as harsh, demeaning and punitive.  The true extent of their resentment was revealed to me when one of them compared taking away her screen to the performance of female circumcision.  The other one said, ‘My friend would have committed suicide by now with these rules.’  Apparently we as parents are engaging in the extremely brutal – and, according to them, completely unthinkable to anyone else – practice of screen extraction.      

Aristotle’s Happiness:  Align Actions with Values, Not Impulses

     Often I feel alone in this battle. So many other kids seem to have their screens all the time; I know, because they try to contact my kids in the middle of the night!  There have been times when self-doubt has crept in.  Am I doing the right thing by insisting on these restrictions?  Am I fighting the right battle?  Is it worth it to make my children so unhappy?    

    I take heart from Aristotle, who takes a longer term view of happiness than what is happening in the here and now.  This is not to say that I think we should ignore our children’s immediate concerns and feelings; only to say that Aristotle believes that the concept that happiness is something that needs to be learned over time, rather than something that comes about through indulgence of whatever we want to do at any given moment.

     In the last entry I talked about Aristotle’s idea of the human good, which is that man reaches the good for him as a human being when he lives his life according to reason.  As may be clear by now, the human good and happiness, for Aristotle, are closely linked:  those who achieve the human good are those who are happy.

     Yet, there is more to Aristotle’s concept of happiness.  Aristotle says that the happy man is the man who acts according to reason well.  It isn’t enough for a happy life to sometimes act according to reason, and sometimes not.  Acting according to reason must become a habit for us; it must become part of our character.  So, achieving happiness for Aristotle is a process.  It comes as we gradually develop our reason and learn to be good at using our reason to govern our actions.

     We have already established that to act according to reason means to use one’s practical reason to control the impulses, desires and emotions that we have as part of our human nature, so that we feel them and act on them in the right way.  Along this same line of thought, Aristotle thinks that reason is the faculty that enables us to act for an end, or a goal.  Impulses and emotions make us focused on what is happening right now, and can blind us as to the ‘bigger picture’ – for instance, my child has made me very angry, and I lose my temper, but I haven’t thought about how losing my temper is going to damage my relationship with that child.  It is reason that enables us to look past what our impulses are urging us to do at the present moment, and plan for a longer term goal based on our values – on what is really important to us.

How to Help Children Be Happy 

     Now, what about the child that has a strong impulse to engage constantly (and I do mean constantly) with social media, or play computer games for hours on end?   To state the obvious – although perhaps for some it is controversial – these impulses can interfere with some important longer term goals.  Achieving a good education, developing the ability to concentrate on tasks which don’t provide immediate rewards, building up family relationships by actually giving them your full attention and talking to them when they are sitting right next to you, keeping physically fit, and so on –these are all part of a fulfilling life, and they are all adversely affected with too much screen time.  

   Following these impulses may make your child feel as though he is happy, and all of his friends may be unrestricted in following their impulses.  Furthermore, your child may throw a major temper tantrum when you get up guts to tell him that enough is enough, and it’s time to get some fresh air and interact with the real world.  Yet, no matter what your child’s reaction to the enforcement of your restrictions (and I’ve witnessed some pretty awful ones), I think as parents we have to be confident in the knowledge that the restriction of indulgence is a prescription for long-term happiness.  Stay strong, fellow warriors, and remember that Aristotle is on to something when he argues that true happiness comes from acting on our values rather than on our impulses.

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17 comments on “Children, Happiness, and Screen-Time

  1. Faye says:

    Read with great interest. It’s as if you are living in my home at the moment as we are experiencing similar issues. What I would like to know is, how? – How do you go about enforcing the restrictions without causing a complete meltdown in the home?

    • This might sound awful but I think sometimes meltdowns are unavoidable. On the bright side, they may be overrated. It’s very hard, but when you refuse to negotiate your position, I have found that my children stop fighting the system sooner than I thought they would. They also seem to come out the other end of a meltdown relatively unscarred. If you aren’t sure how to enforce your restrictions, I have found that the easiest way is to just take their screens away from them when you don’t want them to be on their screens. Then you don’t have to keep nagging them to get off. Mark out very clearly the times when they aren’t allowed to have their screens, and be very strict, in a nice way, about getting their screens during these times. I don’t think it gets more complicated than that, but of course these things are always easier said than done. But it is possible!

  2. Wendy R says:

    Excellent article!

  3. Danielle says:

    Love this. They might be happy RIGHT now with the giant chocolate bar/screens/freedom to do as they please but they will not be happy later when sick/failing school/suffering consequences of poor choices. I remember at school plenty of my friends would spend evening in chatrooms/chatting on MSN whilst I got homeowrk done, watched a bit of TV read (this was more about not affording a computer, then having one, but not home internet access than parental restriction) but the work/responsibility ethic/academic record/continuing love of books etc are definitely pluses that came out of that and I couldn’t care less that I never used MSN messenger etc in my life….

    • Thanks for the comment! One thing that struck me when reading it is how ephemeral social media and other screen activities are. Social media may be an important way of connecting with other people these days, but it still doesn’t take the place of the tried and tested values you mention here. If we just focus on the ‘here and now’ given to us by social media and gaming, we will never achieve happiness in the Aristotelian sense.

