For years I had a very complicated relationship with the idea of screen time for JJ. It’s always been quite a polarising topic amongst some people, and I fell in to the category of: ‘Some screen time is ok, but I reserve the right to feel guilty and stop it immediately if I think he watches too much’. And that was my line until JJ was about seven. He’d always liked a bit of CBeebies/CBBC but because of what appeared to be an addictive nature, and general ignorance from me, I steered clear of gaming altogether. Also as I wasn’t brought up with computers and gaming I struggled (refused) to see the appeal or the value.
JJ’s dad on the other hand was a child of the 80s, and got in to computer games when they were being released on cartridges to be played on the Commodore 64. He has a genuine love and appreciation of gaming and until recently had his own PS4, so to him it was a fun, potentially educational and worthwhile pastime for a child. Meanwhile, I hated something I knew nothing about and was slightly snobbish about the fact that my child wouldn’t be allowed to do that. I wasn’t really open to a discussion about it.
When JJ was seven, he started at a Steiner school and the belief there was that children should largely be protected from all screens until around the age of twelve. To be a part of the Steiner community meant that parents had to embrace the ideology behind the education. So JJ was restricted to screens at weekends only, and definitely no gaming. He seemed to accept this as it was the same for his peers, and I felt secure in the knowledge that he would be ‘protected’ from the dangers of screens.
When I say dangers, I mean my feeling that to allow your child to spend time on screens was lazy parenting. It was essentially a waste of time to me, as little value could be gained from passively engaging in technology. I’d heard playground horror stories about games – especially Roblox and Fortnite – children being exposed to mature content and becoming addicted. We would watch a family movie together, some Steve Backshall nature programmes and occasionally silly stuff like Captain Underpants at the weekend. JJ loved doing his ‘research’, as he called it, about theme parks on YouTube and we made sure he stuck to one child-friendly vlogger. This was pretty much the way it was until 202 reared its ugly head.
During the first lockdown, JJ struggled massively with regulating his emotions. He would literally bounce around the house, not being able to come to terms with this new lifestyle, feeling anxious and out of control. He was unable to engage in school work, board games made him very frustrated and he became bored with my endless suggestions of craft projects and nature walks, which required skills in patience and following instructions he just didn’t have access to anymore. We hit a humongous wall. His anxiety started to grow and grow and every day was either the build up to – or the come down from – a huge, distressing, physical meltdown. It was pretty hellish to be honest, for all of us. I desperately tried to keep screens and gaming at bay for as long as possible, sticking to my entrenched beliefs that it was essentially evil. Yes, I did think computer games were the devil’s work. Lazy parents letting their kids waste their childhood numbing their brains with the equivalent of a cerebral McDonalds. I spent most of my days in tears, desperately trying to engage JJ in anything other than a screen and failing miserably.
JJ’s dad tried talking to me about it, but I would not be persuaded to relax my stance. I had spent years playing with JJ, crafting with him, taking him out and about, entertaining him without the use of screens and I was proud of this. It was my badge of honour that said ‘I’m a Good Mum’.
One day JJ started asking about a rollercoaster game called Planet Coaster that his YouTube idol played. He explained to me that he would be able to create his own theme parks, rides and scenery. He made a very convincing case, and as I was way past the end of my tether and frequently could be found hiding in the cupboard under the stairs, crying pathetically, I submitted to his wishes. I felt awful at first, as if I’d given in and opened a door I wouldn’t be able to close, and I would eventually lose him. I can be quite dramatic, as you can see…
Seven months on and I’ve learnt a great deal about technology and autistic people. I’ve read and listened to the views of autistic adults and changed my view completely. I shouldn’t judge JJ by a neurotypical child’s standards. His brain works in a very different way, and he finds it incredibly hard – almost impossible – to relax in a ‘traditional’ way. But being able to sit at his desk with his PC has opened up a whole new world for him, and for me too.
It’s given him a sense of purpose and the opportunity to learn. JJ has made computer games his new special interest and loves researching games and their history. There’s not much about Nintendo and the Super Mario Brothers he doesn’t know. He graduated from Planet Coaster to other coaster-building games, and later on to the frankly brilliant Minecraft, which cleverly combines patience, strategy and entertainment. He has even got me playing with him, and I really enjoy it.
It’s given him a sense of friendship and community; he plays online with old friends and new, chatting through his mic and making his own YouTube videos. Connecting with other children during this isolating time has been priceless.
And lastly it’s given him a mechanism to wind down and self-regulate, in a way that nothing else has before.
I try and walk in JJ’s shoes as much as I can, and in as much as this pandemic has thrown a bomb at my life, it’s totally decimated JJ’s. One day there was no school, no friends, no theme parks, no fun, no spontaneity. Just lots and lots of anxiety and confusion. Nothing much remains from his pre-Covid life, apart from his family. Thank goodness I climbed down off my ridiculously high horse and opened my mind to other possibilities for him.
Newsflash: The world hasn’t ended because he has a Fortnite account, and he didn’t much like Roblox anyway. He hasn’t met anyone horrible online as I’ve made sure I understand how things work and how to be completely protected. With negotiation and trust, he stops when he needs to. When he’s playing the right games, he does not become angry. It can be managed if you work as a team.
There’s a whole separate blog to be written about how much screen time is the right time, and the techniques parents use to try and manage this, and I won’t start discussing that here. All I will say is that trusting JJ on this one has been a revelation to me and reaped huge rewards for us all. Getting my hands dirty and learning about the games he’s playing and even playing them with him, whilst at times not being my exact idea of fun, has been worth every minute. Gaming does not have to be something that divides you from your children, it can be something that bring you together.
And they are just games, that’s all. Games for a new generation. I’ve not failed as a parent. And is not my childhood, it’s his.