Every morning for the past few weeks, I’ve woken up to the same request: “Can I play a game on your phone, Daddy?”
My four-year-old son has the routine down perfectly. He crawls out of bed and cuddles for a few minutes with his mom while I’m dazed, still immersed in dreams, and craving coffee. When my wife rises to shower, he pads over to me. “You should sleep more, Daddy,” he’ll say. And then he pats my arm like I’m the groggy little boy and he the responsible dad. “I’ll play a game on your phone.”
It’s an offer that I find hard to refuse.
And it’s behavior he learned by watching me. A few weeks ago, when my wife was on a work trip, I offered Felix my phone if he would just let me sleep a few more minutes. Cut to 45 minutes later and he’s still tapping away. When he saw me stirring he whispered, “Sshhh. Just go back to sleep, Daddy.” And so I did.
That one exception quickly became the rule. And me, being more of a night owl than a morning person, acquiesced, incorporating iPhone time into our daily wakeup routine. But is it so good for him to be playing video games first thing? Is it good for him to be playing video games period?
I’ve written before about the struggle with screen time. I’m not against providing my four-year-old son access to television and video games, on the contrary, I think he needs to build digital literacy and media savvy, and he learns a lot from educational programs and games.
Video games in particular help him figure out how to relate to a digital space, just like he’s figuring out how to navigate the physical world. I’m sure we’ve all seen a kid and an adult playing a video game side-by-side — the kid plays with ease while the adult struggles, or responds slowly, or makes simple errors. Interacting with a digital space is a different way of seeing, a foreign language, in a way. You can learn it late in life, but you might not ever be as fluent as the person who learned it young, the native speaker. By the time my son is an adult, the graphic interface of phones and computers will surely be quite advanced. Perhaps the screen space will appear three-dimensional, or he’ll use a glove, or glasses, or interact with holograms. I want him to be ready for this future!
And of course video games are also fun. I remember whiling away happy hours as a child playing Super Mario Brothers, Contra, and The Legend of Zelda. There was often a social element as well. Whether the game was two player or not, my friends and I would chat and take turns while playing. I still love a good session of gaming.
But there’s been studies that show the addictive quality of video games, which stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers and release dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness. When that feeling fades, the person wants to repeat the activity and regain it in a cycle that an article in Psychology Today compares to smoking a cigarette, an addiction.
I see this happening already. Besides the morning routines, my son usually plays on my phone for twenty minutes or so after our quiet time— again, a part of our day when I’m tired and in need of peace, quick to hand him my phone just to occupy his attention for a little bit. Sometimes we play together, and I help him figure out levels of the various puzzle games he enjoys, but more often than not he sits by himself, his whole body curled around the tiny screen, completely absorbed.
Obviously, I need to get better about waking up, and not rely on my phone for babysitting. But beyond that, how do I figure out how much screen time is beneficial, and how much is too much? How do I help him build digital discipline, so that he enjoys playing games but doesn’t fall into video game addiction? I don’t want him staying up at all hours as a teenager with a joystick (or it’s future equivalent) in his hands. I knew zombies like this in high school; it was scary how they got sucked in to the digital fantasy world.
Some parents recommend letting even young kids play to their hearts content, figuring that to make games taboo will increase their draw. Others provide limitations and time restraints, enforcing the willpower that their child might lack. I’m leaning toward the latter. But one thing’s for sure: changing our routines are not going to be easy.
I’ve tried breaking the pattern, jumping up with my son (and the sun) and announcing in a hale voice that I’m going downstairs to brew coffee and make breakfast. The result? An atomic tantrum. He wants that morning fix, bad. And often, that early in the day, I’ll do whatever I can to avoid it.
Looks like change is going to take some discipline on both of our parts.