04 June 2012

TV/video game timer for limiting screen time? Talk amongst yourselves.

Amazon: PlayLimit TV & Video Game TimerOn Facebook, Karen asks for your input on tools for controlling screen time:

Would like to know of TV/video timers folks use to let siblings know their turn is over, or to limit screen time.

Having never used one, I did a little digging at Amazon and came up two promising options:

(The highly-regarded BOB Screen Time Manager is hard to find -- perhaps it's no longer in production?)

Both add a token-operated timer to the TV and video game systems, doing the double job of controlling time limits and giving kids a concrete way to earn screen time. Both get decent reviews, but neither is perfect.

Another option is to simply add a key lock such as the VoltBolt to the power cord.

My initial reactions are both pro and con:

Why did we never use a TV/video game timer?

Video game time has been the biggest source of arguments in our household. We've relied on the kitchen timer with spotty results, and I'm wondering if a more specialized solution would have helped.

I'm glad we never used a TV/video game timer.

In some ways, a video game timer might have prevented a valuable and ongoing time management conversation we've had with my son (the major source of video game friction). Points we've hit over the years:

  • Priorities: What it means when overplaying video games causes you to run out of time for homework -- and your grade suffers as a result (he cares a lot about his grades). 
  • Balance: Choices one can make to balance fun, work, social time, veg-out time, and active time.
  • Investment: Using time to invest in one's health, friendships, grades and family versus frittering it away and then having nothing to show for it.
  • Differences: (On the flip side) Recognizing that different people have different priorities. I may think video games are a waste of time, but he has pretty sophisticated reasons to disagree; communicating about our differences brings us closer.

As trade-offs go, the value of this conversation was/is well-worth the screen time frustration. What's more, handing over the responsibility of time management has taught him how to handle it better.

Would love to hear your experiences, thoughts, reviews of TV and video game timers. Please share!

More: Screen time hacks

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We use a token system for our people. Each kid gets 12 tokens per week, each redeemable for 10 minutes of iPad play. That's our only gizmo in the house - besides the computer which they have no interest in at 5 and 7. The kid is responsible for setting a timer for their 10 minutes and they're very reliable about turning it off or turning in another token when their timer sounds. We decided on the amount of time as a family and it would be up for reevaluation at any time.

One kid uses all of her tokens in 2 days, leaving the other 5 totally screen-free. She's always sad when the tokens are over, but hasn't yet mustered the self-control to moderate the usage when she has the option. The other kid is very disciplined about using no more than 2 per day. That's just how they roll, and it matters not to me. I DO like having both of them experience the ups and downs of their personal spending systems with no long-term consequences of their actions (unlike, for example, the credit card debt many college students accrue).

So far it's working great for us.

Most console gaming systems have a built-in use log. I'm home, so I'm usually aware that the system is in-use, but it's sometimes handy to be able to check the overall playing (and Netflix viewing) times.

The token idea sounds good. Up until now (age 7) our son has showed little interest in video games (mercifully), and screen time tends to be one recorded video on TV per day (1/2 hour). Now he's discovered some games on educational websites...which have a more "video game" feel (i.e. racing to achieve "levels", etc.) I definitely feel the role of adrenaline in making him want to keep going, get a higher level, etc. and so cutting off time seems to be the only way to get him to stop. It's actually amazing how instantly addictive this seems to be. But tokens introduce an element of choice and self-control which might be good as he gets older.

We use BOB (http://www.familysafemedia.com/tv_timer_hopscotch_bob.html) It has multiple accounts and automatically shuts off after beeping a warning. We found that we had to install a device that would shut off after my daughter pitched a fit after being asked to turn the tv off - after watching 2 hours of iCarly reruns!

It is teaching her to budget her time. It's cut down on the tantrums and frustrations, and doesn't allow her to circumvent the rules.

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Where has this been all my life? Or at least the last five years?

I know I'm coming a little late, but here are my two cents for a couple of your points:

A significant part of the friction that comes up in households around video games seems at times more related to a generational issue rather than any "meaningful" reason to limit activities. Anybody can tell you that "too much" of anything is bad for you. But as humans we are pretty poor at judging what is "too much" for something with which we are not familiar. Many parents and other figures bemoan the loss of "social interaction" that happens when kids play video games, but we are starting to learn that social connections being made online can be meaningful and important (although probably can't replace "live" friends except in certain special circumstances like spectrum disorders). There are some possible cognitive benefits to games as well for things like hand-eye coordination and executive functioning (to oversimplify, the fancy term for planning a few steps in advance). There are possible costs, as there is some evidence now that games can be physically addictive for some people.

In any event, I think that the phrase "pick your battles" would be well-remembered here. There are important points regarding time management and priorities that are important for any child to learn. But I've also had this conversation with parents whose children are getting excellent grades and meeting their responsibilities pretty well (I'm a psychologist). If there isn't any identifiable problem other than "I think he or she should play less," or another abstract that is hard to describe to children without having a better answer than "because I said so," then you might want to revisit whether this is a battle you should fight or work around another way.

Instead of arbitrary limits on time, why not pick a game and play with your child? If shooters (or whatever your child's favorite is) aren't you thing, there are plenty of other options that the two of you can play together next to each other on the couch. There was a cool study published a year or two ago from a team at BYU about the relational benefits of gaming between adolescent girls and their parents as the study group. If anyone's reading this, hit reply and I'll send the reference. Other studies on this sort of thing are limited (although we're planning a study on cooperative gaming as a communication tool for couples).

On a side note: as to the comment about the iPad, I was remarking to a colleague earlier today how amazing it was that my 20-month old son has the basics of "slide to unlock" down, and can pick an app and run it. Five years ago he would have to have mastered a mouse to do that, and that's something that he does not have the motor or conceptual skills to do yet. It's an exciting experience for a child who still has very limited physical control over his environment. Limits and structure are incredibly important for children; but don't forget that the scary new thing can have benefits as well.

Lo and behold there's an app for that http://bit.ly/hZwT8W

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