Curbing Computer Time: Using Choices Within Boundaries

It started quite simply really.  Showing my son a few educational videos I found online.  Then some educational games.  Now my oldest son has become rather adept at using the computer to find his favorite games and sites, and  would gladly play all day long if he were allowed.  I’m sure there are some benefits to his new-found love: he learns some educational concepts and has some technology proficiency I suppose.  He may even have more computer know-how than his grandmother.  But I just don’t like letting him have too much computer time.  (Ironic I know, given the fact that I probably spend more time on the computer than anyone else in the house.)

Regulating the playing time was becoming a power struggle, and so I decided to go with a system that would allow my children to make their own choices within boundaries I could live with. 

We had already set some boundaries.  In our home, computer games are out on Sunday.  On the rest of the days certain responsibilities have to be taken care of first.  And obviously, we had also set some ground rules on what makes a site or game appropriate for our home and for them as children as well.  The boundary we were struggling with was the amount of time.  It seemed to fluctuate from day to day, and the inconsistency was creating a constant state of negotiations.

I finally sat down and decided how much time I could feel comfortable with my son playing on the computer each day.  (I know this doesn’t sound new yet, but hang on.)  Then, I multiplied that times six to give me a total amount of time for the week.  I broke that time down into 10 minute increments, wrote “10” on a craft stick for each increment, and then labeled two empty juice cans with “Time Spent” and “Time Saved”.  I placed a small timer by the computer and told my son that we would set the timer each time he played computer.  For every ten minutes that he played, we would move one stick from the “saved” can to the “spent” can.  He could choose how much to use each day, but once they were gone, they were gone until the first of the next week (“payday”).

This may have sounded like a risky move.  Free access to a whole week’s worth of time?  I’m sure you’re wondering, and yes, he has had a few times where he burned right through every one of his sticks in one day.  WAY too much time on the computer, right?  But the thing is, he spent the rest of the week without any time.   I had set my limits.  There would be a finite number of minutes each week and once they were gone, they were gone.  How he used them was up to him.  I would still be involved to monitor content and make sure the timer had been set and the sticks moved, but the control — and therefore the responsibility — had been moved to my son.

This system has worked better than my daily timer because I was no longer arbitrarily arguing that he had spent “too much” time the day before and mentally adjusting his alloted time for the next day.  He was now bound by his own choices.  It wasn’t about me choosing for him each day, he was the one who had that power, within the boundaries I had set.

It hasn’t taken long for my son to begin to plan out his computer time.  He often counts up his remaining sticks and the number of days left in the week and plans out how to use them.  Not bad for a little guy!

I prefer this week-long allotment over the daily timer because it has allowed him more choice and (as usually happens when you offer choices within boundariesit has taught him about so much more than just obedience.  With this system there are the monetary principles being taught like spending, saving,  the opportunity cost principle, and budgeting.  It creates a future orientation and the delay of instant gratification.  It also teaches very clearly about choice and consequence.  Who knew you could get so much return on a few craft sticks and some empty juice cans?

It may not be the best system for everyone, but for us, it has been the perfect balance of boundaries and choices.

Top photo by Jakub Krechowicz.
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Filed under Article, social skills, Uncategorized

9 responses to “Curbing Computer Time: Using Choices Within Boundaries

  1. Love this idea. I’m curious, are you willing to share how much time/week? We’ve had struggles with Wii time and computer time. Right now we are really struggling with TV time with my son. Seems like all he wants to do. We’ve done cards for TV, Wii but I really like the tactile/visual piece provided by the sticks. I would love to hear how you might apply the same idea to TV, etc. Thanks for you thoughtful and helpful blog!

    • notjustcute

      You caught me! I intentionally left out that detail because I feel like that’s something each family has to decide. With that caveat, I will tell you that right now, my son gets 10, 10-minute sticks, which is a little more than a 15 minute per day average. I haven’t applied the same system to TV yet, but it could easily be done using the same process, or combine it for total screen time if that’s something you’re comfortable with.

  2. Diane Hunt

    Excellent suggestion. In our home, each child is allowed 30 minutes/day on the computer, 2-3 times a week. However, if the “level” wasn’t over, or the extra homework not complete, it created “negotating time”, as you put it. Your suggestion may be a system that could work for each of my children as well. Thanks for the idea.

    Now that my children are in school, some of their assigned homework is to be completed on the computer through educational sites like First in Math, Spelling City, and I’ve decided that the homework sites and extra credit work done on the computer shouldn’t count against their free-time on the computer.

    We also have a Wii that we got last Christmas. That time goes in with the computer time. I never let both things occur on the same day, just because it’s too much for me to handle. So your system could work for any technology. I will just need to keep an eye on the variety in a day. 🙂

    Thanks Mandy!

    • notjustcute

      It really has helped with that negotiating. It seemed like, “Ok, just finish this level” turned into three more levels after that! Instead, I just ask if he wants to add another stick or not. Of course, I’m not totally rigid. If he really is right at the end, I may wait a minute or so but if he keeps going I just mention that it looks like he’s going to need another stick to finish. And then he decides! Like you, I’ve found there are some very good educational sites out there that I really don’t mind him spending some extra time at. Now that he’s got this general system down, I think I may add a few more sticks, but also set up a “price list” (those money metaphors just keep coming), so that if he wants to play something like Spelling City it only costs one stick, but if he wants to play Hot Wheels that may cost two sticks. I think I would just build lists in my bookmarks organized by their “price” headings. Just another opportunity-cost principle for him to consider while also managing the quality of content. We’ll see how that one goes over!

      Thanks for your list of learning sites! I’ll have to check those out. He’s gotten to where he thinks many of the learning sites we use are “for little kids”. So it will be good to get some newer sites for an “older” audience!

  3. I love this idea. I think it would work really well with my five year old. Any suggestions for the three year old sister??? She has been spending way too much time”on screen” lately, mostly to keep her out of my hair while I feed and get the baby to sleep. Problem is, once the baby is settled down, she doesn’t want to switch off the ipad. At three years old, she is still very difficult to reason with. I would love to hear your suggestions–this is the first time I have commented, but I have been reading your blog for awhile now and love your insights.

    • notjustcute

      Thanks, Kristi! I’m glad to have you in the conversation! You’re right. Three may be too young for the stick system. The best thing I can think of off the top of my head is 1 – To have a plan when you start the screen time. So if you usually need 20 minutes to take care of the baby, have some go-to 20-30 minute shows that you can use. It’s hard for anyone to be 20 minutes into a 45 minute or 75 minute show and be told to turn it off. 2- Have a plan to go to after the screen time. Most kids will protest when you say “It’s time to turn off the TV”, because the focus is on what will be lost. But if you say, “It’s time for a picnic” or “It’s time for some playdough!” or something like that, you’re more likely to get an enthusiastic response. And 3- consider some other ways to keep her busy while you tend to the baby. The TV is easy – and don’t I know it! But there may be other things you could work into your routine that would work well too. Maybe some great books with accompanying CDs, favorite kids’ songs, or some special toys that she only gets to play with when it’s “Baby Time”. Good luck! Let me know how it works out for you!

      • Kristi

        Thanks for the great tips–it does make a difference to have something enticing to do when we turn off the screen, thanks for the reminder. I think I’ll start with baby steps and try to replace one of her screen time sessions with something else.

  4. my mom implemented a similar system for my little brother and his television watching. he was given a certain number of tokens (aka poker chips) that could be “cashed” in for tv time. the hilarious thing is that my brother stopped watching tv altogether in order to collect more tokens! my mom had to go out and buy more poker chips! this is one of my favorite memories- one that i love to share whenever i get the opportunity!

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