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When I was a kid, my parents didn’t follow the norm. Most of my friends had Atari. Some of them had Coleco Vision and I had a gaming system created by Bally, the same company that made pinball machines.  No one I knew ever heard of the games my brothers and I played so when my friends asked me to come over and play I jumped at the chance to play Pitfall and Donkey Kong.

Before video games came along we were playing outside, inventing games and using our imaginations to keep us busy. That has all changed with video games. A game of catch is no longer the biggest time killer, it’s Minecraft or Skylanders. I still loved video games as a kid though. With three brothers and only one Electronic Football game when it was your turn to play, it was sheer joy. It’s amazing to think how little lines and dots used to keep us glued to a screen but the possibility of an unpredictable outcome with you as the quarterback was alluring.

When I was old enough to ride my bike, I would ride with my friends to the nearest pizza place or laundry mat where they had arcade video games. I even stole from my mom’s purse to regularly play at a diner in our town that my friend and I became obsessed with obtaining the high score. What was it about these games that had me so hooked? I suppose it was the escape from the everyday; the ability to become an extension of that corporal space marine trying to rid the world of evil from an alien invasion. The things you could be! You could become a Paperboy, Tony Hawk, or even a Spy Hunter.  It was cool and I felt cool playing it. At the local pizza place they had the gorier games cordoned off in an 18 and over area but we still snuck in. Having it hidden away just made us want to know more why it was. This is when games become an obsession and I think it has followed me all my life.

College was an easy way for this obsession to get out of hand. What else was there to do besides study, drink, watch Tommy Boy for the 99th time, and play Nintendo? We played Tecmo bowl endlessly. I even remember two guys getting into a fight over a controversial move in the championship game.

When I met my wife, I still was playing video games. She couldn’t understand how a grown man could sit in front of a TV and play these games for hours at a time.  Sometimes I played so much late at night that it started to affect our relationship. She questioned whether playing the game was more important than spending time with her in the evenings. This is when I first realized that the obsession had a real hold on me. Sometimes out in the real world I would be thinking about a certain level or a part I couldn’t get past and it drove me nuts! When online gaming came out I ignored becoming involved for fear that it would spiral out of control.

When my son was born, I would play video games while he slept on me and I couldn’t wait until I could play with him but I was also worried that too much exposure would ruin him. Would I be his pusher that got him addicted to gaming? I was excited but also afraid of what it might do to him. I was convinced that I could control it.

So why would I then introduce this to my son? It’s a double edged sword. It can be so fun, but just like anything that you enjoy; it must be done with moderation. I like to treat screen time just like anything you limit with kids like candy, juice, or ice cream. Binging on video games is not going to be healthy for anyone so I needed to have a plan about how I could successfully introduce it to my son.  Introducing my son to video games started with me talking to my wife about it. She knew how it could have a hold on me so we decided on some guidelines to minimize the risk.  She has always been the level headed one when it came to screen time. She denied my request to put in the DVD package in our new minivan like every other family I knew. I am glad she did because it would be too easy to put that on every time we went somewhere like some people do. How many times have you driven to the grocery store and someone has a movie on? It’s mesmerizing and scary that we rely so much on TV to keep us constantly entertained.

We started my son off on Leapster games. We felt better about it because it was more educational and interactive. Right around year five was when some of his classmates started showing up with the Nintendo DS. Portable gaming had been around with Gameboy but I was never allowed to have one.  I had lots of systems growing up like Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis, and Playstation. But when the Wii came out and I heard that the games were geared more towards kids, I was pretty excited when my son became old enough to learn how to play along with me.

Our first game together was Lego: Star Wars. I previewed it before I decided, with my wife’s blessing, to try and teach my son. I felt that because there were unlimited lives and no gore that it was more appropriate for him to watch. While you still die in the game, your character breaks apart into Lego pieces; it is very ingenious.  The game-play is also great because of the way the story is told. It is told in a comedic way and has lots of funny scenes that kids enjoy as well as big kids like me.lego-star-wars-the-complete

We bonded while playing this game together. We played it when his younger sister was napping and it became “our time” to share something we both loved. He soon wanted to play other games and each time he would request it, I would so some research on the game and actually go and play it to preview it for him.  If I felt it was too stressful or not appropriate I would tell him. I thought it was an important lesson to teach him about the rating system. The first time he bought a game for himself, we went to the store together. I showed him the box and he found the rating. We spent some time in the store going over which games were appropriate and which ones weren’t and he understood it right away.  In fact, when he goes to friend’s houses, if he feels uncomfortable about a certain game because of the rating he will tell the adult at the play date.

In our house we base everything around what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior for his age.  We use the ratings system as a starting point. Of course, we have taught him from day one that potty talk is not appropriate and that he should treat others with respect, especially girls, which makes him very different from the other boys in his class who are playing Halo and Medal of Honor. I just don’t understand how other parents can allow this kind of exposure to young children.