  4. Melody says:

    Loved this article and completely agree, screen time must be limited for our own protection. Our teens are not alone in becoming addicted to screen time, I know of many adults, myself included, who have recognised that they are spending too much time online and had to make a conscious decision to cut down. Although it certainly has it’s benefits (this blog being one!) it is so easy to lose track of time. The difference with our teens is that they haven’t yet developed the discipline to recognise this and put measures in place to correct it. They haven’t yet mastered the art of acting for reason rather than impulse so it’s up to us to help them with this – despite the inevitable disapproval!! Great work Holly xx

  5. Nigel Harding says:

    “Aristotle believes that the concept that happiness is something that needs to be learned over time, rather than something that comes about through indulgence of whatever we want to do at any given moment.” – I think that this is a profound truth. Most of the battles I have as a parent are about short term desires (I want to do this now) versus long term desires (knowing that school work and other “mundane” tasks are the right thing and beneficial in the long term)

    • I agree completely! One characteristic of children seems to be that they have trouble grasping the concept of ‘the future’, and therefore the concept of consequences. Again, the ability to plan for something longer term seems to be something they have the potential to do, but still have yet to learn. This is just another example of how we need to guide their ‘budding rationality’.

  6. I absolutely agree with your philosophy. I’m actually shocked to read about some of the things you wrote about (FaceTime, SnapChat and your children’s reactions and comments)… our circumstances are very different… we currently live in Costa Rica, so we don’t encounter the peer influence with screen time. But we are VERY strict with screen time with our kids (who are still young, 11 and under), preparing and planning for the time when they are older, knowing that screens will be a part of life. We’re teaching them, they are tools, not toys, and there are limits to their use. (Currently, they really don’t use screens at all, except for using the iPhone to play music for the family, or sometimes using the computer for KhanAcademy or DuoLingo, but already the temptation and desire is there, and they would be on the iPhone often if we let them.)

    I applaud you for taking a stand and enforcing something that will bring long term happiness, especially when it’s so ‘hard’ — at least a lot harder than it is for me to do, from my perspective 🙂

    • I hope the shock wasn’t too bad! … I think it’s important that we as parents let other parents know what sorts of challenges we face, if only to prepare them for what might be around the corner! I am heartened to hear that there isn’t nearly as much peer pressure in other cultures as there is in ours to engage constantly with a screen. Screens are, of course, directly related to affluence, so how blessed you are to live in a place that sounds as though it has a simpler lifestyle. We lived in a rather affluent area when my oldest was 11, and all of her friends had their own ipods at that age. I refused to let her have one, and I don’t think she has forgiven me yet!

  7. Brandi says:

    Technology enables “easy parenting.” The kids are quite, usually not fighting, and behind closed doors. Active parenting requires that we engage in our children’s lives and engage them in living. Doing so comes with the real-life consequences of learning to interact with one another and developing the patience of working out problems, acquiring new skills and talents, setting goals. I often think about how the 2008 Disney movie WALL-E foretold our present day of life behind screens. Even though it was meant to be a caricature, the unaware, under-exercised society of living behind screens, sipping manufactured foods is in many ways our reality today. I am speaking as one who has assimilated technology into my life with a husband who works in the high-tech field. But we strongly believe in limiting our own usage and putting boundaries on our children’s screen time. If we don’t claim sufficient non-screen time in our homes, we will lose these vital life skills that lead us to desire and have the motivation to pursue God’s plan of happiness. When you are feeling like the only parent who believes in screen-time restrictions, Holly, we gladly stand with you!

  8. sharonshami says:

    Great article! I’m also quite strict with screen time, but luckily I haven’t come up against too much rebellion just yet 🙂

  9. Roxanna Patterson says:

    Incredible challenge, this screen time era, as there is so much good that can come from it. It’s not all bad. The biggest dilemma we face is determining how to utilize it for good, for example integrating it in our homeschool day, while not succumbing to selfish tendencies to play games or waste time on social media (i.e. Pinterest…mom!). Much to think about!

    • Yes, certainly it is about helping our children find the balance between good uses of the screen and bad/excessive uses of the screen. As you say, we’re in a new era now, where screens are necessary to much of what we do. But as with anything else in life, we have to find the balance … teaching our children (and ourselves!) to turn off the screen at certain times to encourage face to face social interaction, quiet time to think, meditate, read and create, and time to take care of ourselves and our surroundings (no sitting around on facebook when their room is a mess and their muscles are eroding because they haven’t moved in days!). Thanks for reading!

  10. Jenifer says:

    i cannot even begin to tell you how grateful I am to read this today. We have been having major screen battles at my house (I have 3 boys, 16, 15, 13). I was feeling so, so tired of the fighting, having to constantly monitor, kids sneaking to get their screens when I was busy elsewhere and being told that NO parents on the planet has more strict screen rules than us!! Unfortunately most of my children’s friends do not have restrictions, so while I do know I am not the strictest mom on the planet I also know that in my little corner of the world the title might apply. Over the last few weeks I have thought to myself, “this isn’t worth it, I am too tired to fight the screen battle anymore, no one else seems to care, why should I?” So this post has made me feel that I am not alone, I can and should carry on because that is in the best interest of my kids. At the end of the day parenting is hard work and I know that later on I would regret giving up on my principles. Thank you!

    • Thanks for your post! Absolutely, I think you hit the nail on the head … parenting is hard work. Sometimes it feels like a constant battle. Although that’s not a great state of affairs, at the same time I think we have to realize that our children will try to push us and test our boundaries, and that giving in to them is not usually the best solution to that dilemma. Having said that, I know that at the times when I constant push back from my kids, I will sit down with them and together we will revisit the rules. This doesn’t necessary mean that I change the rules, but it gives us a chance to discuss together why the rules are important, and explore ways that compromises can be made in some areas so that the children feel they have some say in what goes on. When all is said and done, however, one of our basic jobs as parents is to be teaching our children how to keep their desires and impulses in check, and seek for the greater good in their lives.

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