Parents seek balance as screens’ allure grows

Sheara Friend and Mark Burkholz cite skills that son Noah, 17, has developed with his devoted video gaming. Noah became a gaming champion last month. (Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe) Sheara Friend and Mark Burkholz cite skills that son Noah, 17, has developed with his devoted video gaming. Noah became a gaming champion last month.
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / February 4, 2010

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Noah Burkholz got his first taste of video gaming three years ago, when his family bought an Xbox 360 and the game “Gears of War.’’ The Groton teenager played every day, deep into the night.

“I was against it,’’ says his mother, Sheara Friend.

“It became intense,’’ says his father, Mark Burkholz.

Last month the 17-year-old and three teammates won the Gears of War 2 national championship. His mother and father now wax rhapsodic about Noah’s collaborative and stategic skills and his ability to focus.

“These are skills he’s going to need when he gets to be an adult,’’ says the elder Burkholz, who is technology director at Lawrence Academy.

A new Kaiser Family Foundation report finds that young Americans between ages 8 and 18 spend more than 7 1/2 hours a day using a computer, smartphone, television, game console, and other electronic devices, a dramatic jump since 2004 of nearly an hour and a half.

While the Burkholzes reflect parental acceptance of that reality, the findings stunned the report’s lead author.

“We thought we’d hit the ceiling in 2004, and now we see the ceiling shattered,’’ said Vicki Rideout, director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program for the Study of Media and Health.

“For parents, this is a moment to stop and take a look at what’s happening with your kids,’’ she said.

The report is fueling debate over just how much screen time is acceptable. While some specialists are quick to catalog the negatives associated with heavy media use - lower grades, behavior problems, and childhood obesity, among them - there is an upside, as well. Numerous studies have shown that video gaming can improve cognitive and perceptual skills and that spending time online gives young people opportunities to develop the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age. The trick for parents - and it’s no small one - is to help children navigate wisely.

To that end, Ted and Kristin Garland are backtracking. The Weymouth couple has two sets of twins - 12-year-old Brian and Devon and 7-year-old Kailin and Shannon - and a house full of electronics: Wii, Xbox, an array of hand-held game devices, computers all around. The boys have flat-screen televisions in their bedrooms, as well as cellphones and iPod Touch players. Their iPod Nano players have been passed down to the girls.

Kristin Garland, like many other parents, describes the process of accumulation as “caving, little by little’’ and says she and her husband have reached the breaking point.

“The boys want to come home, drop everything, and head to that box, which Ted and I are calling the rot box,’’ the mother said. “They’re going to bed really late, and they’re really tired in the morning. If they’re not on their computers doing Facebook, they’ve got iPod headphones in their ears. They do a lot of texting. They’re good kids, but I feel like they never interact, even with each other.’’

The Garlands recently decided they would start setting limits on when and for how long their children can use various devices, something that more than two-thirds of parents do not do, according to the Kaiser study. And while there are no one-size-fits-all guidelines for healthy quantities of digital media consumption, the key step for parents, says child psychiatrist Eitan Schwarz, is to simply become a presence in their children’s media lives.

“Over the last 10 years, the use of media has been explosive and also chaotic,’’ says Schwarz, a faculty member at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and author of “Kids, Parents, and Technology: An Instruction Manual for Young Families.’’ “And left to themselves kids will mostly consume junk, both in media and food. There’s great stuff out there. The idea is to plan media like you’d plan meals.’’

But just as children within a single family may have different dietary needs, youngsters who live under one roof may well have different media needs. Add to the equation a mother and father with clashing views on the subject, and you have a challenging set of circumstances, like those facing Martin and Margie Dermady of Lincoln, whose three boys range in age from 8 to 14.

When their sons were young, Martin wanted to ban television, but Margie, who worked from home, enjoyed the benefits of the proverbial electronic baby sitter. Two years ago Margie bought a used PlayStation 2, which provided the two older boys, Liam and Aidan, who are both introverted and shy, an easy way to interact with their peers. Even Martin became a convert when he saw what an effective social lubricant it was. Meanwhile Niall, an easygoing and extroverted third-grader, has been nicknamed “videohead’’ by his brothers. And 14-year-old Liam has moved on, spending more time on his computer and iPod Touch.

“I allow it because Liam is socially awkward, and it’s important for him to have things that other kids have,’’ says Margie. “It’s a way of mainstreaming himself.

“My youngest wants a Wii and all the latest violent games that his friends have, and I won’t do it. It’s a constant struggle to find the balance.’’

Of course, balance isn’t always the goal. Some parents believe in media abstinence, and although it is hard for many people to grasp such a concept, Zach and Autumn Soares of Bar Harbor, Maine, are trying to raise their young children with as little screen time as possible. They have surrounded themselves with a like-minded community of families that, like the Soareses, are home-schooling their children and have similar value systems. And still, Autumn marvels, her 2 1/2-year-old knows how to stroke his mother’s iPhone screen to find games, which assuages her occasional worry that her children will be at a disadvantage in a tech-saturated world.

“I don’t feel they’re evil things; I just try to not make it a big part of our lives,’’ she said. “The kids are incredibly creative and imaginative, and I strongly value that. I also know at some point they’ll just go, ‘Awesome, Mom’s not here.’ And I can’t prevent that.’’

And she should not, many argue. Like the rest of life, the digital world is a maze of menace and opportunity. Guiding children through the pitfalls and possibilities is a job more parents should take to heart, said the Kaiser Foundation’s Rideout. “It’s part of the air we breathe.’’

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