I personally don’t believe that video game violence is appropriate for my son, who is seven, much in the same way I don’t allow him to watch the evening news about the shooting in the city or how an exterminator set a pediatrician on fire. I don’t think kids should see this sort of thing and the same goes for video game violence. Violent games are definitely geared towards boys. I remember when Grand Theft Auto came out and why it was so popular with the teenage boys. It has language, nudity, violence, guns, and cars. What more could a boy ask for? As a former high school teacher I can tell you that the main reason homework is not getting done is because online gaming is so fun but also addictive.

For this reason, we stress the importance of restricting screen time to one hour on the weekdays only if his homework is done for the day and the maximum time is not lenient. Since talking to my son about the rating system, he has yet to challenge me with any game that does not fall within our parameters. I think that is a testament to the clearness of our message of what is appropriate.

Personally, I really do struggle with screen time.  As a blogger and someone who still plays video games I am using quite a bit. My wife would say I am addicted to interacting with my phone, computer, and iPad. In an age of social media where things are constantly happening, it is hard not to want to check it all the time and I really struggle with it.  When my wife took of picture of me checking my phone during Christmas I felt guilty. The obsession is always there, hanging around.DSC_6591

Technology is great but my two year old is addicted to apps on the iPad. Sure, she can navigate the screens and interact, but when it is time to play together on the floor she is less interested and that scares me. When I take it, she screams. I get it. I am literally taking candy from a baby.  It’s my fault. I am letting her get hooked. When my second child was born, we followed the same protocol. We let her use my son’s Leapster and ever purchased a Princess related game for her to play.  She enjoyed this game but never got into it like my son. I would have to limit his time on it while she would lose interest and move onto something else.

I wanted to keep things fair between the two so when she was not napping anymore and my son was at school, I tried to teach her video games too. When my daughter turned four, I bought her a Princess game that we could play together. She would often get frustrated and would get emotional about the game when she couldn’t do the task required.  I don’t know if it is just her aptitude, but she just never got into it like my son did and when she deferred to making art instead as her favorite activity, this art teacher just focused on that instead.  The fact is that video games are not marketed towards girls just like Legos have just now made strides to include girls in building play.  So with her and video games I gave up until my wife suggested Just Dance for the Wii. She loved the songs and dance moves and seems to be the perfect fit for her because she can play with her older brother.

When my youngest was born I realized quickly that this technology thing is going to be a challenge to control.  We still have the Leapster and she can play that to some extent but what she has observed growing up is my son playing video games, my daughter playing on the iPad, me playing on my phone and sitting in front of the computer.  I know exactly why this is so. I got lazy. It’s just much easier to give her the iPad so that I can clean the kitchen and not worry that she is destroying the house while I am cleaning it. It’s too easy to turn on the TV or hand her the iPad instead of giving her a puzzle which she may or may not be interested in for any amount of time.

Screen time needs to be limited because there is always someone that wants to play with me instead and this is a good thing for me and my kids. I need to focus on things that are more hands on and offer real life experiences rather than plopping down in front of the TV. We all know why they call it a “boob tube” because sitting in front of a TV for endless hours at a time is never going to be good for your well-being as being active and doing some activity that will challenge your brain.

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I am determined to make sure it doesn’t become an obsession with my kids. We combat this reliance on screen time by playing outside. When I was a kid, we used to make up games and just play and I think that getting back to that is even more important with all of these screens vying for attention. My son does Boy Scouts and I am teaching him baseball as he will start on an organized team in the spring.  The younger kids play tag, go on the swing set, or ride their bikes.

My wife says that my two-year old needs an iPad intervention and she is right. I am failing the youngest by not teaching her the things we taught my son before iPads and smartphones were so prevalent. I also need to show more restraint and teach her how to play or it will fail her in the future. Doing a puzzle on an iPad is not the same as doing it in real life.  It’s too easy to defer to the screen to keep the younger ones occupied when all I really need to do is play with her one on one.  It can be a crutch and it can lead to obsession.

The obsession definitely stems from what the kids see, so I am trying to make more of an effort to not give in to its alluring call. I don’t want the addiction to get my baby girl. So, I am making an effort to put the technology away and get back to what kids and I should be doing, playing together without distraction. I need to remember what I did as a kid before all of this was possible. We can go outside, we can create some art, and we can play together. I need to get away from screen time and get back to WE time. Yesterday, I was at my son’s karate class and every parent had some sort of tablet. No one was watching their kids. Not one, except for me. I would have missed the moment that he looked over at me to see if I was watching; I gave him a wink and he gave me a smile. I am glad that the screen didn’t keep me from it.